As the dust settles on the shock sale of Charles Wells' Bedford brewery and brands to Marston's for £55 million, the key question hangs in the air: Is there a future for Britain's dwindling band of family brewers?

Wells, founded in 1876, has effectively "done a Thwaites".

In 2015, the Blackburn family-run company closed its brewery and sold its key brands to Marston's. Thwaites now has a micro plant producing small run beers for its 300 pubs and Wells plans to follow suit.

Chairman Paul Wells says a new plant producing around 30,000 barrels a year will be opened within the next two years to supply its 200 pubs.

But the main Wells' brands – Bombardier, Courage Best and Directors, McEwan's, Kirin, Estrella Dam, Erdinger, Founder's and Young's – will be owned and brewed by Marston's at the Eagle Brewery, built in Bedford in 1976.

 

 

Wells' chief executive Justin Phillimore says the £55 million from Marston's will be ploughed into its pub estate, which he plans to expand. This will include partnership deals with specialist small pub and catering groups such as those already in place with Tim Foster, Anthony Pender, Steve Wilkins and Chris Gerard.

There are now fewer than 30 family breweries left in Britain and some of them will be taking a long, hard look at the Thwaites' and Wells' deals and wondering if they should go down the same route.

It's no secret that several small family brewers, faced by increased competition from both bigger breweries and small craft producers, are wondering whether brewing is worth the candle and they should concentrate instead on running their pubs and allowing the likes of Marston's to make beer for them.

The problem with family brewers becoming pub companies is that it hands frightening power to a handful of giant brewers. Marston's now owns not only Charles Wells' brewery and brands but Banks's, Jennings, Mansfield, Ringwood and Thwaites. Greene King, no slouches in brewery takeovers, has Belhaven, Hardys & Hansons, Morland and Ruddles in its portfolio. Molson Coors has turned Sharp's into a national brand and these three companies now dominate, to a frightening degree, ale brewing in Britain.

Cynics say Marston's, in the long run, will close the Wells' Bedford brewery and transfer production to either Burton or Wolverhampton. I doubt it. Marston's has a good track record of keeping breweries it has acquired open.

But, inevitably, when ownership changes, recipes are tweaked and the flavours of much-loved beers become subtly – or not so subtly - different.

Britain's family brewers are under threat and so are their much-loved beers. As the man said, "You ain't seen nothing yet."