The rise and fall of a Manchester icon: How brewery problems sent Boddingtons into decline

By Darren Heath

There are a number of things that come to mind when you think of the great symbols of Manchester. 

The Manchester bee, symbolic of Manchester’s leading role in the Industrial Revolution, the ship canal and the canal system, built to enforce Manchester’s position as an economic powerhouse in the nineteenth century – leaving a few Liverpudlians in the doldrums in its wake.

Manchester United, known and supported throughout the world and Boddingtons, the cream (some might say) of a non-too-shabby crop.

Three out of four of these have a palpable legacy.

The bee is prevalent everywhere you look in town: from the mosaic on the floor of the town hall to bollards and bins around the city. 

It is an emblem on the crest of HMS Manchester and the coat of arms of Manchester City Council, and it is thought to have popularised the saying ‘as busy as a bee’ the world over. 

The ship canal is a permanent reminder of Manchester’s prestigious past of being a world centre of industry and trade and Manchester United are Manchester United, known and supported the world over (although City may have recently upped ten gears and be looking to usurp their throne in the future).

But what of Boddingtons, brewed in the city since 1778?  The beer that, after the 90s ad campaign, became affectionately known as the Cream of Manchester.

The path to any substantial legacy here is a little rockier, and seems to have gone out with a whimper. 

The 90s ad campaign catapulted the brand (and Mel Sykes) to fame and was the birth of an icon. The ads captured the national imagination and were spoken of for years after the campaign waned – they still are. However, problems started soon after the year 2000 when AB-InBev acquired the brand. The twelve years since has been the story decline – a part of the city’s heritage deflated.

Award winning beer writer, Pete Brown, who worked on the ‘reassuringly expensive’ ad campaign for Stella Artois, and also writes the annual Cask Report (not to mention writing three books), is critical of AB-Inbevs strategy.

“InBev have a reputation for cutting costs and using cheaper ingredients,” he said. “It’s a dreadful shame that InBev don’t understand ale; they’d rather build up Stella, Becks and Bud.  Cask is quite fashionable, young hipsters are drinking it nowadays.”

The inability of AB-InBev to see this market trend is, according to Pete, because they still see cask as the preserve of the old fuddy-duddy beer anorak – unbearably niche. However, all the signs are pointing in the opposite direction with the cask report confirming that across the board casks distribution, market value and share are all up.

So why in the face of these figures have AB-Inbev refused to renew its contract with Hydes, putting the final nail in the coffin of Boddingtons calling Manchester home? Why has Boddingtons cask ceased production (for the time being at least)?

Paul King, CAMRA’s Brewery Liaison Officer for Hydes, might be able to offer some insight. 

“We understand that the Boddingtons brand has been ‘for sale’ by InBev for a number of years with no takers,” he said.  

“My personal opinion is that it will just ‘disappear’ and InBev have absolutely no interest in it.”

This gives weight to the fact that AB-InBev withdrew market support for the brand in 2006, and closed the doors of the Strangeways Brewery in 2005 – with the result of job losses – even though it was still profitable. It also gives an insight into InBevs intentions.

In July 2011, the then InBev UK president Stuart Macfarlane said that the brand was not dead, although they had not advertised it for five years. The company was still making money off it due to the success of the 90s ad campaign.

When asked if he thought that AB-InBevs plans for the brand were that of ‘managed decline’ (a common business strategy to ebb out the last dregs of profit of a brand they feel has had its day), Pete Brown replied: “I’m absolutely certain that’s what they would’ve done.”

Writing on his blog (which any discerning beer lover should read) he said: “I reserve particular ire for AB-Inbev because their relentless focus on cost-cutting is destroying some once decent brands.” 

And with the change of ingredients to Boddingtons cask which has been castigated across the board from CAMRA to the Times, it becomes hard to disagree.

John O’ Donnell, from the Trafford and Hulme CAMRA branch, said: “From the local CAMRA perspective, we unfortunately feel that what has been sold as Boddingtons in recent years is not a particularly good advert for cask ale, the recipe having been changed initially by Whitbread’s and then again by InBev to make it bland and lacking in flavour.” 

And in a statement which sums up the whole debacle, he added: “It’s a regrettable loss of a piece of Manchester’s brewing heritage but the battle on it was lost some time ago.”

The sad and unfortunate thing here is that it need not be the case. Cask production at the Marston brewery in Burton-Upon-Trent is thriving.

However, there remains hope as a AB-InBev spokesperson recently said that there may be life yet in the cask brand.

“Boddingtons is an important brand within our portfolio and we continue to invest in it. Last year we completed a redesign and pack refresh. Following Hyde’s decision to close their brewery at the current site, production of Boddingtons Cask ceased at the end of March. We are currently looking at alternative brewing partners. We would like to assure consumers and customers that we are looking at all viable options for future production.”

Whether this bodes well for Manchester brewing or its taste remains another thing.

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