I've blogged in the past about how Tetley's was my trainer beer, my local pint, and how even though its star has fallen, it retains a special place in my heart.
In 2008 Carlsberg UK announced that the brewery in Leeds would be closing. Today they've announced that from 2011, Marstons will brew Tetley's Cask in Wolverhampton, while Smoothflow will be brewed by Molson Coors in Tadcaster. Carlsberg say they are delighted that most of the volume brewed will be remaing in Yorkshire, and that with cask, they looked into every option for keeping it in Yorkshire but this proved not to be possible.
I've just had a chat with Darran Britton, Carlsberg UK's marketing director, and got a bit more background. I'll scribble down what he said first, and reserve some personal reflections till the end of this post.
The most contentious part of the whole deal is the move of cask out of Yorkshire. Was there really 'no other option?'
"It may not be as fashionable as it once was, but Tetley's is a still a very sizeable cask ale," replied Britton, "it needed somewhere with enough excess capacity. But it also needed someone who is experienced in brewing other people's beers, someone who is technically excellent."
Lots of names have been speculated - Black Sheep, Timothy Taylor's, Heineken (as in John Smith's in Tadcaster) but if you agree with those criteria - and it's hard not to - then it's difficult to disagree with the conclusion, however unpalatable it may be.
So why Marston's?
"They have a great reputation for their ales, and they're an experienced contract brewer. In Wolverhampton they have traditional square fermenters, which Tetley's has always been brewed in. We'll work with them to keep the same recipe, the same ingredients, and we'll continue using Tetley's unique two-strain yeast."
And what about Leeds? What are the plans for the brewery site?
"Production in Leeds will end mid-2011. We'll be transferring the brewing earlier in the year. We're in talks with Leeds council about their plans for the city, but there are no plans for the site yet."
Tetley's - like its counterparts Worthington's, John Smiths and Boddington's - has been in a phase of managed decline for several years now, ceding the cask ale market to regionals and local brewers. Now that cask ale is back in growth - tiny, tiny growth, but growth nonetheless - will this move coincide with renewed support behind the brand? To be clear, Carlsberg is retaining ownership of Tetley's for the foreseeable future, with Molson Coors and Marston's brewing on a contract basis. Despite this, I'm reminded of when Courage brands moved from S&N, who clearly didn't want them, to Well's & Young's, who did. In that case there was a change of ownership, but it saw the beers being revitalised to a dramatic extent. As I said, this move for Tetley's is different, but after reports of new investment and the return of the huntsman to the brand's identity, I wondered if this was a cue for somer kind of relaunch.
Britton refused to be drawn, saying more that this was "business as usual". Rather than there being any renewed energy behind the brand, he insisted that there wouldn't be any less support behind it, that investment will continue, and that there'll be a new sampling campaign later this year.
So there we go.
In my job, I get to see both sides of stories like this. Sometimes I'm with the marketers when difficult decisions have to be made, when the harsh realities of modern business and the demands of shareholders make unpalatable choices inevitable. Other times I get to be a beer fan, and to be able to say "Fuck the shareholders, this is beer we're talking about! A short term view not only betrays the core drinkers of the brand, it actually doesn't make sound business sense in the long view."
In this case, I'm torn. I am grief-stricken at what has happened to Tetley's, appalled that the link between the brand and the city of Leeds will be broken. ("Tetley's will always have a relationship with Leeds", insists Britton, but that relationship will only exist in an abstract, emotional sense). I'm frustrated that for one of the biggest beer brands in the country, Carlsberg seems unable to make the huge power of provenance and place of origin make commercial sense for them. Lots of people will say that Tetley's can never taste the same if it's brewed in Wolverhampton but I'm not one of them - it'll taste exactly the same. But it's not about that - it's about the story, the soul of the beer.
On the other hand, I feel we have to accept the commercial reality that it no longer makes business sense for big breweries to sit on lots of expensive land in city centres. We don't have to like it. We can rage against it. But that doesn't stop it from being true. It's difficult enough to make money in brewing.
I think that to fairly criticise Carlsberg for what they've announced today, you have to be able to suggest something they could have done instead.
Keeping the Leeds brewery open was not an option. Moving cask to another brewery in Yorkshire was - if we take Britton at his word - not an option.
The one thing I think may have been an option, and which I'm disappointed by, is not keeping a small part of the space in Leeds and continuing to brew cask there. Most of the land is a massive distribution centre, which would be way better somewhere else. It doesn't make much difference at all where Smoothflow is brewed and I'm not sure any0ne cares. But if you sold off all that lot, and kept hold of the old brewery bit or redeveloped a new purpose-built cask ale brewery for a few million quid, this could only have enhanced whatever plans Leeds will eventually have for the space (I'm guessing "luxury apartments" with the odd Starbucks and panini shop.) It would add heritage, character and romance, something uniquely Leeds, to what is sure to be a development that will look identical to any city in the UK. This would have sent the right signals to the ale community, given the city a stake, mollified hardcore Tetley's fans. Maybe they looked at this option and found reasons why it wasn't viable. Maybe not. But the fact that it is not happening is a crying shame.
I have no problem whatsoever with Marston's - they certainly know how to brew beer.
I think Britton is right - it will be business as usual. Nothing will change in the beer itself. And it has always been a decent cask pint, brewed with love and care, no matter what anyone thinks.
But I had hoped that this would be more than business as usual. It's emotional and sentimental because that's what beer is, but when Tetley's cask is no longer brewed in Leeds, I for one will have one less reason to drink the beer. I'd rather been hoping for new reasons to drink it instead. Sadly, I've heard nothing to suggest that there will be.