13 September 2005

Hands off Coopers

by Matt Rubinstein at 7:18 am

coopers.jpgThere can be very few brands to which I am as loyal as I am to the Coopers family of ales, lagers and stouts. These guys can do very little wrong, as far as I’m concerned. Sure, they could have kept the apostrophe, but since it’s their trademark I’m willing to let them do what they like with it—and imagine if we had to write “Cooper’s’s marketing strategy” and so on. Even their light beer isn’t too bad—for that matter, even their alcohol-free beer is drinkable, if you’re a space-shuttle pilot or stuck on a desert island (or both).

Many are the reasons for my loyalty to this fine selection of what may generically be called beers. One is that I learned to drink beer in South Australia, where the Coopers is as bountiful as the Tooheys and VB are here, and often cheaper. You can get it all on tap everywhere, magnificent beer fonts bristling with every kind of Coopers spigot from draught to stout. It’s great.

Now that I’m in Sydney I’ll still always go for a Sparkling or a Pale if they’re on tap, and usually if they’re in bottles—particularly now that the Hospitality Industry is catching on to the benefits of rolling. They’re great-tasting full-bodied beers and they’re made without additives or preservatives. Some people complain about the sediment but I think it shows that you’re drinking a real drink that results from natural processes. The marketing has been clever—particularly the brilliant “Cloudy but fine” tag—but understated, and the old-school packaging gives the impression of substance over style.

Beyond all this, I must say that in recent years my devotion to Coopers has been deepened by the fact that it is not owned by either of the regional beverage giants Foster’s Group or Lion Nathan Limited.

Now, I’m not one of these people who think that a corporate structure or stock-exchange listing is an automatic short-cut to global destruction and a place in the newly-constructed circles of Hell. But I do think that, particularly in the case of food and drink, concentrated ownership tends to encourage a certain homogeneity, a kind of blandness; whereas diverse and independent ownership allows more character and more innovation. The chilli sauces made by Masterfoods are kind of sweet and bland, for example; but Beerenberg’s chilli sauce can kill you. Yes, there are some fine products made by big corporations—those chilli or wasabi Kettle chips ultimately attributable to the Campbell Soup Company are pretty good, though I swear they’ve been toned down lately—but you can almost always get something tastier, more interesting, and certainly better for you up the road.

As well as the beer that bears its name, Foster’s Group now produces such brands as Victoria Bitter, Crown Lager, Carlton Cold, Carlton Draught and Cascade Premium Lager. It imports Corona and Asahi and makes loads of wine under the Penfolds, Rosemount Estate, Lindemans, Wolf Blass and Wynns Coonawarra labels. Lion Nathan owns all the Tooheys, XXXX, West End, Southwark, Hahn and James Squire brands, and brews Heineken, Beck’s and Kirin here in Australia. Its wines include Petaluma, Tatachilla, Knappstein and St Hallett. And now it’s after Coopers.

Yes, on 1 September 2005 Lion Nathan announced an off-market offer to buy all the shares in Coopers Brewery Limited at $260 each, valuing the company at $352 million. Coopers has something like 117 shareholders, most of whom are somehow connected with the Cooper family. Lion Nathan acquired 19.9% of the shares through its 1993 purchase of the South Australian Brewing Company, but gave them up in 1995 in exchange for some pre-emptive rights, which have been the subject of several legal stoushes since. Now it wants to buy the lot.

Lion Nathan reckons their bid of $260 per share is pretty reasonable, considering the Cooper family priced a buyback at $45.01 just two years ago. The Coopers Board, bless it, has recommended that shareholders reject the offer, for reasons that will become clear when Coopers files its target statement with ASIC. It has also announced that it might match Lion Nathan’s offer, which it has the pre-emptive rights to do, and is getting the Takeovers Panel and probably the ACCC involved. Unfortunately, there are reports of various divisions within the now-fifth-generation Cooper family, which could result in a bunch of shares winding up with Lion Nathan.

It will be clear to all of you by now that I personally would prefer that this didn’t happen. Coopers claims to be the only surviving family-owned brewery in Australia; certainly it is the most significant. There are some brilliant small brewers around the place, like Scharers of Picton and even the Lord Nelson in the city. But since J Boag & Son was acquired by San Miguel in 2000, there hasn’t been a widely-available independent domestic beer apart from the best beer of all: Coopers. Does it matter? I think it does. If the takeover does go through, I’m going to have to buy up all the family-brewed Coopers I can and drink it for as long as it lasts. And after that I’ll only be able to drink at the Australian (which has Scharer’s), the Lord Nelson (which has Three Sheets) or the Royal Oak (which for some reason has both). Which, come to think of it, wouldn’t be such a bad thing, if socially limiting.

Would the takeover of Coopers by Lion Nathan affect your drinking habits or even just make you nostalgic for better days? Let me know.

3 Responses to “Hands off Coopers”

  1. peter alexander Says:

    I’m with you mate, if Lion nathan or anyone else buys Coopers then its back to the scotch for me!
    I grew up in Kensington around the corner from the old brewery site with years of inhaling the smell of hopps so Coopers is the only beer that makes me feel at home even though I now live in Darwin.

  2. Daniella Says:

    I come from 2 generations of Leabrook and region residents (and then my generation spent a large amount of time there) living across the road from the old brewery site (Gran used to call her house the Brewery Cottage)and as with the previous author, the smell of hopps takes me right back there. My Mum and uncle grew up with two of the Coopers boys and we’ve watched with delight as Coopers brews have taken off around Australia. Here’s hoping it stays within the family!

  3. Paul Brecht Says:

    G-day Matt,Yer Im a Coopers home brewer but also drink It @ the pub when Im there,I hope the Cooper family hold out against Lion Nathan as Im boycotting any Jap products because of the whaling,cheers Paul

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