Tastings School - Busy brewing in Bedford (Wells & Young)

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Busy brewing in Bedford (Wells & Young)

Wells & Young's has undergone huge changes in the last two years. But as Dominic Roskrow reports, the parent company has been evolving for decades.

It says masses about the major upheavals that have taken place at the brewery formerly known as Charles Wells that ever since Beers of the World was launched in 2005, we have been trying unsuccessfully to visit the brewery.

Meetings have been scheduled, postponed, cancelled and rearranged and emails have been exchanged and ignored. At times we thought the management was trying to avoid us.

And of course it was. Because if there’s one thing worse than having to look after a nosey journalist when you’re busy integrating a new company or portfolio of brands, then it’s looking after a nosey journalist when you’re secretly planning to acquire, merge or take over one.

In short the company has been busy these last two years. And every time it thought it was ready to tell its story, along came another business proposition to ruffle everything up.

Dealing with the Bedford brewery in the last two years has been like chasing a chicken feather in a gale.

The upside of all the turmoil, however, is that good things come to those that wait. An ambitious company, it has negotiated a path through the choppiest of economic waters in the last 30 years. The merger with Young’s and the acquisition of the Courage brands are just the latest chapter in an ongoing expansion story with its roots in the mid 70s.

Head brewer and production director Jim Robertson takes up the story: “In 1976 the Wells family took the decision to build a new brewery and if they had not done so, none of this would have happened,” he says.

“The new brewery at that time had the capacity to produce 100,000 barrels. Today that capacity is about 500,000 barrels. But from that time it was always in the strategy to grow.” Sounds simple, doesn’t it? It wasn’t.

The company was to make the decision to expand the plant in the late 80s. To sell more beer it moved into the supermarket and own label market. Had it known what was round the corner the Board may have acted differently.

Two major political events were to completely reshape the drinks industry in the early 90s, and both threatened to derail Charles Wells.

The first was the British Beer Orders.

The Conservative Government at the time decided it needed to weaken the vertical tie exerted by national brewers who brewed beer and then controlled thousands of pubs to sell it in.

The plan was to force the brewers with more than 2,000 outlets to sell a proportion of them so that there would be a new generation of pubs free of tie, and to introduce a guest beer from a smaller regional brewer.

The move was designed to increase customer choice and to reduce the price of beer, but it backfired spectacularly.

Instead of a vast new free estate new companies were formed. Because they did not brew they were not bound by the guest beer provision and could buy from who they wanted. So they did lucrative deals with the same national brewers who used to own the pubs.

Although the new and evolving world of pub estates didn’t have a direct effect on the regionals, it most certainly had a huge indirect one.

But it was the other political change that really rocked Charles Wells.

Changing relationships with Europe and the growth of travel meant that duty free cheap beer was flooding into the south of England. Supermarkets were forced to compete with European outlets stacking the beer up and pushing it out at ridiculously low margins.

For a company such as Wells, which was heavily involved with brewing for the own label sector, the situation started to become intolerable.

“We were producing up to two thirds of our output as own label lager,” says managing director Nigel McNally. “We had to make a decision whether we were going to get out or stay in and make a profit.

“We went down the route of moving towards profitable brands and in the next eight years successfully changed and moved the brewery from operating at about a third capacity to two thirds.” Charles Wells knew it had some good ales so it set about building on its international products. It had taken on Mexican beer Corona. It produced Red Stripe but was one player in what was a complex relationship with a Jamaican company who owned it, with Diageo who had a share of it, and Bulmers, who distributed and marketed it. And it had developed a specially relationship with Kirin.

From this international roster Charles Wells set about turning its fortunes around.

“We took on Corona and grew it 80 per cent to make it a five million case brand and growing,” says McNally.

“We negotiated with Bulmers, who weren’t doing anything with Red Stripe, to take on the brand fully and turned a -25 per cent decline into double digit growth; and we took the decision to take Kirin Ichiban out of the offtrade entirely and make it a premium beer in the on trade, as it deserves to be.” By 2006, then, the brewery was well on its way to being a profitable and successful business.

The final pieces of the jigsaw were provided by the merger with the highly-respected London brewer Young’s and almost immediately afterwards, the acquisition of Courage.

It wasn’t planned this way of course.

In an ideal world the newly-formed Wells & Young’s would have had some breathing space before taking and integrating the beers of yet another London brewery.

“When the big companies are eyeing each other up and attempting to outdo each other two things happen,” says Robertson.

“Firstly, they are so involved with each other that some smaller deals go under their radar and companies such as ours are able to move more quickly than they are to take advantage.

“And secondly, scraps fall off the table that are too small for them but work very well for small companies. It means that even as the industry becomes more consolidated there are still plenty of opportunities for us.” The Young’s deal was a masterstroke and required exceptional cloak and dagger tactics to ensure it happened – hence the cancelled meetings and evasiveness at all levels.

Robertson laughs about it now.

“I remember being asked by Nigel to come up with some figures as to what equipment we would need and how much money we would have to spend to integrate another brewery,” he says.

“I sat down with the proverbial cigarette packet to work it out and couldn’t take advice off anyone in case it leaked out. Then I got a letter saying that all the Boddingtons equipment from the Strangeways Brewery in Manchester was being sold off. I went and bought the entire line. They thought I was completely mad until much later when they realised why.” For the likes of Robertson and McNally the growth and evolution of Charles Wells and now Wells & Young’s isn’t just on paper. There’s an emotional aspect and a physical one – the brewery site has grown and changed, too.

As we walk round we approach the Northgate warehouse. Robertson stops and points out where the brewery used to end.

“There was a road here where I’d meet the lorries,” he says. “On the other side of it was a football field owned by us where Bedford Eagles used to play. When we expanded we had to tell them to move. Apparently Barry Fry (celebrated football manager) still hates us for it. But it had to be done if we were to stay in Bedford and grow on this site.” They covered up the open part of one of the ground’s stands and made it into a warehouse, still in use today.

These are heady days for Wells and Young’s, and you can feel the sense of purpose and the unity that the last two intense years have had on the company. They are proud of what they have achieved though both Robertson and McNally admit that they would have preferred just a little more time before Courage came along.

“But you take your opportunities when they present themselves,” says McNally. “Certainly the last year has been one of the busiest. In every department the company has been striving to integrate the new parts of the business while getting on with their day jobs. It has taken tremendous effort.” Robertson agrees. He is clearly enormously proud of what the company has done and has no truck with the people outside the company who question his and his staff’s integrity or challenge the company’s ability to maintain the high standards of the Young’s and Courage portfolio. Indeed, he bristles at the suggestion.

“There are always part-time experts who harp on about provenance and say that you can’t move a beer and make it the same elsewhere.

They are simply wrong.

“There are places where it is more difficult to make it as well but it’s an insult to my team of brewers to say they can’t do it. I have the best brewers you can get, wonderful brewers totally committed to getting the beer right.

“In the end we’ll be judged by the results. Most of the people comment without even tasting the beer. It takes a little while to tweak with the equipment and get the nuances right, but we have done that.” Robertson has a personal interest in getting Courage right, too. It’s the beer he first started with, his first love, and he’s chuffed to have the chance to put it back on the map.

Courage is this winter being thrust back into the limelight with its first major advertising campaign for 10 years. Director’s in particular deserves its place back in the sun.

So what next for Wells and Young’s? For McNally, it’s time to take stock, seek more efficient ways of working and build on what he’s got. But here he and Robertson speak from different scripts for the first time. The latter talks of the end of phase one and the start of phase two.

More growth then?

With the big brewers circling each other again and the takeover two-step in full swing as we go to press, there are no doubt some tasty morsels set to fall from the table.

Despite McNally’s words will the company be able to resist? Look at the history. Look at the company. Look at the people involved. Now then, be honest – would you bet against it?

Wells & Young’s Ltd
The Brewery, Havelock Street,
Bedford, MK40 4LU, UK
Tel: +44 (0)1234 272 766

Tasting notes
Gentle tasting but punchy beer with a delicate citrus
note and a dry malt attack
Easy-drinking standard session beer with a pleasantly
long and tasty finish
A dessert beer? It pretty much does what it says on
the tin, and while you might not want to drink more
than a couple, the novelty factor alone makes this
worth seeking out
One of the most balanced and pleasant mainstream
bitters in the market. Just enough hop and malt to
keep you interested, not too much to put you off
calling for another. Classy
A pleasant full mouth feel, and when it is at the top
of its game it’s a heady mix of citrus and hop bite
Not as rich and creamy as I remember, but still
distinctly chocolatey and sufficiently imbued with
flavour to make it a winner
Refreshing if unspectacular lager with enough flavour
and zest to hoist it above the mainstream
Wonderfully smooth, rounded crisp and clean lager
with a dry and fresh bite and plenty of flavour.
Very stylish