BBC News

Brains 'is the taste of Cardiff, it's in our DNA'

By Peter Shuttleworth
BBC News

Published
media captionBrains has brewed beer in Cardiff for almost 140 years

What pies are to Melton Mowbray or Guinness to Ireland is how the Welsh capital feels about its famous brewery.

"It's Brains You Want" screams the slogan, but now Cardiff is in danger of losing its "iconic" brand after almost 140 years of brewing by the River Taff.

"Nothing else says Cardiff more than a pint of Brains, it's iconic to this city," said Cardiff writer and poet Peter Finch.

The 138-year-old family-owned brewery is among Wales' most notable brands.

Brains Beer was on rugby shirts when Wales won two Grand Slams while Welsh rockers Super Furry Animals were pictured in front of one Cardiff's "Brains bridges" for their first album back in the 1990s.

But restrictions in the hospitality sector during the coronavirus pandemic caused Brains "significant financial pressure" and it was announced before Christmas that rival pub chain Marston's was to take over 156 pubs in a bid to save 1,300 jobs.

Now the firm's chief executive has said talks have also started on closing its new central brewery in Cardiff and consultation had started on up to 80 job losses.

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image captionPrince William opened Brains' new brewery in Cardiff in 2019
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image captionBrains sponsored the Wales rugby team when they won their first Grand Slam in 27 years in 2005
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image captionThere are bridges across Cardiff made synonymous by their Brains advertising slogans

"Brains is built into our culture, it's in Cardiff's DNA," said Mr Finch, author of unorthodox travel guide Real Cardiff.

Few may know that a brand so synonymous with Cardiff was started by a man born in Bristol.

But Samuel Arthur Brain seemed destined for a career in beer when he married the daughter of a brewery owner in 1872.

He was running Cardiff's Phoenix Brewery when he bought the Old Brewery on St Mary Street - in an area in the city centre now known as the Brewery Quarter - from his brother-in-law in 1882, along with his uncle Joseph Benjamin Brain.

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image captionThe old Brains brewery once dominated the Cardiff skyline

Mr Brain was also a justice of the peace and later became mayor of Cardiff as his new business grew - going from 100 barrels of beer a week for 11 pubs to 1,000 barrels for 80 pubs inside 20 years.

Brains was one of a number of Welsh breweries that boomed - along with Wrexham Lager and Felinfoel Brewery near Llanelli, which was the UK's first brewery to produce and sell beer in cans.

Brains' beers were ingrained into Welsh life as SA, Brains Dark, Brains Bitter and The Rev James became the beverage of choice in bars and pubs across south Wales.

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image captionBetween 80-85% of Brains' beer is sold through pubs, mostly across south Wales

"It was the first pint after work, the first, second and seventh pints after the rugby match and the prime lubrication for the male voice choirs," Brian Glover wrote in his history of Cardiff Pubs and Breweries.

"It dominated the drinking culture of the city for decades. It was soaked into the streets."

Brains remained in the family for more than 135 years - with 10 family members serving as chairman over the years - and the current chairman John Rhys is the great-grandson of Samuel Arthur Brain.

"Having breweries in the city centre, Brains is omnipresent in Cardiff," said Mr Finch.

"You can see it, you can smell it and it was the standard beer in the pubs of Cardiff. You used to get off the train and there it was - the smell and the name Brains on the huge chimney stack.

"When I was a child, you could smell something which my mother always told me was coffee being ground as she didn't like to have her city tainted by the fact the centre smelled of beer!"

image captionThe first Brains brewery in 1882 was in Cardiff city centre

After taking over Crown Buckley's brewery in Llanelli in the 1990s, Brains moved production to the former Hancock's Brewery site next to Cardiff Central railway station in 2000 - giving it prime marketing potential as people arrived into the capital.

"When you describe the Cardiff accent you say 'I'm going to Caaaaardiff Arms Paaaaark for a pint of daaaaark' - so that doesn't work if Brains doesn't exist in Cardiff anymore," said Mr Finch.

"Taking Brains out of Cardiff would be like taking the pies out of Melton Mowbray or Guinness out of Ireland - it has huge cultural significance to the city."

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image captionFormer Prime Minister David Cameron visited Brains' old Cardiff brewery on the 2015 election trail

An alcohol ban in pubs and restaurants in Wales, which started on 4 December, and subsequent hospitality shutdowns across the UK due to a surge in Covid-19 cases has been "absolutely brutal" for Brains, according to their chief executive.

"Brains is a beer that you drink in the pub," said Mr Finch.

"You didn't buy it in cans in a supermarket - although you can now - the notion was you go into a pub, drink Brains out of glass surrounded by people socialising.

"That may be part of Brains' downfall as hospitality shutdowns means going to the pub is being replaced by buying cans in Tesco - which is not what having a Brains is about."

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image captionBrains sponsored the Welsh rugby team for six years and two Grand Slams

It is not clear where Brains would be brewed if its Cardiff brewery is closed, but Marston's has several breweries in England, including Burton-on-Trent, Wolverhampton, Oxfordshire and Hampshire.

"Brains is a bit of a south Wales phenomenon - there's a myth that it didn't travel" added Mr Finch.

"You only saw it in pubs in Cardiff and the further away you'd go, the less likely you were to see it - although I did find a Brains bar in Brittany once.

"So it would seem strange if it was brewed outside south Wales because the taste of Brains is the taste of Cardiff."

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image captionBrains has had pubs in Cardiff for more than 135 years

One marketing expert thinks Brains "fell into to trap" of not being either a major global brewer or a "boutique-style niche brewer".

"They're stuck in the middle somewhere," said Prof Jonathan Deacon of University of South Wales.

"You're either that big that you can compete globally.... or you become a niche player, where they are producing small volume but highly original, usually with a quirky twist, that really amplifies the people behind the brewers.

"When you're stuck in the middle, you have very few places to go."

image captionBrains beer has been described as "the taste of Cardiff"

Prof Deacon said a change towards "funky localised brands" and "lager over beer" hasn't helped Brains but the firm has "lots of opportunity" if it is forced to leave Cardiff.

"They need to ensure the story they're telling about Brains brewey is one of heritage and maybe not necessarily anchored to a Cardiff-centric brand. You could brew elsewhere with the heart of Wales in the bottle."

Related Topics

  • Coronavirus lockdown measures
  • Melton Mowbray
  • Wales business
  • Pubs
  • Beer
  • Cardiff

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