“Walking the dog” – how one brewing brand’s hubris came back to bite.Posted on: 20 May 2017, by : Andrew Wilson
When Scottish & Newcastle Breweries (S&N) were granted Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status for its flagship product Newcastle Brown Ale in 2000, who could have known that only 7 years later they would be scurrying to have the appellation rescinded?
“The promotion of products with specific characteristics, particularly those coming from less-favoured or rural areas” was a major aim of the 1992 European scheme designed to “promote and protect names of quality agricultural products and foodstuffs”.
Or in this case seeking PGI status was revealed merely as a rather clumsy marketing ploy.
S&N moved production of Brown Ale across the river to Gateshead in 2005 following closure of their Newcastle plant. A further move followed to the John Smith Brewery in Tadcaster, North Yorkshire in 2007, obliging the brewer’s climbdown on PGI status. A year later S&N were swallowed by a Heineken/Carlsberg takeover, with the Newcastle Brown brand falling to Heineken.
And yet some years earlier the S&N marketing department had expressed outrage at any suggestion that their beers would be moved around the country on a whim, threatening legal action against anyone who even mentioned it.
After S&N’s takeover of the Matthew Brown and Theakston breweries in 1987 I gave an interview to local radio stations cautioning that this would lead to brewery closures and the moving of iconic brands around the country.
“Dislocation of beers from their roots, communities and yes, terroir,” I warned, “are a slap in the face for the beer drinker.” I likened the situation to “trying to make Champagne in Venezuela!”
A typed transcript of my interviews arrived on my doormat a few days later, with an accompanying letter from the S&N legal department threatening further action if I didn’t immediately recant my damaging speculations.
It wasn’t long before Theakston’s Best Bitter, already being brewed at Theakston’s subsidiary brewery in Cumbria because of rising sales swamping capacity at their Masham base in North Yorkshire, found itself shifted to the Newcastle mega-brewery. The Matthew Brown operation in Blackburn was summarily closed.
But S&N’s interest in cask ale in general, and Theakston’s Best Bitter in particular, was waning. They even surreptitiously altered the age-old recipe to reduce its alcoholic strength saving them a fortune in duty. It all seems a long way from the lofty aims of the Protected Geographical Indications scheme.
However, this story does have a happy ending. The Theakston family bought back their brewery in 2003, and Theakston’s Best Bitter is now back home in Masham. The brewery is expanding and the future of its iconic brand seems assured. The wonderful combination of flavoursome malt and bitter hops is back on the agenda, and back to its original strength.
Newcastle Brown Ale nevertheless continues to be successful, heavily promoted and spurred by international cult status, with around half of its production exported to the US. The Dog has found its new customer base, while Theakston’s have refound theirs.