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Britain to cease brewing by 2020?

Consumers battle to save the Great British Pint

A study carried out by CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, predicts that if recent trends persist, over 90% of the British brewing industry will be in the hands of just two global brewers producing a handful of lager brands by 2020.

CAMRA has launched the biggest generic promotion of beer for fifty years in its battle to save the great British pint. Following two years of fundraising, the consumer group is joining forces with dozens of real ale brewers and thousands of pubs to buck the trend and put real cask ales back on top. Hundreds of advertising billboards have been launched throughout the country supported by leaflets and posters in thousands of pubs.

The study reveals that over 130 regional and national beer brands have been axed since 1990. Excluding those brewed by the 350 very small brewers (which collectively have only 1% of the total beer market), there are about 250 beers still in regular production. If the trend continues it will take only 16 years to reduce the market to three or four mega beer brands. Thirty three medium sized or national breweries have closed since 1990. Over fifty breweries remain in operation, but CAMRA fears if trends persist, there will be nothing but global operators left by 2020.

The end of the great British pub?

CAMRA research in 2000 shows that twenty pubs a month are closing. This is approximately double the monthly closures only five years earlier. If that trend continues then by 2020 eighty pubs a month will be closing, and many consumers will be faced with the grim prospect of supping at home or visiting big themed bars in town centres. In January 2001 nearly 1,000 pubs were put for sale by Bass and a further 3,000 by Whitbread. There is wide speculation that Scottish & Newcastle and Wolverhampton & Dudley may shortly put for sale signs on around 1,000 pubs each. Japanese investment bank Nomura recently bought 988 pubs from Bass and is speculated to be assessing the Whitbread estate. Purchase of the Whitbread estate would give Nomura a total of some 9000 pubs - nearly one in six of all the pubs in the country. CAMRA predicts that such a move would lead to other major operators like Enterprise Inns, Pubmaster and Punch Taverns seeking growth to maintain market share and power - further accelerating the loss of consumer choice.

Mike Benner, Head of Campaigns and Communications said, "Consolidation in the pubs market means smaller brewers are not able to supply beer to such large estates. It therefore goes without saying that these brewers will be forced out of the market by their bigger competitors who can offer massive discounts and supply household name beers. That will lead to even less choice for Britain's 15 million beer drinkers. " But, it could be worse than that! As consolidation in brewing and pub retailing continues the demise will accelerate. Belgian brewer Interbrew now has 32% of the British beer market following its acquisition of Bass Brewers and Whitbread Beer Company last year. If it is successful in overcoming Stephen Byers' blockage of the Bass take over following its application for a judicial review, it's discounting, marketing and distribution power may lead to big increases in market share. Other big brewers may respond aggressively to maintain market share through acquisitions, or may quit brewing altogether.

Mike Benner added, "The "Ask if it's Cask" campaign is a consumer fight back against the disease caused by consolidation, closures, mergers and sell-offs in this great British industry. We want to convince beer drinkers that nothing beats a pint of real cask ale in a local pub. If people start drinking the taste and shun big-brand marketing, the British beer market will be safe for future generations to enjoy."

The real ale market peaked at 17.5% of the total beer market in 1994. It is now less than 10% as consumers are bombarded with global lager brands and smoothflow processed ales.

The "Ask if it's Cask" campaign, launched on March 1st, is the biggest generic promotion of British beer since industry campaigns in the 1950s. The campaign aims to get the message across that real cask ales meet the needs of modern cultured beer drinkers. CAMRA is urging drinkers to 'Ask if it's cask' next time they visit the pub, in an attempt to get lager lovers and smoothflow drinkers to discover the taste of real ale.

Mr. Benner added, "The city's obsession with quick, high growth technology industries has eroded our brewing and pubs industry and led to the loss of thousands of pubs, hundreds of beer brands and dozens of long-standing breweries. Today marks a momentous occasion when consumers, independent brewers and publicans across the land unite to fight back against city short-termism and mega-brand marketing. Before it's too late."

For more information see www.askifitscask.com

...and now an article culled from the New Statesman, for which many thanks

Going soon: the Last of England
Paul Kingsnorth

In 1946, in one of his grouchy, nostalgic moods, George Orwell subjected readers of the London Evening Stan­dard to an essay on his favourite pub, The Moon Under Water. Complaining that a decent pub was increasingly hard to find, he explained the character that made his local what it was: "The cast-iron fireplaces, the florid ceiling stained dark yellow by tobacco-smoke, the stuffed bull's head over the mantelpiece - everything has the solid comfortable ugliness of the 19th century. In winter there is generally a good fire burning in at least two of the bars, and the Victorian layout of the place gives one plenty of elbow-room. Upstairs, at least six days a week, you can get a good solid lunch..."

The Moon Under Water had no "glass-topped tables or other modern miseries... no sham roof-beams, inglenooks or plastic panels masquerading as oak". It had no piano or radio, and was quiet enough for conversation without being dull. It had a garden and was two minutes from the nearest bus stop. Best of all, the staff knew the regulars and served them real ale in "proper" pint mugs, with handles.

If Orwell were to walk in to the Moon Under Water in London's Leicester Square today, he would drop his glass in horror, handle or not. It is a cavernous, soulless place, in which hundreds of people jostle for lagers on Saturday nights before heading out to the clubs. No original fixtures, no garden, no chance of hearing even your own part of a conversation and no chance whatsoever that the bar staff will remember your face. Its ceilings are festooned with CCTV cameras.

It is one of 350 pubs nationwide owned by the J D Wetherspoon chain. They all look, feel and taste virtually the same, many of them have the same name, and all of them are as far away from Orwell's ideal as it is possible to be (though admittedly none has a piano). The Manchester Moon Under Water is reputed to be Britain's biggest pub: it can wet the whistles of up to 1,800 drinkers at once from its three bars, and not one of them has any chance of getting their beer in a "proper" glass.

Yet the chairman of Wetherspoon, Tim Martin, who founded the company in 1979, called his first pub, in north London, The Moon Under Water in a tribute to Orwell's happy vision. And vision it was: at the end of his essay, Orwell revealed what "the discerning and disillusioned reader will probably have guessed already" - his favourite pub wasn't real. It was a composite, made up of all the features that Orwell thought the perfect urban pub should have. The Moon Under Water did not exist. In that, at least, it shared one feature with many pubs today.

For the very survival of the pub as we know it is in doubt. To look around you in any town or city you might not think so: there is no shortage of drinking holes. Look closer though: note how many are owned by vast chains. Note how many are wackily named theme pubs which all look the same, right down to the ashtrays and the food on the menus. Note how few local beers they sell. Note how many have ripped out unique old interiors and replaced them with fake Irish road signs. Note how many villages that had thriving locals just a few years ago now have none.

The traditional pub - a cornerstone of British society for centuries - is disappearing. As it does, something unique and culturally vital is disappearing with it. Twenty pubs close every month. Of a total of around 60,000 pubs in Britain, half are now owned by giant "Pub Cos", often financed by multi­national banks. The three biggest - Enterprise Inns, Punch and Pubmaster - own more than 15,000 pubs between them and the number is rising.

Traditional brewers are falling at similar rates. Once, every region in Britain could be identified by its beers. Many towns had their own brewery. Today, Britain's "big four" multinational breweries produce 80 per cent of the country's beer. There are fewer than 400 independent breweries left - 40 of them have closed in the past ten years alone, and the number continues to fall. The number of true "family brewers" in Britain now stands at just 38.

History explains why. A few decades ago, most pubs were owned by, and tied to, what were then the "big six" national brewers, which controlled 70 per cent of the market. In 1990, following an inquiry by the Monopolies Commission, the then government introduced legislation that forced the big brewers to sell off around 11,000 pubs. It was hoped that a wave of independent pubs would spring up, running themselves independent of brewery control. What actually hap­pened was the rise of the chain pub. A few enterprising people - some of whom had previously worked for the big breweries - set up pub corporations and bought up pubs. Over the next decade they expanded quickly, often with the help of sizeable loans from Japanese or US banks.

Today, the big Pub Cos exert more of a stranglehold on British pubs than the brewers did before them. And their increasing power drives independent pubs, smaller brewers and the traditional local into the ground. The Pub Cos buy most of their beer from the remaining "big four" brewers, and they demand rock-bottom prices. They then sell it on to the tenants of their pubs at much higher rates. The big brewers, in turn, demand lower prices from their suppliers -the farmers who produce the malt and hops. The Pub Cos and their bankers pocket the difference, while the tenant - and the beer drinker - picks up the bill: prices at the bar have more than doubled since 1990.

"The Pub Cos are screwing so much out of tenants that they can't afford to keep the pubs going," says Ted Bruning of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA). "It's the smaller pubs that end up going out of business - community locals in villages and what we call 'edge of town' outlets; the traditional, community pubs. But the number of pubs in Britain is actually quite stable, because while these pubs close, huge town-centre 'youthpubs' are opening in their place. These places are basically Club 18-30 every Saturday night. The ethos is “get 'em in, get 'em pissed, and get 'em out”. That's the most profitable thing for a big pub company to do."

With the pubs themselves go the small, specialist brewers. "While the pubcos control so many pubs," says Bruning, "it's very difficult for small brewers to enter the market. The companies demand such low prices that they're often selling at cost. That's also why many of the old family brewers are closing."

The architectural issue is particularly serious. Many pubs are housed in historic, unique or interesting buildings - as they fall to the pubcos, their original decor and design falls with them, replaced by whatever homogenised gimmick the company thinks will attract its target demographic. CAMRA'S 2003 inventory of historic pub interiors found just 250 pubs left with what the campaign calls "interiors of outstanding heritage interest"; in other words, less than half a per cent of Britain's 60,000 pubs remain genuinely unspoilt by the onslaught of the corporate chains.

Bruning, at least, thinks there is still time to save much of what matters. "We want to see legislation to preserve the diversity of pubs and to protect their heritage, more control over changing the use of pub buildings - which is beginning to happen - and we'd like to see the big pubcos properly regulated," he says. But with the current rate of change, something like this needs to happen soon if we are to save the traditional local from near extinction.

If it doesn't, Britain faces a genuine cultural crisis. The survival of the pub as we know it is not just about beer or buildings - it's about the linchpin of a society. The first pubs arrived in this country with the Romans. Britain's unique pub signs date back to at least the ninth century and probably before. The measure of beer known as the pint was defined in Magna Carta, and hasn't changed since. In an age in which everything local, idiosyncratic or otherwise real is being steamrollered by a plastic tide of globalised nothingness, the traditional pub is one of our last bastions.

In France, a threat like this would have people taking to the streets. In Britain, we just shrug our shoulders and head to the nearest All Bar One.

Perhaps we should pay closer attention to the warning that Orwell's contemporary, the French poet Hilaire Belloc, issued to his adopted countryfolk in the 1930s:
"When you have lost your inns, drown your empty selves. For you will have lost the last of England."

Paul Kingsnorth is the author of One No, Many Yeses: a journey to the heart of the global resistance movement (Free Press, £10).


 
All contents copyright 2004, Macclesfield and East Cheshire CAMRA Branch.
All rights reserved. Last Revised: June 6, 2004
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