Cain’s Audio Guide for Liverpool Biennial 2016

It’s been a while since I posted anything here, so it seems appropriate that I should revisit Cain’s: The Story of Liverpool in a Pintthe book I published in 2008 about the Cain’s brewery in Liverpool. After the book was finished the brewery struggled on for a couple of years but has now closed. It is about to be transformed into a centre for independent retailers and an apartment block, but in the mean time it is host to the 2016 Liverpool Biennial. I was asked to produce an audio guide giving some historical background to the brewery, but tying it in to the Biennial’s themes:

Liverpool Biennial 2016 explores fictions, stories and histories, taking viewers on a series of voyages through time and space, drawing on Liverpool’s past, present and future. These journeys take the form of six ‘episodes’: Ancient Greece, Chinatown, Children’s Episode, Software, Monuments from the Future and Flashback. They are sited in galleries, public spaces, unused buildings, through live performance and online. Many of the artists have made work for more than one episode, some works are repeated across different episodes, and some venues host more than one episode.

My audio guide can be downloaded from here.

Listen to Chapter 1 of Cain’s: the Story of Liverpool in a Pint here.

Liverpool Biennial 2016. Download the festival guide from here (pdf).

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The Last Drop (Again): Cain’s Closes

Label from a special beer brewed by Higson's when it closed down the Cain's brewery in 1990.
Label from a special beer brewed by Higson’s when it closed down the Cain’s brewery in 1990.

As seemed likely in May, the Liverpool brewer Cain’s has been wound up. It was forced into liquidation by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, owing around £5 million in unpaid taxes and, according to the BBC a further £3 million to 44 other creditors, some of which are likely to be small suppliers. All the brewery staff were laid off a month ago, and because the RC Brewery company was insolvent they were referred to the Redundancy Payment Service, leaving British taxpayers to pay their statutory redundancy compensation.

By my reckoning, since 1980 Robert Cain’s Mersey Brewery has been operated by five separate owners: Higson’s, Boddington’s, GB Breweries, Danish Brewery Group, and the Dusanj’s. In fact the Dusanj brothers have run it as a brewery for longer than anyone apart from Higson’s (1923-1985) and Robert Cain himself (1858-1907).

When they regained control of the brewing business in 2008 creditors were left high and dry, but despite the sour taste it left, the revival of the company was seen by many at the time as a ray of hope for Liverpool during the financial crisis. Now they are doing the same thing a second time and it’s starting to look like a business model. Although the brewing business has gone bust, the Dusanj family business which owns the brewery and the assets, but is liable for none of the debts, plans to create a ‘brewery village’ with apartments, shops, bars and restaurants. The plans were already well under way even as HMRC was taking the brewing company, RC Brewery, to the High Court for its winding up order. This kind of cynical behaviour embodies all that is rotten in British corporate culture: making a fortune for themselves but allowing the state to carry the risk. That £5 million in unpaid taxes, by the way, adds up to around nine NHS intensive care beds for a whole year at 2010 prices.

When the brewing of Higson’s ales moved from Liverpool to Sheffield in 1990 they bottled a final beer at the Mersey Brewery and called it “The Last Drop” to commemorate the occasion. This time there is apparently £100,000-worth of unfinished ale left rotting in the brewery. If you could psychoanalyse a company, what would that tell you?

Cain’s: the final chapter?

Back in December 2007 I submitted the manuscript of my book Cains: The Story of Liverpool in a Pint, to my publisher, Liverpool University Press. The book is a history of Robert Cain and his brewery going back to the eighteenth century, and the plan was to publish it in the autumn of 2008, as Liverpool basked in the warm glow left over from its Capital of Culture summer. It would hit the bookshop shelves just as the Christmas market began to gather momentum.

Of course it didn’t work out that way. On August 7, 2008, after several months of speculation, administrators were called in to manage the Cain’s brewing company, which had collapsed under the weight of its debts and unpaid taxes. Taking over the loss-making Honeycombe Leisure pub chain a year earlier was a near-fatal mistake for the brewery, but it also meant I had to rewrite the final chapter of my book. And I had to do so in September and October of 2008, which was when the book should have been published. You can read my revised final chapter here in its unedited form.

Looking at it now, the takeover of Honeycombe was reckless and foolish, but it is easy to forget the difference in economic climate between 2007 and 2008. Here is the statement made by Bank of Scotland in May 2007, after the deal was struck to take over Honeycombe, when the bank had agreed to lend Cain’s £40 million to support the business:

“Bank of Scotland is delighted to be supporting a highly reputable and well-known local business with national ambitions to make its mark with the UK brewery sector.

Throughout the course of our discussions with Cains, we’ve been consistently impressed by the strong management demonstrated by the Dusanj brothers. Their entrepreneurial aspirations for the business closely reflect Bank of Scotland’s own commitment to funding ambitious and fast-growing companies throughout the UK.”

Of course Bank of Scotland itself had to be rescued and was taken over by Lloyds, so its pronouncements on good business should not be taken too seriously, but this statement gives a flavour of the gung-ho economic climate of the time. Some businesses got away with it; others didn’t.

In the month or so following the company going into administration there was talk of a takeover from another brewer, Marston’s being the favourite, and of the possibility of total collapse. In the end the Dusanj brothers managed to extricate themselves and the brewery from the mess by a combination of weapons-grade forward planning (the brewery turned out not to have been owned by the collapsed company but by a Dusanj family trust) and pre-pack administration rules, leaving creditors with nothing.

A new company was formed to take over where the previous one left off, but this time, rather than focus on a large pub estate, the company supported itself with a push into supplying supermarkets, and an ambitious move into exports which saw Cain’s beers on sale in the United States, and more recently Asia. The quality of the beer at home in Liverpool, most pundits agree, took a dive.

Unfortunately, neither of those outlets seems to have been enough. The squeeze on consumer incomes, high commodity prices, and a depressed economy made already tight margins on supermarket beer unsustainable. As we discovered this week, with production at the brewery stopped, Cain’s was not competitive as a budget brewer. Nor was it producing beer to high enough quality, or of sufficient interest, for the booming ‘craft’ market. The consequence of such failure, of course, is a human one, counted in the misery of unemployment in a city with few enough jobs as it is.

Yet despite all the mis-steps, misinformation and marketing flim-flam, despite the effect all this had on my own livelihood, I still have some sympathy for the Dusanjs. Over the past half century many brewers and managers have tried to make Robert Cain’s brewery profitable, with varying degrees of success. The fact that it was in production until only a week or so ago is a testament to the effort put in against the odds by the current owners. Looking back over the many articles about Cains over the past decade one thing becomes clear: the Dusanj brothers wanted to build a regional brewery to compete with the likes of Thwaites, J.W Lees, and Moorhouses. That they have failed in the worst economic conditions for 100 years should not be held against them. I will no doubt take some flak for that view, but there it is. Of course what most object to, myself included, is the ruthless and seemingly unprincipled manner in which they have been seen to do business, particularly in 2008. Few people other than Lord Young openly admire callousness in business, but as the example of Brewdog shows, they don’t mind so much when it comes wrapped in a squirrel and giggling into its overpriced pint. Perhaps the Dusanj brothers’ mistake is not that they have hidden their private ambitions, but that their motives have been all too much in evidence. For example, until 2011 the Independent Family Brewers of Britain, at least, thought they were just not the right sort.

The story of the historic brewery takes up most of my book, but is naturally overshadowed by the drama of the Dusanj-era final chapter. I have no intention of returning to the subject in print–the Robert Cain period is far more interesting to me–but the new plan for the site is to make a market-style ‘brewery village’, a retail and residential complex which also includes a small-scale ‘craft’ brewery. Whether the Dusanj brothers will be able to raise the £50 million required to do this is debatable. I still think there is a role here for a bigger brewer, either as owner of the Cain’s brand, or perhaps even taking over the brewery itself. What seems more likely is that property speculators will move in and, after more than 200 years, brewing on the site will cease for good. After speaking with the Dusanj brothers during the crisis of 2008 I got the feeling they would have sold up and left then if they could. I think that time could well be soon.

Update, May 16, 2013: The Liverpool Daily Post is reporting that brewing has been declared ‘not viable or sustainable’ at Cain’s by the board. The workers are being treated very badly too. According to the article Sudarghara Dusanj has refused to pay redundancy compensation or back pay, instead referring now former employees to the Redundancy Payment Service. That is usually what happens when a company is insolvent. If that isn’t the case, or there is another Dusanj company waiting to step in, then it is a cynical move to  sidestep responsibilities and pass them on to the taxpayer.

Here’s the final chapter of my book again.

Please note. Back in 2008 quite a few comments about the Dusanj brothers on this blog had to be edited or deleted because they were libellous. If you want to comment be nice and be careful.