04 December 2008

Historic Cork Brewery Beamish & Crawford will be closed in March by its new Owner Heineken

If you have waited for today's scandal from Ireland and wondered what it could be, you have to wait no longer. Here it is, with bad news from Cork.
It is not as large and significant as the scandals uncovered in previous days, but for an Irishman, and especially one who lives in the southern province of Munster, it is bad enough.

The giant international brewery group Heineken - originally a Dutch company - is to close the historic Beamish & Crawford brewery in Cork (photo above), which they recently acquired.

The closure is scheduled for next March and will also mean the loss of 120 local jobs in Ireland's second-largest city.
Production of the famous Beamish stout, which looks like Guinness but tastes better, will be transferred to one site at Heineken Ireland's brewery (formerly Murphy's Brewery) in Cork's Leitrim Street. Up to 40 employees from Beamish & Crawford will move to Heineken Ireland, while 120 others are losing their jobs.

In a statement Heineken Ireland has said today that it made the decision "following a review of both individual brewing operations with particular focus on capacity, expansion capability and future investment".

This is nonsense. The real reason is most likely the interest Heineken has in selling off the large Beamish & Crawford site in the city centre of Cork, which would be very lucrative for some new commercial development.

Heineken's Managing Director Gerrit van Loo said: "Retaining two breweries in Cork is not sustainable and the loss of so many jobs remains a sad but unavoidable outcome. We will do all we can to minimise the impact on people and the community. We have agreed comprehensive severance terms with the trade unions, we will provide outplacement support, including career counselling, job search training and pension advice to all departing staff."

This is a severe blow for Cork as a city, but even more so for the traditional culture and lifestyle in the south of Ireland.
While the other three provinces have long been dominated by the Dublin-brewed Guinness stout, Munster had always more diversity and choice in the beer market. Though Guinness is available here as well and has meanwhile a large share of the stout market, there were also the alternatives from Cork: Beamish and Murphy's. The latter has been taken over by Heineken years ago and became the core operation of Heineken Ireland. Ever since it has gradually lost its unique identity, character and special taste. Subsequently it also lost a lot of its market share and has become a real minority drink now, rarely to be found anywhere outside Cork city.

Until recently Beamish remained the only true alternative to the international beer giants, although it has been foreign-owned already since 1962.

The Beamish & Crawford brewery was founded in Cork city in 1792 by William Beamish and William Crawford. They purchased an existing brewery on a site in Cramer's Lane that had been producing beer at least since 1650, but probably began brewing already in the early 16th century. Which ever date one takes, it makes this brewery the oldest existing beer producer in Ireland, beating its arch rival Guinness by at least 109 years and perhaps even by 250.

The historic brewery is still situated on the same site in the heart of Cork's medieval city, close to the site of the city's South Gate. (The old Cramer's Lane is now South Main Street) .

Under Mssrs. Beamish and Crawford the brewery prospered, and by 1805 it had become the largest in Ireland and the third-largest in the United Kingdom as a whole, with an output of 100,000 barrels per annum, up from 12,000 barrels per annum in 1792.

In 1865 the brewery underwent a full modernisation programme. This cost the owners £ 100,000 (which was a huge fortune at a time when middle-class people could live comfortably on £ 100 a year).

Alfred Barnard, a renowned brewing and distilling historian, remarked in his book Noted Breweries of Great Britain & Ireland in 1889 that: "The business of Beamish & Crawford in Cork is a very old one, dating as far back as the seventeenth century, and it is said to be the most ancient porter brewery in Ireland".

The company went public in 1901 and issued a share capital of £ 480,000. Further expansion was aided by the acquisition of a number of smaller local breweries in the early 1900s.

Beamish & Crawford remained a strong and independent brewery and survived both world wars and two serious economic depressions without major problems.
It became famous in Ireland and beyond for its tasty stout (which is superior to Guinness and Murphy's, but was always sold a little cheaper in order to keep the old ties with the dockers and other working men intact) and also for 'Beamish Red', a lovely sweetish high quality ale that is lately only available in Cork. (It is a favourite drink with the Cricketers of Cork County CC and still on tap at their pavilion on the Mardyke.)

In 1962 Beamish & Crawford came under foreign ownership, when it was purchased by the Canadian brewing firm Carling-O'Keefe Ltd.
Even though the new owners embarked on a modernisation programme at the brewery, the take-over meant the end of a 170-year tradition and it started a slow but steady process of decline.
In 1987 the brewing group Elders IXL purchased Canadian Breweries (incorporating Carling-O'Keefe) and eight years later they sold the Cork brewery to Scottish & Newcastle, brewers of the famous 'Newcastle Brown Ale', the favourite drink of north-east England.
For them Beamish & Crawford was always only a side-show, and thus there was not much new investment in modern technology.
In addition to their own products, Beamish & Crawford now brew or distribute also a number of internationally known brands of foreign beer. They hold the Irish franchises for Carling, Fosters, Kronenberg 1664 and Miller.

Earlier this year Scottish & Newcastle, already a very large company, was taken over by an even larger rival, the Dutch brewing giant Heineken International. And with that move Beamish joined its local rival Murphy's as one of the many minority beers in the ever growing portfolio of Heineken International.

The planned closure of the Beamish & Crawford plant in the city centre might well make some commercial sense for the managers and share holders of Heineken, but for the people of Cork and many others in Ireland it is a severe blow. It comes - to make things worse - at a time of severe recession, when every job is vital for a recovery.
By closing the historic brewery on South Main Street, Heineken is committing an act of cultural vandalism that shows ignorance for our Irish traditions and contempt for the people of Cork.

I have no power to stop this, even though I wish I had. And I am not even a great drinker of beer. But now and then - in the right company - I might have a few pints like almost everyone else here in Ireland.
I will make sure that from now on not a drop of Heineken will ever again pass my lips, as a personal act of protest against the ruthless cultural vandalism of Heineken International.

You might think that such a personal protest is futile and makes no difference to a giant like Heineken. And you are probably right.
But I will still do it, in the same way that I have not used any airline in more than 18 years, not been to any fast food outlet for more than 40 years, never use any products from Nestle and Kellogg's, and not buy anything made in the USA since George W. Bush occupied the White House unelected in 2001.
I do have my principles, and one of them is not to give any money to people and companies who abuse their political or commercial power. Heineken has just joined this group, and it is a sad development. They used to be a decent Dutch brewery, but that seems now a very long time ago.

The Emerald Islander

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