Liverpool needs a brewery -- letshops Cains can rise from the ashes
You can't beat bad news. The British media loves it, wallows in it, lathers itself with it. What was the big beer story last week? Was it the Great British Beer Festival in London that attracted thousands of people? No, it was the collapse of Cain's Brewery in Liverpool.
This is being written before the festival ends. Unless Afghan rebels invade Earl's Court and machine gun the punters, the festival, as always, will pass off without incident. Around 50,000 people will have sampled brilliant beers from Britain, Europe and the United States in a happy and convivial atmosphere.
But happy and convivial atmospheres don't suit the modern media. Beer drinking is seen as part of what is called “the binge drinking culture” and pub-going and – by extension – attending beer festivals are portrayed are dangerous, violent pursuits. The fact is that binge drinking was always an over-exaggerated problem and is now in sharp decline. And the small minority of idiots who engage in wild and excessive drinking in town centres tend to consume cut-price vodka and alco-pops rather than the juice of the barley.
The result of the media obsession with the bad side of drinking resulted in a disgraceful blackout of the beer festival this year. With the possible exception of the final Test at the Oval, it was the biggest event in London. It promoted hundreds of beers from brewers throughout Britain who work in what is the country's last remaining major industry.
Yet, part from a few jokey stories in the tabloids, the festival received no media support last week. Not a word in the Guardian and the Independent, papers that once boasted regular beer columns. Nothing on London television. And, most scandalous of all, not a word in the capital's only paid-for paper, the Evening Standard.
But there is coverage a-plenty for the tragedy unfolding on Merseyside. No doubt some of the coverage will be yet another re-run of the fanciful belief that nobody is drinking beer these days -- which wasn't quite my experience of three days at Earl's Court.
Let's get some facts right. Cain's, still better known by its old name of Higson's, was a mighty Merseyside institution. Its sad state is the result not of the lack of success of the Dusanj brothers but gross mismanagement by former owners. Higson's had the misfortune to be taken over by Boddingtons of Manchester. That in itself was not a disaster but the Boddingtons group then fell in to the clutches of the national brewing and pubs giant Whitbread.
Whitbread, in the style of the national brewers of the day, rationalised its operations in North-west England. Higson's closed, much to the disgust of Liverpudlians, who organised a demonstration and threw some casks of “Higson's Bitter” into the Mersey when it was brewed elsewhere in the Whitbread empire.
Following some years of closure, the brewery was bought in the 1990s by Brewery Group Denmark, best known for a beer with the unfortunate name of The Great Dane. The Danes thought they could make a living by producing canned beers for supermarkets. They quickly found that the national brewers could beat them hands-down in this fickle market, where discounts are the name of the game.
Once again, Cain's, as it was now called after its founder in the 19th century, was put up for sale. The rescuers were Ajmail and Sudarghara Dusanj, who had run a large soft-drinks company, Gardner-Shaw, in the West Midlands and were keen to get into brewing.
They did a brilliant job. They revived the fortunes of Cain's cask beers and added new brands, including a raisin beer, a properly matured lager and 2008, which celebrates Liverpool's role as the European City of Culture. The brothers also bottled and canned beers for many other brewers and introduced innovative packaging in the form of display boxes that enabled brewers to present half-a-dozen of their beers.
Then in 2007 Cain's bought the Honeycombe Leisure pub group at a cost of £37 million. The money came from the Bank of Scotland and funding the debt was a terrible drain on Cain's resources.
It's easy to be clever after the event. It now seems a mad-cap scheme by the Dusanj brothers to buy such a large estate of pubs. But that was last year. Nobody predicted that banks would be in such a terrible state in 2008 and that the Bank of Scotland can no longer afford to bail out the brothers.
There will be no shortage of people who will have a good smirk at the collapse of Cain's, not least the Independent Family Brewers of Britain who, to their eternal shame and damnation, refused to allow the brothers to join their organisation.
On the other hand, I am grief stricken at the loss of Cain's. No doubt the pubs will be picked up in small parcels by other pub companies. But there seems little future for the brewery: it's too big for other regional brewers to buy while the nationals don't need the capacity.
Liverpool, a great and proud city, needs its own brewery. I hope Cain's can, against the odds, rise like a phoenix from the ashes.
And I wish Ajmail and Sudarghara well. They made a good fist of saving Cain's and I believe, when they have licked their wounds, they will live to brew another day.