There’s a joke going the rounds of the British brewing industry that runs like this: “What do you call Scottish & Newcastle Breweries now that it doesn’t have breweries in either Scotland or Newcastle? Answer: Ampersand Breweries, because that’s all that’s left.”
Scottish & Newcastle (S&N) is Britain’s biggest brewer and it’s the only one of the top four beer giants in the country that is still British controlled. Coors and Interbrew own the former Bass and Whitbread groups, with Carlsberg of Denmark occupying fourth spot and controlling the Tetley ale brand.
But S&N has international ambitions. It owns the French Kronenbourg breweries and dominates Russia through the Baltika consortium that it owns jointly with Carlsberg. S&N has been busily rationalizing its British operation in order to concentrate on promoting Kronenbourg, and its Russian and Baltic interests.
Earlier this year, it announced it would close its historic Fountainbridge Brewery in Edinburgh, the Scottish capital and seat of the country’s newly independent parliament. In a nice touch of irony, the new Scottish parliament building is being constructed on the site of another closed S&N plant.
Then in April, the group said it would also close its Newcastle brewery. Newcastle is a major English city and port on the River Tyne in the far northeast of the country, close to the Scottish border. One of Newcastle’s main claims to fame is Newcastle Brown Ale, a leading British brand and one that is widely exported. Americans can drink it on draft, a pleasure denied us Brits, as it’s available here only in bottled form.
S&N’s moves have created a storm of protest. In Scotland it has taken a 30 percent stake in Caledonian Brewery, a revered independent company in Edinburgh. S&N will brew its McEwan’s 80 Shilling Ale at Caledonian alongside such award-winning beers as Deuchar’s IPA, which won the Champion Beer of Britain competition in 2002, and Golden Promise, the country’s first organic beer.
While the Caledonian management will remain nominally in charge of the brewery, S&N’s track record of buying and closing breweries does not hold out much hope for the future independence of the company or its longevity. S&N is also likely to suggest to the Caledonian team that beers such as Deuchar’s, brewed from the finest Golden Promise malting barley and Fuggles and Goldings whole hops, are expensive to make. The advantages of using maize grits, torrefied wheat and hop oil, as used in McEwan’s 80 Shilling, will no doubt be stressed.
In Newcastle, S&N has run into criticism on two counts. It has bought a brewery in the town of Gateshead, on the other side of the Tyne, and will brew Newcastle Brown and other beers there. The Gateshead plant is known as the Federation Brewery and has been run since the end of World War I as a cooperative, owned by workingmen’s clubs. (Unlike a pub, you have to be a member to drink in a club.) There is considerable anger at S&N’s plans, which will end this rich slice of independent blue-collar enterprise.
And by moving from Newcastle to Gateshead, S&N will lose a protected status ordinance given by the European Union to Newcastle Brown. This prevents other brewers from producing beers with Newcastle in the title if they are not brewed in the city. The Campaign for Real Ale, which is keen to win similar protection for other British beer styles, has castigated S&N for its ham-fisted loss of European authorization. The company says it will hold talks with the EU with a view to keeping the ordinance, but somehow I can’t see a beer called Gateshead Brown Ale having quite the same ring to it.
While the brewing giants in Britain close plants and concentrate on international lager brands, there are powerful signs of a major revival of ale brewing among the country’s regional and micro breweries. In May I visited the county of Cumbria, in England’s northwest, which includes the beautiful Lake District made famous by William Wordsworth and other poets. Twenty years ago there were just two breweries in Cumbria. Today there are 14 and similar signs of revival can be found throughout the country.
In spite of the best efforts of the giants, British ale is back on the agenda.
Roger Protz is a respected beer authority and author of the CAMRA Good Beer Guide, as well as many other books on good beer, including The Ale Trail and the Real Ale Almanac.