As we, here at The Brew Club, have decided to once again designate April as ‘English Ale Month‘, Scott invited me to open the month with brief overview of the general state of beer and brewing here in Blighty.
As I have mentioned in the past, British brewing is dominated by a few big global players (AB InBev, SAB Miller, Heineken and Carlsberg) who are motivated solely by profit, and with little concern for the heritage they have inherited/purchased.
This led to Scottish and Newcastle (now Heineken) actually removing the protected Geographic Status of ‘Newcastle Brown Ale‘ to enable them to move production from Newcastle to Gateshead in 2005, and then eighty miles south to the John Smiths Brewery in Tadcaster (Yorkshire) this year. Meanwhile there are plans to brew John Smiths Yorkshire Bitter in Lancashire (read up on the War of the Roses for background on how ludicrous that is).
Similarly, Greene King (whom I think are number five in Britain) have moved production of ‘Morlands Beers’ from Oxfordshire and ‘Ruddles’ from Rutland to Suffolk.
Despite these mega-brewers moving production around the country there are still a refreshing number of independent brewers producing quality brews, and the general disillusion of drinkers with the mega brewers means that the smaller brewers are keeping busy.
The scary thing, of course is that if Greene King were to acquire every independent brewer, every micro brewery and every brewpub – then they would still be Britain’s fifth largest brewer.
Of course any blog about the state of British brewing should include mention of British pubs, for hundreds of years the heart of a community.
Sadly these are in a less healthy state than the brewers; legislation introduced in recent years by the government (including a smoking ban – which I admit I support) has forced literally thousands of pubs out of business. They’re currently closing at a rate of about fifty a week, and the recent announcement of new taxes on pub entertainment such as sports TV, dart-boards, pool tables and even trivia quiz machines will only serve to hasten these closures.
Alongside the increased taxation, obviously the recession is taking its toll on pubs. It’s possible to buy a four pack of cans of premium lager in a supermarket for about the price of a pint in a pub; so cash strapped drinkers are more inclined to stay at home drinking supermarket lager than visit their local.
Although I will say, in defence of the supermarkets that they are increasingly stocking beers from smaller brewers, and promoting them on price as well.
One notable exception to the demise of the local pub is the growth of the J D Wetherspoon chain of pubs. They currently run about 750 pubs in the UK, often in town centres and often converted from former Bank branches, theatres or cinemas. Wetherspoons unashamedly offer discount prices, cheap food and are dependent on high turnover, but they do support independent brewers and sponsor a ‘new beer bar’ at the Great British Beer festival each year. To their credit, their staff are well trained, and with high turnover, you can be pretty sure your pint is fresh.
In terms of popularity, around 70% of the British beer market is lager – and the most popular of those are Carling Black Label and Fosters – both session brews and around 3.2% ABV. The most popular ale is (I understand) either Greene King’s IPA or Tetley Bitter, Greene King in the south, Tetley in the north.
So, to summarise, the state of British brewing is, as it has been for the last twenty years, under threat – from the recession, taxation, global mega-breweries and the closure of thousands of pubs. But there are still a healthy number of independent breweries, some of whom we will be reviewing this month, and as long as there are options other than the brews offered by the ‘big four’ then there’s hope for the more discerning palate.
Bob the Brit.