Tastings School - Wychwood branches out

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Wychwood branches out

Marston's is eating up outstanding British regional breweries faster than Beers of the World can visit them. But could this guarantee the future of some of England's best premium ales? Dominic Roskrow reports

Don’t look now, but a giant is stirring and it’s got its eyes set firmly on the future.

Whatever you might think of Marston’s and the way it is eating up English brewers there’s no denying two things: one, that it is exhibiting exceptionally good taste, and two, that maybe, just maybe, it’s positioning to preserve Britain’s brewing heritage rather than destroy it.

For the second time in less than a year it has snapped up a regional brewery in between the time Beers of the World visited it and interviewed the key personnel and the time we actually put the finished story to print. And for the second time in less than a year the magazine has concluded, after getting over the considerable surprise, that the move isn’t necessarily a negative one.

The last purchase was Ringwood in Hampshire. Before that the growing company took on Jennings, Burtonwood and Eldridge Pope. And now it has acquired Rupert Thompson’s Refresh, and with it Wychwood Brewery, the Brakspear Brewery operation, and partnerships with among others, Wadworth.

So how can this be considered good news, or at least not necessarily bad news? You can view it both emotionally and rationally.

On the emotional front, the natural response is to mourn the passing of a great name into the hands of a particular player. But the economy is a mess, many regional breweries are struggling because they’re squeezed by the big players above them and by the tax breaks granted to the smaller players below them.

While readers of this magazine would of course encourage choice, the sad facts are that many regional brands do not have sufficient unique selling appeal to survive against the major players and require massive marketing and advertising budgets and much better distribution to prosper.

In these turbulent economic conditions, too, many pubs and regional operators are struggling to keep their heads above water, and even a cursory glance through the economic pages of the papers reveal the full extent of the bloody battle to consolidate, rationalise and survive among pub operators as they deal with the economy, tax hikes and the no smoking ban.

And then there’s Marston’s. Is it really a ny different?

Emotionally, yes. The company has been built on British beer. Its roots are in Burton-on-Trent, words that should still send every Englishman’s souls singing. It’s home to Pedigree, one of the finest beers produced anywhere.

Not convinced? Then take a look at Rupert Thompson, one of the main players behind Refresh. His commitment to the very finest, wackiest and unusual beers in the market place is irrefutable, and his role in the Beer Academy is testimony to his belief in quality and standards in British beer.

Would such a man make a pact with the devil? True, everyone has their price, and the figure of £10 million to £15 million that Marston’s paid for Refresh is a lot of money. But come on… Rupert Thompson? Here’s what he said about the sale: “Refresh has achieved a great deal in the eight years since it was founded. It is now the number three supplier of premium bottled ales to supermarkets and Hobgoblin is one of the fastest growing premium ales in the United Kingdom. The next stage of the business was likely to involve a link-up with a larger partner, or an acquisition.

“Marston’s has shown a real commitment to building an exciting range of quality premium ales. I am confident that Marston’s will provide a great home for Refresh, allowing its brands and people to develop further.” So much for the emotion, then. But the move makes sense when analysed rationally, too.

From a Marston’s viewpoint, the acquisition is very exciting indeed. For the company seems to be positioning itself as Britain’s biggest supplier of ‘premium’ ales, and Wychwood and its associated brands give it plenty of scope. Unlike many of the bigger animals feeding off the regionals, Marston’s is clearly not in the business of growing its pub estate at the expense of the small players. Neither Refresh or Ringwood have contributed much to an estate that stands at 2000 plus – in Refresh’s case, nothing.

And figures published in April 2008 reveal that Marston’s is performing reasonably well despite the difficult trading conditions. Standard beer sales have taken a hit in line with everyone else, but food growth is significantly up, and the company’s management seems to be committed to premium ale.

It will have eyed two specific aspects of Refresh’s business – the impressive share of the take-home market, and its commitment to quality ale, in particular the Duchy Originals range, beers brewed for the Prince of Wales, and the company’s range of organic beers, a category in which Refresh is a market leader.

All well and good for Marston’s, but what about the small and committed team at Wychwood?

You don’t have to spend long at the brewery to get a clue. It’s nestled in a back street in the town of Witney in Oxford, and it’s the strangest mix of old and new, its traditional brewery side backing on a mess of wet concrete, metal warehousing and revving engines. It’s like a building site crossed with an open plan factory and is all noise and activity. Pass through the doors in the old brewery, though, and it’s like stepping back in time. Avoid glancing out the windows and you could be in a fine rural brewery.

Not that it’s any less cluttered here, either. The meeting room is lined with adverts and bottles of Refresh’s extensive range. The staff bar is a cosy traditional one, but contains enough old photos to keep you amused for ages, and the brewery itself is a feat of space maximisation, the operation squeezed into the tightest of areas, much of the traditional Brakspear plant nestled in alongside those used by Wychwood.

It’s blatantly obvious that the tide’s in here. There is nowhere else to go, and indeed, Refresh has been shipping some of its contract work off site. A 10 minute stroll round the brewery, and Thompson’s comments about the next stage of the business requiring a bigger partner make total sense.

When we meet the negotiations with Marston’s will have been at a critical stage and Thompson will almost certainly have been bound by a confidentiality clause. But it says much about the man that he still agrees to entertain a journalist rather than postpone the meeting indefinitely as other companies have understandably done in the past.

The interview is to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Wychwood and 20 years since the first version of Hobgoblin, known as Legendary Hobgoblin, was brewed. The brewery was opened by Paddy Glenny first as the Eagle Brewery and then the Glenny Brewery, and it occupies the site where Clinch’s Brewery once operated before it was closed in the 60s after more than 120 years.

The name Wychwood was introduced in 1990 and it’s taken from the name of a nearby forest, where tales of witchcraft, elves and goblins are legion. The local link has, of course, had a significant role in the brewery’s development and the other unique quality that Wychwood brings to Marston’s is a mischievous sense of humour. It happens to be exactly five years since the ‘what’s the matter, lagerboy, afraid you might taste something?’ campaign started.

Refresh has sailed pretty close to the wind with its saucy Löwenbräu campaign.

“But most people enjoy the humour,” says Thompson. “It’s always been done for fun and there has not been anything offensive about it.

Certainly it hasn’t been our intention to offend people. And I think there is a risk of being too mealy-mouthed. Our brands are independent and full of character and this approach suits them. I think we would have lost something important if we’d been worried about complaints.” The Refresh operation is a fascinating one because the company has so many different styles of beers and it approaches them in a very different way. The company has, for instance, tried to recreate the Brakspear operation as much as is possible. It cost the company about £1 million to move the equipment, including the Brakspear copper from 1774, and Wychwood now houses the famous ‘double drop’ system by which beer is fermented for 16 hours in round vessels in the roof eves before being allowed to fall naturally in to vessels below. The beer is aerated and leaves behind some proteins and solids. It is then fermented for a further 24 to 48 hours under controlled conditions. When the beer is at the right strength and gravity it is cooled and matured for a further three to four days.

Thompson believes the investment was worthwhile because the brewery is creating beer that Brakspear drinkers recognise and accept.

“There was a great deal of cynicism when it closed, and initially sales dipped,” he says. “But we said we’d bring the brewery back to Oxfordshire and we did, and people have supported that. This brewery is home to Brakspear in a way that does not apply to Löwenbräu or Manns. We’re very proud of that.” If Thompson’s proud of what he’s achieved with the brands, he’s doubly so when it comes to the team at Refresh and the brewery. Tellingly, given the subsequent Marston’s acquisition, he puts the excellence of his team down to the fact that the company doesn’t own pubs.

“We made a conscious decision not to own pubs,” he says. “We felt that it was better to do a few things well, and although a few of us have pub experience we felt the time sorting out problems with pubs could be better used.

“But as a result we have no direct route to market and therefore it’s important that we concentrate on the quality of the beer, to move on and innovate, to take the view that nothing is preserved in aspic. We are successful because we have a team that understands what the outlets we trade with want and what the customer wants.” Certainly Marston’s has picked up a gem, and listening to Thompson you can’t believe he’d risk his people and beers just for cash. He’ll stay on as consultant for six months and Marston’s says in its official acquisition statement that Wychwood’s future is secure.

You know what? I believe them. Just a hunch.

Tasting notes

HOBGOBLIN 5.2% IN BOTTLE The deepest ruby red colouring is highly attractive and the taste a delight, mixing top roasted chocolate malt and bitter hops with a refreshing dose of fruit late on. Produced at a more sessionable strength in draught for the on trade. Both versions are excellent BLACK WYCH 5% A fine example of an non-cloying and very drinkable stout, with a smooth, cushiony mouthfeel and a lovely bitter and spice double whammy BRAKSPEAR TRIPLE 7.2% Stunning stuff, and a fine example of how good British ale can be. Double fermentation makes this complex and flavoursome, with a massive aromatic blast and a clean and delightful mix of malt and hops. Wonderful stuff BRAKSPEAR ORGANIC 4.6% Zesty grapefruit, sharp and clean hoppy taste, and subtle, satisfying and refreshing.

Contact
Wychwood Brewery
Eagle Maltings, The Crofts, Witney,
Oxfordshire, OX28 4DP
Tel: +44 (0)1993 890 800
www.wychwood.co.uk