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 Pint, the 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.
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?
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.
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.
There seem to be three main, and sometimes overlapping, trends in the self-image of British brewers: the traditional, the modern, and the ill-advised. Of these, the older brewers usually go for the first. They like to be seen as brewers of traditional ales, and it helps to let everyone know just how long they have been doing it. Some examples are brewers such as Young’s (1831), Fuller’s (1845), and Daniel Thwaites (1807), but there are many others keen to make the point that they have been around for a very long time. Shepherd Neame proudly declares itself Britain’s oldest brewer, trumping them all with the date “1698”, but hinting that brewing has been going on in their home town of Faversham much longer than that. Who would have thought it?
Cain’s, Liverpool’s biggest, and of late most controversial, brewer has the phrase “Established 1850” positioned prominently on its branding. That was the year that founder Robert Cain bought his first brewery, in Limekiln Lane; he bought the current brewery, on the other side of the city, as a going concern in 1858. When I was writing my book about Robert Cain and his brewery the question of how old the brewery is came up a lot, and I was unable to find a definitive answer. So I was only mildly surprised to hear yesterday from Sudarghara Dusanj from Cain’s, asking if I could tell him definitively how long there had been a brewery on the current site. Here’s what I wrote in my book:
“Cain bought the Stanhope Street brewery from George Hindley, the vicar of St. George’s Church, Everton. George and Robert Hindley had inherited the brewery from their father. After his father’s death Robert Hindley had tried and failed to make the brewery a success and was followed by Messrs. Hyde and Rust, brewers, who rented the premises but lasted only a few months before they were forced out of business. Soon after acquiring the brewery Cain set about modernizing and improving his investment:
“During the first two years of Mr. Cain’s occupancy all the old brewing utensils and machinery were taken out and replaced with the most modern appliances. The place was thus carried on for some years when further increase of business necessitated an extension. This was effected by purchasing some of the adjoining property called ‘Cotter’s Terrace’ and throwing it into the brewery. An old building, containing offices and a warehouse, which originally stood in the yard was removed, and a new building, fronting Stanhope-street, was erected in its place. From the earliest time in Stanhope-street till the present moment Mr. Cain has been adding to and improving his brewing plant and machinery, and everything new which comes out and which is better than older machinery he buys without hesitation.”(Liverpool Review, September 17, 1887)
Cain’s willingness to keep up with developments and his commitment to relentless expansion and ‘improvement’ made the brewery a success where others floundered. The brewery itself had been bought by ‘old Mr. Hindley’ as a going concern 72 years earlier in 1786 so its long-term viability was not in doubt. But knowing its recent history of failure, Cain must have been very confident in his own ability to make it work. He was certainly helped by Liverpool’s own growing success story.”
That was the best I could do at the time, concluding that there had been a brewery on the Stanhope Street site since at least 1786, which is actually quite impressive. But after my conversation yesterday, the following snippet jumped out at me from something I was reading for my book on William Scoresby. This is from James Picton’s Memorials of Liverpool, published in 1873:
Returning to St. James’s Church, I will now ask the courteous reader to accompany me in a walk along the Old Park Road. This road, with Smithdown Lane, Lodge Lane, and the eastern part of Ullet Lane, down to 1775 were the only roads in the township. The house and outbuildings at the corner of Stanhope Street — now greatly metamorphosed — were built in 1775, about the time when Harrington was planned out. They were long the residence of Lord Sefton’s land-agent. In 1803 three houses had been built on the west side, near the corner of Mill Street, With this exception, and one or two shortly to be mentioned, no houses existed in the entire length of the road.
Swire’s Map of Liverpool, based on a survey made in 1823 and 1824, shows the area looking like this (click for a large version in another tab):
I’ve outlined in yellow the area referred to above as “Harrington” which, before the street layout was settled in 1775, was open fields and parkland, belonging to Lord Sefton. Until 1775 it was even beyond the limits of the town of Liverpool, which at that time reached only as far as Parliament Street, the borough boundary (marked by my vertical yellow line). I have also indicated on the map the site of Cain’s brewery, on Stanhope Street, and from this we can conclude that brewing on the site began some time between 1775 and 1786, but certainly no earlier than that. It makes it one of the oldest brewing sites in (more or less) continuous use in Britain, but the marketing department at Shepherd Neame can relax.
At a family gathering at the weekend I was asked what the difference is between Porter and Stout. This is a common question, and one I’ve always answered by suggesting Porter is usually, but not always, lighter coloured, less alcoholic, and sweeter than ales labelled ‘Stout’. Having drunk Stouts that might have been Porters, and Porters that might have been Stouts, I’ve never been entirely convinced that they were actually all that different, or confident that my attempt to differentiate them really worked. A little digging turned up this 2009 piece on Martin Cornell’s excellent Zythophile blog, in which he traces the parallel histories of Porters and Stouts, showing exactly that uncertainty. Interestingly, he begins his piece by saying that this question is one of the top ten search terms leading visitors to his site:
I’m not sure that there was ever a point, even when porter was at its most debased, when you could point to any truly distinctive difference between porter and stout except to say that “stout” meant a stronger version of porter. Indeed, for much of the past 300 years, to ask “what’s the difference between porter and stout?” would have been like asking “what’s the difference between dogs and Rottweilers?”
The extract above, from the ledger of the brewer at Liverpool’s Cains brewery, on Stanhope Street in 1867, confirms that Porter was, and is, a kind of Stout. Here the brewer begins by saying that on March 2nd 1867 he brewed a “XXXX Porter” using a combination of pale, brown, and black malts, but his closing statement gives it away: this was “a good fermentation and excellent Stout”. Perhaps a brewer might like to comment on the hops used in this brew: 130lb of Hereford (1865) and 130lb of Kent (1856). That’s not a misprint: brews in this ledger often include hops a decade old, or older.
So the answer to the question seems to be that Porter is a kind of Stout, but that what makes a Porter Porter (and not Stout), is open to interpretation. Is that clear now?
The Liverpool Daily Post is reporting today that local brewer Cains is hoping to seal an export deal to the United States in the New Year. Cains announced earlier in the autumn that it would be exporting Cains Export Lager to China and further export opportunities would help safeguard the brewer’s future after a difficult couple of years.
I am struck by how different this business model is from the one Cains operated until its collapse in 2008. In 2007, when I was researching my book about the brewery and its long history, I asked owners Ajmail and Sudarghara Dusanj about their plans and they praised the way Sam Adams had become an international American brand. Back then in the era of cheap easy money, booming property prices and willing banks, the Dusanjs were understandably keen to become a significant regional brewer with national reach here in the UK. The result of their subsequent rapid expansion into and equally rapid withdrawal from pub estate ownership doesn’t need repeating. What is interesting now is that like other small upstart regional brewers the company’s concentration on its core business–brewing beer–is enabling its expansion in ways that avoid the high costs and risks associated with property and estates management. From the Post article:
Liverpool brewer Cains is in talks with several major US importers and hopes to clinch a US export deal early in the new year.
The Toxteth-based firm expects to reap the rewards of a trade mission it took part in this September, when joint managing director Sudarghara Dusanj attended a key Las Vegas brewing convention, supported by the government-backed export agency UK Trade and Investment (UKTI) and regeneration agency Liverpool Vision.
His aim during the trade mission was to spread the word among American importers about Cains’ famous brewing heritage. [More]
Back in 2006 when I first met Sudarghara and Ajmail Dusanj at the Robert Cain brewery in Liverpool they expressed admiration for the Samuel Adams brewery in Boston, Mass., in particular for the way that small operation had managed to become internationally recognised. Then in March this year, after a tumultuous twelve months, they announced they were making a bid to become an exporter. And now comes the news that Cains is attending the National Beer Wholesalers’ Association convention in Las Vegas, with the aim of exporting Cains Export Lager to the United States. I hope they also take along a few copies of my book.
On Tuesday The Daily Telegraph published a strange little piece on Cain’s brewery and the aftermath of the company’s collapse last year. I say strange because I’m not quite sure what the point of it might be for the paper. From the point of view of the brewery it floats the new, healthy-sounding turnover of £30 million–no mention of profits though–and the idea that the brewery is finally back on the road to recovery, which is good news. To me this feels more like a marketing pitch than a news story, but there is also a small personal insight into what the Dusanj brothers went through in the days after they were sent home by the administrators:
“The Olympics started the next day on 08. 08. 08. I’ll never forget that. I watched most of it,” he says. But his enforced bout of TV watching proved cathartic.“I listened to all these stories about sportsmen who get big knock-backs but they believe in what they have and come back,” he explains.
He and his brother Ajmail decided to give things another go and bought much of Cains from Pricewaterhouse- Coopers, its administrator, later in the summer.
Today the group is smaller and humbler than it was. It has just nine pubs and fewer staff. A number of old customers are gone, but many have stood by the company and there are new ones too. Turnover this year should be £30m, just over half of what it was but still a sizeable amount.
Here’s the link to the Telegraph piece again. And speaking of marketing pitches, there’s a lot more about Cains and its fascinating 160-year history in my book Cains: The Story of Liverpool in a Pint.
There were a couple of interesting stories in the brewing trade paper The Morning Advertiser yesterday that I think are related. The first is about research that shows Britons are ignorant about cask beer:
Londoners know the least about cask beer — 20% think it is a type of lager and 7% think it is a canned or bottled lager. While Yorkshire folk are the most knowledgeable with 60% aware that it is only available in pubs.
The other story, from the Sir Shannon Alberry Blog, asks Where did it all go wrong for pubs? and describes the way young adult drinkers have been shunned by publicans afraid of being caught out serving underage customers:
[Big Phil] told me that his younger son, 19 and about to go to university and a bit of a social lad and who actually works a few shifts for me here, is in a real party phase as he waits to go off on a round the world pre-university tour.
So he is catching up with his other mates — all are good lads and are either at university or on their way. Big Phil said: “you’ve lost them”. He said for whatever reason pubs really mean nothing to them. He pointed out that one evening when he got home his son and his mates (there were 6 of them) were about to go out clubbing — it was about 9.30pm. They had met at his house and Big Phil noticed that they left behind two (empty) bottles of vodka — both the cheapest varieties from Tesco’s and Sainsbury’s. Big Phil, always keen to reinforce his view, continued: “not only have you lost them now but you’ve probably lost them, and their generation, for ever”.
If this is an accurate picture of the way things are–and it has a ring of general truth about it–then that same generation of drinkers is going to continue to be ignorant of how good quality ales can be.
And talking of quality, the revival of Cains brewery after the debacle of last summer seems to be coming on with the news today that their export lager has been awarded the red tractor mark, for food quality. From the Cains website:
Cains Export has become the first lager to be awarded the Assured Food Standards ‘Red Tractor’ logo.
The prize-winning lager is made from some of the country’s finest malt and hops and will now be able to carry the Red Tractor symbol to reassure consumers of its qualities.
Cains Export is made only from UK ingredients that have to undergo rigorous independent inspection to ensure they meet the highest standards of hygiene, food safety and quality. [Link]
I’m not really a lager drinker, but Cains lager is one of the few I would go out of my way to find on a hot summer’s day.