Proposed Fuller’s sale has made emotions run high

Beer writing legend Roger Protz wasn’t the only one “dumbfounded” by the decision by the Fuller’s board to sell its brewing business to Asahi of Japan in a £250 million deal.

The announcement of the deal at the end of January took the entire industry by surprise. There’s nothing unusual about historic breweries being taken over by multinationals and/or closed but Fuller’s always felt somehow immune. To many, it felt different this time, like something valuable had been lost.

Pete Brown declared himself initially “fucking gutted” but after some reflection managed to temper his reaction to a more poetic assessment: “We’ve lost some of beer’s romance and heritage. We’ve lost a sense of stability and continuity. We’ve lost a bit of magic.”

Brown’s description really hits the nail on the head. Fuller’s is the national brewery PLC where the descendants of the Fuller, Smith and Turner families who founded it still reside on the board, and where low margin beer still seemed to have some emotional heft for them despite the dwindling contribution it makes to the group’s profits.

It will now focus on the pubs and hotels that generate 85-90% of its profits and leave Asahi to do the heavy lifting on a beer portfolio that includes the truly iconic London Pride, joining the Japanese multinational’s collection of European brands that include Peroni, Grolsch, Pilsner Urquell and Meantime.

The Fuller’s acquisition has brought calls for demonstrations at the company’s EGM from some more radical wings of the beer drinking fraternity, but the realists, Brown among them, realise that the there was a certain inevitability about it, that it makes obvious commercial sense given the relative profitability of its pubs and brewing divisions.

The shock was more to do with the belief, mistakenly as it turned out, that the emotional pull of 174 years of brewing on its family members would always trump the chance to bank a few million quid.

The hope for dumfounded observers is that Asahi will recognise the cultural and historical importance of what it has bought and back Fuller’s beers and traditional British brewing, rather than seeing it as a cut-price opportunity to obtain a big chunk of west London real estate with development potential.

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