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If it's British and good, let's dismiss it...

On the eve of the Great British Beer Festival, some forthright opinions on a tough year for the country's native brews

- The inside story on the Champion Beer of Britain

You do not have to be a xenophobe, or even a nationalist, to enjoy something that Britain does well. Or a nostalgist to be dismayed when we abandon our greatest products, from the Rolls-Royce car to the British pint. As I recall, the Rolls-Royce became German. The most internationally-known British pint, Bass, is about to become Belgian.

The company's breweries are being sold to Interbrew, of Leuven. Bass makes nearly ten million barrels of beer a year but, in its fourth century as a brewer, would rather run bars, restaurants and hotels. Perhaps its beers will be safer in the hands of a company with "brew" in its name, but don't bet on it. At Bass, the men in suits drove out the brewers. At Interbrew, that struggle continues, but in the long term the suits nearly always beat people who actually make something.

The extent of Bass's self-castration distracted attention from a second such amputation. Whitbread, after more than 250 years in the business, is selling its breweries - also to the Belgian giant. In the distant days when the two British companies were seriously interested in beer, some of their pints offered me magic moments. I cannot say the same for nights spent at any-port-in-a-storm Holiday Inns run by Bass, or meals from Pizza Huts operated by Whitbread.

Many drinkers may not care who owns the brewery that produces their beer. Others may realise that a decent pint depends upon a brewer who himself loves beer. Not all are aware of the knives flashing behind the brew-kettles that make their favourite ales. While there have been some stories on the news and feature pages, the hard information has been in the business sections, where mutilation is euphemised as "restructuring". Breweries turn into "units" or "operations", beers become "brands", while pubs, bars, restaurants and hotels metamorphose into something called "the leisure and hospitality industry". Have you ever heard anyone say "let's go out for some leisure and hospitality tonight"? Anyone who uses language that daft is probably vacuous enough to believe it. I wouldn't care if these "managers" did not do so much damage before deserting l-and-h after a year or two for the marketing of fabric-softener or deodorant or whatever else they do before going to the great golf course in the sky.

Whoever owns them, can big brewing companies make good beer? Most manage the odd decent speciality brew, but they generate great pressures to cut costs. If a brewery is producing millions of barrels, a fraction of a penny per pint is significant, so it is worth, for example, cutting the proportion of barley malt on favour of corn flakes or syrups (an ingredient popular among cost accountants). To a brewer making only thousands of barrels, such cheap tricks are not worth the trouble.

Adding corn to beer makes it lighter in body and flavour without affecting alcohol content. Diminish the hop content and you save further costs while making the beer even blander. A cut here and there over the years, and you soon have the beer equivalent of junk food. Lots of people seem to enjoy junk food, and the same is true of its beery counterpart. So the brewers are urged by their marketing men to concentrate on junk beers, whether they are bland apologies for British ales or even more neutral excuses for Continental lagers. What happens next is that the bad drives out the good. Breweries making a decent pint lose their bottle in face of competition from bigger companies with bland "brands".

Bass and Whitbread had long ago lost a wholehearted commitment to British beer, and might argue that more than half their customers had. Being a lover of British beer is sometimes like being a member of a threatened minority. Perhaps this derives from the British delight in attacking anything of quality. Devotees of ales (as opposed to lagers) were described as "hayseeds" by Howard Jacobson in this newspaper at the time of last year's Great British Beer Festival. Nice touch of ghetto-building, Howard. I'm a hayseed for wanting decent beer, and you're a meshuggener.

Under attack, minorities often feel it is better to keep quiet. By protesting, they may simply be sticking their heads above the parapet. Should I admit that this has been the blackest-ever year for British brewers? About a dozen region breweries announced in the past 12 months or so that they were to close, including much-loved names like King and Barnes (Sussex), Ward's (Yorkshire) and Mitchell's (Lancashire)? By drawing attention to this, do I sustain the City's belief that brewing is not a worthwhile activity?

This creed was demonstrated this month at the annual meeting of Young's brewery, in London, where a representative from the New Zealand investment group Guinness Peat was deservedly heckled. According to the business pages of this newspaper, he urged the company "to participate in the current wave of industry consolidation." That was my pint he was talking about. Why do I care? In the end, for all my feelings of national pride, not because it is British. Nor, whatever my sense of history, because there has been brewing on the site since 1581. I care because I like Young's beers. So do a lot of other people. Nearly fifty million pints of Young's beers were sold last year. Why should we lose them to please someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing? Young's bitter has a distinctive and complex balance of flavours that would soon be lost if it were made as a secondary "brand" in someone else's brewery.

When I exercise my local choice of either Young's or Fuller's in one of my local pubs tonight, I will be drinking a beer made within a couple of miles of my home. The fresh flavours of live beer will lap over my tongue. My senses will be aroused by the sweetness of the barley malt and the herbal, cleansing, dryness of the hop blossom. The world will seem a good place. No junk beer can do this. Condemned to junk beer, I would stop going in pubs and resort reluctantly to wine at home.

Tonight, if I choose Young's, there will be a flinty firmness like that in a true Chablis. Fuller's is more honeyed, like a Gewüztraminer. Would the Burgundians or Alsatians listen to a foreigner who suggested bulldozing their vineyards? I doubt it.

Some regional brewers have been saved in management buyouts, and gone on to make wonderful beers, like Highgate, in the West Midlands; Castle Eden, in County Durham, and Caledonian, in Scotland. We also continue to gain new, yet smaller ones, known as "micros". More than 50 new micro-breweries opened this year. Some will struggle, but others will thrive. New-generation breweries like Hopback (Wiltshire), Black Sheep (Yorkshire), Mordue (Tyneside) and Harviestoun (Scotland) are now well-established.

I shall be seeking my first taste of beers from even newer brewers like Potton (Bedfordshire), Tindal (Suffolk), and Broadstone (Nottinghamshire) at this year's Great British Beer Festival, next week. On offer will be 284 British beers from 186 breweries...and 40,000 visitors are expected in the course of the week.

The suits won't see us. We are beneath their radar.

Published Online: AUG 2, 2000
Published in Print: JULY 29, 2000
In: The Independent


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