Crisis in English Brewing
The Good, the Bad and the Bubbly
A crisis in English brewing? Surely not. Whatever else happened in the world of beer⎯global takeovers; mergers; loss of choice; increasingly dull, bland international lagers; and the inexorable march of Budweiser⎯there was always good old English ale to fall back on. Unique beer, wonderful beer, beer that left the brewery in unfinished form and quietly matured and conditioned in casks in pub cellars. Like the English themselves, it is phlegmatic beer⎯doesn’t boast a lot and isn’t given to flexing its muscles⎯but it’s good beer to know.
But England, along with the rest of the British Isles, is being drawn by powerful magnets not only into mainland Europe but into the entire global economy. Suddenly, we have to think big, and where beer is concerned, brewers have to think about big brands.
There is nothing new in this: in the 1970s, six national brewing groups were stitched together in a bid to foist the first fizzy “keg beers” (pasteurized and pressurized ales) on an unsuspecting drinking public, followed by appalling apologies for European beer known as English lager. It was the activities of the “Big Six” brewers in the 1970s that helped launch the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) with a mission to save cask-conditioned beer.
Today, the battle has moved to higher ground. The big brewers are dumping brands at a fast rate of knots. They are closing brewing plants and moving into other areas of the leisure industry. Now, the unthinkable has happened: two of the best-known names in English brewing, Bass and Whitbread, have quit brewing to concentrate on “core activities”.
Bass, one of the mighty brewers from Burton-on-Trent who gave the world India pale ales in the 19th century, would prefer to run Holiday Inns, as hotels offer a higher return on investment. Whitbread, the first major porter brewer in London in the 18th century, would equally prefer to concentrate on its hotels, restaurants and health clubs.
Both Bass and Whitbread have sold their breweries to Interbrew of Belgium, owner of Stella Artois. The few remaining cask ales in the Bass and Whitbread lockers are likely rapidly to fall off the edge. Tell an Interbrew account executive that cask-conditioned ales contain live yeast, ferment in their containers, are highly perishable, have to be consumed within three or four days, and offer only a fraction of the profit derived from keg ales and lager, and he will inevitably point his bony fingers at the trash can of history.
The decision by Bass and Whitbread to leave brewing is not driven solely by a desire to maximize profits. It is part of the changing culture of English society. Britain and the United States may share a common language but in many other respects we used to be poles apart. Until quite late into the 20th century, breweries were run by people who understood instinctively that they had a duty to the communities they served to provide good ale at reasonable prices in pleasant pubs. In so doing, they would hope to make a good living and even live in some style, but the community role acted as a break on any show of vulgar greed.
Today such views are considered risible. Margaret Thatcher, prime minister throughout the 1980s who had a love affair for all things American (including Ronald Reagan), once famously said, “There’s no such thing as society.” However much people of my generation may abhor such a sentiment, it has stuck. And where brewing is concerned, it has meant a fundamental shift of philosophy, away from community ales for community pubs towards a harder emphasis on big brands that generate big bucks.
The attitude has filtered down to the ranks of the 50 or so regional brewers, many of them still family owned. In the past two years, such well-known regional brewers as King & Barnes, Mitchells, Morland, Morrells, Ruddles, Ushers, Vaux and Ward have given up the brewing ghost. In a few cases, the closures were due to bad management, but most of these breweries closed because the owners turned their collective back on community values. They closed their breweries in order to run pubs that sold heavily branded beers supplied by the national brewers at generous discounts.
The beer culture has changed, too. As Tim Hampson explains in his article on the English pub, the big brewers have sold thousands of pubs in the past decade and have converted their remaining houses to management.
For most of the 20th century, most English pubs were run by tenants⎯people who paid rent to the brewers who owned the properties, and who made a living from the sale of food and drink. Tenants had a love affair with cask-conditioned ale. They were proud of the pints they served and beavered away in their cellars to go through all the arcane rituals of tapping and venting casks, and monitoring the progress of secondary fermentation and conditioning.
But tenants have been ethnically cleansed, replaced by managers paid a salary by the brewers, linked umbilically to the head office by computerized tills. Their task is to maximize profits in every area of their pubs. They have been helped in this bold endeavor by a new type of ale that requires little or no skill to keep and serve. It is called “nitrokeg,” though such an explosive and ugly word does not feature in promotions, where the new-style ales are known as cream flow or smooth flow. The beers are served by a mixed gas method involving nitrogen and carbon dioxide.
Nitrokegs for Quick Profits
Nitrogen may be an inert gas but it has a distressing and deadening effect on beer⎯hop character, in particular. Guinness stout, for which mixed gas dispense was developed, can just about survive, but lighter bodied ales, already filtered, pasteurized and served (by English standards) extremely cold, deliver neither aroma nor flavor. Nitrokeg reflects the reality of the modern English pub, run either by a manager or an independent free trader who cannot be bothered with fiddly, perishable cask ales but who want the certainty of quick profits from beer with an almost infinite shelf life.
Aimed primarily at a young and gullible audience that has little knowledge of cask ale, and promoted massively on TV and billboards, nitrokeg has been only modestly successful. Millions are being thrown at the main brand, Caffrey’s, brewed by Bass, to generate fresh interest in the style.
But if a national brewer withdraws cask beer from his pubs and offers only nitrokeg to the “free trade” of independent pubs, there is bound to be a knock-on effect on real ale. In the past five years, real ale’s share of total beer production and consumption has nose-dived, from 15 percent to 11 percent.
I don’t want to alarm readers unnecessarily. Don’t cancel your trips to England. You will still find good ale in thousands of pubs, though you would be advised to take a copy of the Good Beer Guide with you. And around 350 cask ales will be on show at CAMRA’s Great British Beer Festival at London’s Olympia in August.
Success Amid Crisis
Many well-known regional brewers are doing well. In London, the two family-owned breweries, Fullers and Youngs, notched record sales last year. Fullers, skillfully promoting its London Pride and ESB to rugby and cricket fans (more discerning where beer is concerned than soccer supporters) has reaped a rich dividend.
In Yorkshire, Timothy Taylor, brewer of Landlord pale ale, the current Champion Beer of Britain, sold more beer last year than at any other time in a history that dates back to the 1850s. Brakspear, in an idyllic site beside the River Thames at Henley, also had a record year in 1999. Adnams, in an equally lovely setting on the coast in Suffolk and lit up at night by the local lighthouse, has invested heavily in its pubs, installed expensive equipment to ensure that its cask ales are served cool, and has just launched two new beers.
Similar success stories come from all parts of the country, but when just six giant brewers account for 84 percent of all the beer brewed, increased sales for the likes of Fullers scarcely cause a ripple on the national sales graph. The worry is that some regional brewers see no future in brewing, especially if their brands do not enjoy a high profile and they cannot afford the deep discounts demanded by the voracious owners of the new pub groups formed when the national brewers sold off thousands of outlets in the early 1990s.
Curiously, and in spite of the crisis, England has more breweries today than at any time in its recent history. The whole of Britain has around 500 breweries. Most of them are micros and their total annual production amounts to about 2 percent of the total. But many produce magnificent beers.
It’s the micros that have brought both fun and choice back to beer drinking by delving into history and recipe books to recreate porters, stouts, old ales and barley wines. They have also been at the forefront of developing the new breed of summer ales that Jeff Evans discusses in “Stylistically Speaking” elsewhere in this issue. There is still much to sample and enjoy in England’s pubs.
But beer and pubs are changing. Global forces are at play. England, so good in its island retreat at fending off invaders in the past, may not be able to keep at bay the likes of Anheuser-Busch, Heineken and Interbrew.
Let us hope that that acclaimed English love of the underdog will resurface to save traditional beer and pubs. As we say over here, abuse it and you’ll lose it.
Roger Protz is the author of Complete Guide to World Beer and 300 Beers to Try Before You Die. He is a respected beer authority and editor of the CAMRA Good Beer Guide.