Some clues can perhaps be gleaned from a recent report on the industry by Premier Equity who produce advice for stock exchange investors. The picture they paint is a pretty gloomy one. They stress the point that the four recent takeovers were not aggressive; the companies concerned effectively offered themselves on a plate to the highest bidder because they saw poor prospects for small companies like themselves being able to grow in the current market.
Ridleys is a classic example of the problem facing the smaller regional brewer. In the year to September 2004, they achieved an operating margin of just 3.3% (operating margins are a good measure of the financial health of a company - Greene King for instance managed 21.3% and Wolverhampton/Dudley 24.5%). They also had a clapped out brewery which needed huge investment to make it more efficient. Hence the bald statement of their ex-Chairman "Ridleys needs to become part of a larger group".
So, who amongst our local brewers, might also be under threat? Charles Wells with its 266 pubs and turnover of more than £110 million a year is big enough to be safe. Adnams is less than half the size and only managed an 8.2% operating margin; however it has been investing heavily in its brewery recently and the family who control it are a determined lot who seem completely committed to retaining their independence. Elgoods must cause some concern given their small size and the rural settings of many of their pubs. They are trying hard to increase their presence in the free trade and the quality of their beers is excellent. What, however, are their prospects for growth? The same goes, perhaps to a lesser extent, for McMullens of Hertford, the majority of whose 132 pubs are in the vulnerable managed sector.
The biggest worries must surround that wonderful Lincolnshire brewer, Batemans. Their operating margin (3.1%) was even worse than Ridleys and they too have a largely rural estate. Again, the family is truly redoubtable and will hopefully fight to stay independent, but it must be increasingly hard for them.
The Premier Equity report suggests that one way forward for the remaining "family" brewers is mergers with each other. There were rumours flying about last year, presumably unfounded, that Adnams and Batemans might be going down that route. The prospect is not a happy one because merger inevitably means rationalisation and therefore more brewery closures.
The other factor in all of this is the growth of the micro-brewers. Some, like Woodforde's, now brew more than the smaller family brewers and are squeezing them accordingly. Will some of these concerns become attractive takeover propositions themselves? Up in Scotland we've just seen the award-winning Harviestown brewery sold to the larger Caledonian brewery (though the Harviestown plant will continue to brew).
What can we, as real ale drinkers, do about all this? Well, the best thing is to drink lots of beer from the smaller brewers - the more financially successful they are, the less vulnerable they become. The bonus is that the likes of Elgoods, Batemans, McMullens and Adnams all brew brilliant beers so lending such support should be no hardship!