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Brakspear Brewery

This article charts the rise, fall and rebirth of the 200 year-old brewery founded by Robert Breakspear.

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The rise, fall and rebirth of Brakspear Brewery.

"To lose this brewery and its sublime beers would be a devastating blow."

[Newsflash, 2002]: W H Brakspear, one of Britain's oldest breweries and a classic producer of pale ale, is under threat of closure. The management is currently conducting a review of the business and will decide later this year whether to stay in brewing or exit.

Brakspear Ales The problems that face Brakspear underscore the twisted values of the modern brewing and pub retailing business in Britain. Brakspear is successful. It is brewing more beer today than at any time in its 200 year-old history.

But it is not making sufficient money from selling beer, due to the domination of retailing by a group of ever more powerful pub-owning groups. These groups, run by such companies as Enterprise Inns, Punch and Pubmaster, were created in the 1990s following a government investigation of the brewing industry.

The investigation found that the top six national brewers formed a monopoly that restricted choice for drinkers. As well as owning close to half Britain's pubs, the nationals also tied up most of the so-called "free trade" -- pubs not directly owned by brewers.

The owners of "free trade" pubs can buy beer from any brewer, but many were happy to accept sweetheart deals with the nationals in the form of heavily-discounted beer, and low-interest loans to improve their buildings.

In an attempt to give drinkers greater choice, the government in the early 1990s brought in a "guest beer" provision that allowed publicans who ran pubs owned by the nationals to buy additional beers from independent brewers. The guest beer was restricted to cask-conditioned real ale, and should have been a boost for smaller producers.

But the nationals neatly side-stepped the policy by selling most or all of their pubs. They helped set up new pub groups that naturally took most of their supplies from the big brewers. As the "guest beer" policy applied only to pubs owned by brewers, the new pub companies were free to restrict their suppliers to those that offered the best discounts. Many regional and micro-brewers were unable to afford the discounts demanded, often more than 50% off the price of a barrel.

This background explains the quandary facing Brakspear. The company owns 150 pubs, but 75% of its beer sales are to the free trade. With an increasing number of free trade pubs controlled by the giant pub companies, Brakspear finds itself in the absurd situation of selling the bulk of its beer at marginal profit to the pub companies.

The loss of Brakspear would be a terrible blow. The brewery has an idyllic location, just a few yards from the broad sweep of the River Thames in the small town of Henley-on-Thames, famous for its annual summer boat races known as the Henley Regatta.

Brakspear has a powerful family link with the only Englishman to hold the office of Pope. While the brewing family changed the spelling of its name to Brakspear in the late 18th century, it is related to Nicholas Breakspear who, as Adrian IV, became Pope in 1154. Pope Adrian incorporated the symbol of a bee in his mitre to mark the first letter of the family name, and today the trademark of Brakspear's brewery is a bee.

Extracted and edited from an article originally published by, 30 May 2002.

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