Does Ringwood’s demise prove cask is in decline?
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The Carlsberg Marston’s tour of destruction rolls on with the beer-and-pubs juggernaut announcing the closure of its Ringwood plant in Hampshire.
Six months ago, the group said it was putting the brewery up for sale. But despite interest shown by potential buyers, CMBC will now close the plant in January with its cask ales transferred to Wolverhampton and Burton-on-Trent.
Now Ringwood joins the funeral pyre and important brewing history goes up in the flames. It was launched in 1978 by Peter Austin, known as “the father of the British beer revolution”.
It was one of the first small independent breweries to challenge the domination of the national giants and it put microbrewing on the map when its Old Thumper ale won the prestigious CAMRA Champion Beer of Britain award in 1988.
Ringwood brewery, in a market town of the same name on the edge of the New Forest, started life in an old bakery but its success led to it moving to a bigger site in 1986 on Christchurch Road. By 2013 production had increased to 42,000 barrels a year and it caught the attention of national brewer Marston’s. The Burton brewer has strong roots in the area, with a depot in Winchester and its beers on sale in many pubs, and in 2007 it consolidated its base in the region by buying Ringwood for £19.2m.
In 2013 it reduced the strength of Old Thumper from 5.6 per cent ABV to 5.1, a sharp drop that, while reducing the malt and hops character of the beer, saved a large amount in excise duty.
Production of Ringwood bottled beers was transferred to Banks’s and Marston’s in Wolverhampton and Burton and there were uncorroborated rumours that some draught production was also moved from Ringwood.
As a result of the CMBC merger, Ringwood was placed on the market in early 2023. The two main reasons given by the group was the decline in the cask beer market and the position of the brewery in a residential area that made expansion difficult.
This poses the question: if the cask beer market is “in decline” why would CMBC want to expand production at Ringwood?
The answers are that cask is only in decline if you don’t promote it. Large regional brewers such as Timothy Taylor and Robinson’s report their sales of cask are back to pre-Covid levels. Smaller brewers such as Hogs Back in Surrey have a similar success story to tell.
It’s a different situation in Ringwood. Anthony Swift, who created a consortium of investors keen to buy Ringwood, told the Salisbury Chronicle the closure was a “catastrophe”.
He added: “There’s been no support for the brands. Local sponsorship of events such as the New Forest Show and the Great Dorset Steam Fair have been cancelled.
“Ten years ago, Ringwood was operating with a capacity of 42,000 barrels a year. Since then, it has lost 75 per cent of its production.”
The case that Ringwood can’t expand as it’s in a residential area doesn’t hold water. When the brewery transferred to the current site, it was on grounds previously occupied by Tunks brewery in the 19th century. There are no records of opposition to the sighting of Tunks in a residential area by either local homeowners or the council.
There was a railway goods yard in the area, which would have made more noise than a brewery. When Ringwood moved to Christchurch Road in 1986, it developed it as an “eco-conscious site that took into account the needs of the local people and the environment”.
CMBC says it has received “no acceptable offers” for the brewery, but it doesn’t say what price it has placed on Ringwood. It says production of cask beers Razorback, Fortyniner, Old Thumper and Boondoggle will be transferred to Banks’s.
But there’s a sting in the tail. Paul Davies, chief executive of CMBC, who comes from Carlsberg, said: “We are announcing our intention to put Ringwood brewery up for sale. This includes the rights for Ringwood’s well-loved ale brands.”
Well-loved but not enamoured of CMBC. These popular and award-winning beers could be bought by new owners and the recipes changed and even emasculated.
In the meantime, to prove where its priorities lie, CMBC is to invest £10m in its Carlsberg lager factory in Northampton to increase production.