Have we reached peak beer?

Posted by on Jul 2, 2014 in Scottish Beer | 6 Comments

As anyone who’s sat through a boxed set of Grand Designs in a single-showing will tell you, sometimes you can simply have too much of a good thing. By the end of the sixth episode, as Kevin gives another evocative summation to camera (which is either on ground level or high above him), your finger pauses, for just a fraction, over the plunker as you reconsider episode number seven. But then the spectre of a couple from Brighton attempting to renovate a sixteenth-century shingle-grinding factory into a split-level, wet-roomed palace that would have made Saddam Hussein green with envy arrives, and you persevere. But all the time, you think ‘is this one episode too many?’

In a similar parallel, just as the Guardian tell us we’ve reached ‘peak beard’ and the Daily Mash responds with the sublime ‘men seeking beard exit strategies‘ – have we reached saturation point with regard to brewery numbers? Craft, crafty or unstated, numbers are still rising, and will surely eventually plateau. Only the other day, I was speaking to someone within the industry who believed that we’re already at ‘peak beer’ in Scotland (and both of us have beards). But is that really the case? There’s only one way to find out – here comes the science! (Are graphs science? They must be; I think so. Here comes the science, then!)

First off, how have the numbers of new brewery openings changed over time…?

Figure 1. New breweries opened, by year, in Scotland (1980-present)
Brewery openings 1980-2014

(I’ll get the housekeeping out the way first. This is by no means intended as a definitive post on brewery openings and closings; I’ve taken the numbers and timelines from my own notes, and from the excellent Quaffale website. Feel free to point out any discrepancies, but as a guide, I think the figures should stand up. I started at 1980 as without delving into dusty ledgers and so-forth it seemed like the best place to begin.)

Beginning at the start of the 80’s omits the handful of existing breweries that opened before then; old hands such as Belhaven, Traquair House, the Wellpark, and the Caledonian. Neither does it include those who were also open in 1980, but who subsequently went under, such as the Fountain Brewery, the concerns in Alloa, and the Bothwell Brewery in Hamilton, which opened in 1979 and closed in 1982; although I have taken these breweries into account later on. Oh, and I’m also including contract breweries in all of this (of which, there are currently eight in Scotland).

Anyway, the graph shows a small peak in 1983 when four producers opened (none of whom brew today), a significant peak in the mid 1990’s, a small bump in around 2004, and then a monumental spike in 2012. So, roughly every ten years the numbers of new breweries appearing perks up a little – or in the last couple of years, sits bolt upright in bed as lightning plays across the curtains. When you have a look at the actual breweries involved, the surge in the mid-90’s looks to be down to the brewpub-craze that swept the nation, bulwarked by the Firkin chain (a topic meticulously explored in Brew Britannia, by Jessica Boak and Ray Bailey).

You could maybe argue the post 2002-bump was due to the arrival of Progressive Beer Duty, the tax relief for small beer-makers that was launched by the Labour government to give something of a helping hand. The recent boom, though, you would think can only be down to the popularity of the beer scene. Whether you want to use the c-word or not, modern beer is undoubtedly attracting people who want to become their own bosses and start out. Sixteen breweries put their first beers to market in that year, in all areas of the country, with nine more opening in the calendar year on either side. Thirty-four in three years.

Of course, the real test is how many (and hopefully it will be a high number) are here in five years…

Figure 2. Brewery closure numbers (pink) overlaid by year, in Scotland (1980-present)

Superimposing the numbers of beermakers that didn’t make it produces an interesting pattern. If you half-close your eyes and squint, the ‘pink peaks’ kind of match the black peaks, a couple of years down the line. Even when it comes to small relative numbers, the 1983 peak is followed by a 1987 peak in closures, 1997 openings by 1999 closures, even the 2004 mini-bump looks to result in a closure bump of its own, in 2009-10. The issue that concerns a lot of people who make beer at the moment is what the ‘pink peak’ will look like, if we wind this particular graph on for a few more years.

Brewers are realists, of course – and they are fully aware breweries come and go for a number of reasons. The Lugton Inn Brewery in Ayrshire, for instance, lasted five years before an investment in bottling equipment put the books into the red, and dug a financial hole from which they couldn’t recover. The increased closures around the turn of the Millennium are from the implosion of the brewpub fad; Punch Taverns bought the Firkin chain in 1999 and sold many of the pubs immediately, with those that brewed fluttering on for another couple of years.

Things have settled out, though – since 2010 ended, to my knowledge only three Scottish beermakers have closed; Fowler’s Ales in Prestonpans following the death of the brewer, Roddy Beveridge; Angus Ales, which ceased brewing in Carnoustie in December 2012, and the Innocente Brewing Company, who were based at the Alechemy facility in Livingston, but transferred production to Ontario when brewer Steve Innocente returned home in 2013. These three producers actually only produced beer for a grand-total of ten years combined (although, yes, I am conveniently ignoring the long pre-2004 history of Fowler’s in making that point).

Yet, extrapolating that thought a little, how long did other breweries who no longer exist actually operate for?

Figure 3. Mean survival (years) of Scottish breweries that closed in each decade

If you lump all of the failed breweries into decade-chunks, based on the year they unfortunately went under, you get this four-bar chart, with two skyscrapers in the middle. These are caused by two old chargers, sites where beer was made for over three hundred years between them, before being closed down. The Carlsberg-Tetley Alloa plant is the first; brewing started here in around 1810, before the site was mothballed in 1998 and production moved south; 188 years of beermaking gone, and the 90’s bar pushed up high as a result. The other facility, in similar terms, was the old Fountain Brewery in Edinburgh; the unit closing in 2004 after almost 150 years of operation produces a similarly large spike.

If you remove the skew – and it does create a false impression, I know, but there you go – you get this picture…

Figure 4. Weighted survival (years) of Scottish breweries that closed in each decade

Three, Four, Five, and Three years. These are the mean ‘lifespans’ of breweries that ceased operations in these decades. It’s not a true survivial analysis, as it excludes all of the breweries who are still flourishing – but it makes a point that those who went under, did so pretty quickly. If you can’t make brewing work, the overheads pile up pretty quickly (which, I suppose, accounts for the ‘pink peaks’ of Figure 2). Breweries came and went for similar reasons, throughout the forty years – change of ownership (Windie Goat; 4yrs brewing), ‘technical’ reasons (MacLachlan’s Brew Bar; 2yrs); even relocation to native Canada (Livingston’s Crofthead Brewery; five weeks). It’s not an easy industry in which to succeed, at all.

But people do succeed. The numbers of new breweries are rising, as I’ve said. So, time for the final graph. Taking into account the openings and the closures each year, what is the trend?

Figure 5. Net brewery numbers, Scotland (1980-present)

So, there it is. The closures of the late-80’s and late 90’s took a couple of chunks out of the brewery progression, but the smaller rate of closures since has been steamrollered by the flurry of openings since the turn of this decade. Just last week, at the Glasgow Real Ale Festival, the brand new Jaw Brewery made a small launch of their beers, becoming (to my records) the eighty-ninth brewery in Scotland (81 production, 8 contractees). At this rate of expansion, we’ll have hit the three figure mark before 2017. 100 Scottish breweries. It’ll happen.

But, is it too much? Will this graph start to flatten out, or even begin to dip the other way? Probably; it’s pretty much inevitable following a period of sustained increase. Even with the current interests in food and drink, provenance, social media and branding, not all of our breweries will survive. Some will close for personal reasons, of course, but I think in the long-term – and I don’t mean the next few years, I mean actual long-term – the pattern will be the same as what happened following the real boom years of Scottish brewing, the mid-nineteenth century.

Then, with 241 breweries in the country in 1822, (according to the History of the Brewing Industry in Scotland, by Ian Donnachie) the inevitable series of decline, closures and mergers happened; breweries were amalgamated, bought-out, taken over. Beer lines were taken on, some let go, others maintained under new badges, or old badges by new producers. The temperance movement gained a hold, and numbers fell further. I’m not suggesting there’ll be a neo-temperance revival, but I do think we’ll see a shuffling of producers, a snap of the rug; with the smaller, weaker ones being flicked up and absorbed into other producers.

But that’s the future. In the grand scheme of things, 89 breweries for 5.3 million people isn’t that huge a number; in 2013 CAMRA recorded 57 in West Yorkshire, for a population of 2.2m. Plus, the Scottish beer scene has had to come from further back to get where we are today. I genuinely think there’s still momentum to carry forward. Beer has yet to reach the general mainstream in Scotland (or the UK, for that matter, despite the progress). As the big old breweries have died off, or been closed, smaller ones will continue to arrive to take a small part of their place. We may well have reached ‘peak beard’ – but even for those of us with beards, we’ve not reached ‘peak beer’ just yet.

But what do you think? Are we at saturation point? Is this level of brewery growth sustainable?

Thanks to John Martin for his input, and Boak and Bailey for the genesis of this desk study


  1. James
    July 2, 2014

    Nice write up. Unfortunately the graphs don’t show up very well on Firefox (Chrome and IE seem fine), it crops the graphs so that you can’t see the bottom line (or indeed anything below it, like the axis descriptors).


  2. Richard
    July 2, 2014

    Thanks James, I had a look in Chrome, IE and Safari – the bottom line is that numbers are increasing dramatically 😉

  3. David
    July 2, 2014

    I think your graphs just indicate how cyclical breweries numbers are. I have no doubt we will see a number of mergers / takeovers / flops / closures as the market gets over-saturated and / or some breweries get over ambitious in the next few years. The market is not growing that fast to support the some of the targets that this firms put in place and there will be a cost to it. Brewdog grew because they crowdsourced, but they won’t be able to do that forever.

  4. Keith
    July 3, 2014

    Great post Rich. It would be nice to see openings and closures by geographical location. It would be interesting (well, to me at least) to see if new areas of brewing are forming in Scotland, or are they still staying near/within the traditional places. Have traditional brewing areas of Scotland lost many/all of their breweries, or have areas with no modern large scale brewing history seen many new openings?

  5. Richard
    July 4, 2014

    That would be interesting, Keith – I think one of the broader trends in that regard (and it’s something you’re particularly familiar with) is the rise in rural and remote brewing. Partly due to transport links easing, and to costs of central locations rising, it’s also a relative thing, I think – lots of the breweries that went under between 1999-2004 were city-based (brewpubs and so-on), so now the numbers of non-urban breweries constitute a far higher proportion.

  6. Barm
    July 9, 2014

    I think the rural breweries must be an anomaly in the long term. It was a bizarre situation where there were a load of breweries in remote places, whilst the market for their products was almost exclusively in the cities. In Germany and England, you’d head out of the city, looking for country inns with good beer. In Scotland, if you had to leave the city, you’d pick and choose carefully where you went, or switch to whisky. That seems to be gradually changing now.

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