Jeff Evans: Is Cardiff brewery using its Brains?

Recent events concerning the Brains brewery in Cardiff have been painful to watch.

I grew up in South Wales and the name was etched into my consciousness even before I began to appreciate beer. It was intrinsic to the character of my capital city, as much a part of the heritage and culture as the castle and Cardiff Arms Park.

Much has changed in both the city and the world of beer since those days, but the news that the future of the brewery now hangs in the balance is no less troubling.

In December, the company signed over the running of its 156 pubs to Marston's, announcing that this would secure the livelihoods of 1,300 staff members. Just a few weeks later, doubts were raised over the brewery itself – a new site that only officially opened in 2019 – with the suggestion that, moving forward, Brains beers could be brewed elsewhere – even in England.

Swallowing my initial sadness at this news, I found myself considering once again the concept of provenance in beer and whether it still held any sway in the modern world.

The Campaign for Real Ale kicked up a hell of fuss back in the 1970s when local beers that had been around for decades were bought by big national companies and promptly discontinued to be replaced in pubs by an inferior product produced in a distant brewery, with no regard whatsoever for the preference of the customer.

Later, CAMRA targeted Whitbread for its “Tour of Destruction” that saw a stream of regional breweries taken over and closed. In most cases, production of the most popular beers from these breweries was transferred to another Whitbread site. Great promises were made about the future of these beers and the efforts to recreate the taste were said to be painstaking.

Sadly, the beers all too often proved disappointing and within a matter of years they were discontinued and replaced by other Whitbread products. Closing breweries and moving the beers to other sites has seldom enhanced a beer's reputation.

The concept of provenance, however, has changed with the rise of “craft brewing”. There are numerous craft beer companies who use other breweries to produce their beers, sometimes moving production around according to where there is capacity. In some cases it saves the expense of establishing their own production facility and in others it allows them to brew beer closer to target markets so saving both financially and environmentally on shipping.

For instance, I've recently been sent samples from a Hong Kong brewery called Gwei-lo but these very enjoyable beers are not brewed in Hong Kong: they are brewed by Vocation in Yorkshire. It seems that, as long as there is transparency in the process, such activity is widely accepted.

Indeed, the provenance argument in craft beer appears to hinge on whether the beer is actually from a craft brewery or a big brewery that is masquerading as craft, rather than where it is brewed.

But craft beer works to a different set of rules from traditional brewing. Its drinking audience is more promiscuous and, because it's newer, most craft beers haven't been around long enough to become entrenched in a customer's life and culture. This is why a long-established, cherished company such as Brains needs to tread more carefully. One of the declared achievements of the recent upheavals was that it “protected Brains’ strong, heritage brand name”.

That remains to be seen. Whatever the immediate financial advantages of closing the brewery and farming out production, “Brewed in England” is unlikely to be an attractive selling point in Cardiff, I can vouch for that.

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