Thursday, 19 December 2013

A Tale of Good Cheer for Christmas

This Christmas I have been enjoying a wonderful range of speciality ales brewed for the festive season.  Seasonal Winter warmers have long been a feature of the UK beerscape, but I don’t ever remember the range and diversity on offer this year.  With original names such as Elves Bells, Tinsel Toes, Santa’s Ale and Festivity, they range from crisp light ales to deep Irish reds and strong dark milds.  But the year end is traditionally a time for reflection and I have been drinking long enough to know that it wasn’t always like this.

British cask ale is a unique product.  Good beers are made elsewhere in the world, but there is nothing that really compares for character or complexity with a pint of well kept, cask conditioned ale pulled straight from the wood.  It seems incredible now, but just under forty yeas ago the very existence of this drink was under threat.

When I started going in to pubs the British beer market was in a sorry state.  Years of consolidation in the brewing industry had reduced literally thousands of small family brewers to a few dozen companies.  When I was seventeen I could name every active brewing company in Britain, and the market was entirely dominated by the so called “big six”: Whitbread; Allied Lyons; Bass; Watney, Mann & Truman, owned by the huge Grand Metropolitan Group; John Courage, part of Imperial Tobacco; and Scottish & Newcastle Breweries.  These giant conglomerates had swallowed up nearly all of Britain’s independent breweries.  In some cases well known brands survived after acquisition, but what the big six really wanted was the distribution network, the estates of so called ‘tied houses’ that each brewer owned.  In most cases after acquisition the brewery would be closed and, at best, production would be moved to a large national brewery.  More often than not the independent brewers’ own brands simply ceased to exist, because the conglomerates preferred to put all their marketing weight behind a small number of super brands that could be promoted nationally, or even internationally.

These companies were not interested in taste, character or tradition.  Their business demanded volume sales, rapid throughput and efficiency.  Cask ale is a craft product.  The beer continues to ferment in the barrel which is what gives it its unique appeal.  But this means that it takes extra days after barreling to reach maturity, and then yet more time to settle after transportation to the pub.  It can be easily spoiled by a landlord who doesn’t know how to keep it.  I have lost count of the number of times I’ve been served a pint of foul-tasting, cloudy bilge water with the words. ‘it’s supposed to look like that, it’s real ale’.  Furthermore it has a limited shelf life, (that continuing fermentation again), and that also means that it doesn’t travel overseas.

All of these issues were deeply problematic to the big six.  Their response was pasteurisation.  In the sixties the big brewers started brewing cold, fizzy drinks: lagers, often brewed under licence from foreign brewers, and so called ‘keg beers’, dark beers like traditional ales, but filtered, pasteurised and chilled.  These products got around the problems of keeping real ales, they allowed the brewers to focus advertising and promotion on mega brands, and conveniently they appealed to a younger demographic.  Let’s just say they were less of a jump from childhood drinks like cola or lemonade.

 In those days beer was one of the most advertised products on British television, and even today the brands and their advertising slogans will be remembered by anyone who lived through that era. Worthington E, 'the pint that satisfies'; Courage Tavern, 'what your right arm’s for'; Double Diamond 'works wonders!';  Whitbread Tankard, 'helps you excel!'; and the execrable  Watney’s Red Barrel.  That last one's not a slogan, just my own description.  For me the most memorable was Whitbread's 'Big head Trophy Bitter, the pint that thinks it’s a quart', the advertisers seemingly making a virtue out of the fact that many publicans could not control the new CO2 cylinders, and you often ended up with two glasses of frothy head to get one pint of beer.  Thankfully most of these products no longer exist.

I was fortunate to grow up in a small town with over thirty pubs, all of which continued to serve cask conditioned ales.  At the end of the seventies, I could find 15 or 20 different ales within easy walking distance, still drawn from the barrel in the traditional way.  But other parts of the country were not so lucky.  Independent brewers, where they still existed, were obliged to follow the lead of the big players and introduce their own lagers and keg beers.  These products were made to seem youthful and modern.  It seemed like only a matter of time before cask ale died out altogether.

Then CAMRA came along.  One of the most successful consumer groups ever formed, The CAMpaign for Real Ale, started a fightback.  The organisation’s stated aims are:
·         Protect and improve consumer rights.
·         Promote quality, choice and value for money.
·         Support the public house as a focus of community life.
·         Campaign for greater appreciation of traditional beers, ciders and perries as part of our national heritage and culture.
·         Seek improvements in all licensed premises and throughout the brewing industry

The efforts of this group to publicise the plight of traditional ales, and lobby companies and licencing authorities turned the tide.  Brewers were forced by public demand to retain and even expand real ale production.  The very term ‘real ale’ was a CAMRA creation.

Then in 1989, partly as a result of CAMRA campaigning the UK government became involved as The Competition Commission conducted an inquiry into the whole industry.  The commission found that “The demand for a wide variety of bitter, and strong regional tastes and preferences, are important features of the United Kingdom beer industry.”[i]  Further it concluded that the vertical integration of brewing and retailing operations created a complex monopoly which restricted choice, kept wholesale prices unacceptably high and worked to prevent new entrants from taking hold.

Following the recommendations of the commission, the Secretary of State ordered the break up of this cosy system.  Thousands of pubs were sold off by the brewers in to specialist pub companies, Pubcos for short, such as Punch Taverns and Enterprise Inns.  These companies were then free to source their beer wherever they liked.
Since then the market has changed dramatically with the fortunes of brewers and retailers headed in opposite directions.   Pubs have had to evolve rapidly to changes in the market such as national smoking bans, enforcement of drink-driving laws and a growing awareness of health issues, all of which mean that as a nation we drink less beer.  Supermarkets now take a significant share of drinks sales.  Food has taken up much of the space vacated, with the gastro-pub a welcome new phenomenon especially in rural areas.  But many publicans live on incomes well below the national average and overwhelmingly they  blame the pubcos for taking a short term view, simply raking off profits from hard working tenants while offering little in return[ii].

In recent years, The Competition Commission has again been looking at practices within the retail distribution of beer, but a walk through any town centre will show that the traditional British pub is under threat.  Many simply enter a slow decline into shabbiness like an OAP desperately trying to survive on an inadequate pension.  Others turn to a range of stratagems to survive including loud music, karaoke or wall-to-wall sports TV. But for every new customer that these features attract, another one is lost.  Nationally Britain loses around 1000 pubs each year, and this situation has pertained now for several years.

In contrast, the brewing industry is healthier than at any time in almost 100 years.  The big six continued to consolidate and today there is a big four who still brew 8 out of every 10 pints sold.  The UK is not immune to global trends and bland global products such as Carlsberg, Heineken or Stella Artois dominate here as elsewhere.  But according to CAMRA[iii], there are now 1,147 different breweries operating in the UK, more than at any time since 1927 and way too many for me to try and memorise.   Of these, 187 have opened in the last 12 months alone.  Together they produce over 5,200 different beers.  This explosion of new entrants has brought a wonderful array of new and different beers, the vast majority of them real ales.  Many are microbrewers supplying only a small number of local outlets.  Alongside traditional bitters, milds and porters they experiment with different styles, using imported hop varieties and other flavours such as citrus, spice or even coffee.  This is not an industry desperately struggling to keep traditional methods and products alive in the face of relentless progress.  It's a confident, vibrant sector reinventing itself for the new century, producing new products in the traditional way.

Microbrewers still only account for a tiny proportion of overall beer sales.  But the British beer drinker has never had such an interesting and diverse range of quality ales to choose from and the immediate future looks secure. To an old campaigner like myself that is something to celebrate.

[i] The Supply of Beer: A report on the supply of beer for retail sale in the United Kingdom
[ii] Special Report from Parliamentary Committee

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