Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - August 2006

* Ten Little Breweries *

Takeovers of family brewers erode diversity and competition in the beer market

Over the past eighteen months there has been an alarming trend of established independent breweries being taken over by their bigger and more predatory brethren. Wolverhampton & Dudley have grabbed Jennings, while Fullers have bought Gales and Greene King, seemingly the most rapacious of the lot, have snaffled Belhaven, Ridleys and most recently Hardys & Hansons. In most cases the acquisition of the pub estate was the main objective and the closure of the brewery came not long afterwards. CAMRA has rightly condemned these deals as destructive of competition and diversity in the beer market, but any amount of campaigning is not going to save a brewery that its owners are determined to close.

Fortunately our local family brewers within Greater Manchester seem keen to preserve their independence, but in the current climate no brewery can be regarded as entirely safe. Some may say, of course, that these were poorly-run companies in many cases brewing indifferent beer, and we have hundreds of micros to step into their shoes. But the micro-breweries, despite producing some superb beers, have never really broken through into the mainstream, and still account for less than 2% of the beer drunk in the UK. In reality, the outcome for the pubs involved in these deals would be local beers being replaced by the likes of London Pride, Pedigree and Greene King IPA.

Anyone who wishes to see a vigorous, successful independent brewing sector in the UK has to accept the need to support the businesses actually within that sector. Your local family brewer may not be perfect, but it is still far better than seeing the brewery replaced by a supermarket and the pub estate full of national brands. Micros vs family brewers is a false opposition – we need to see both survive and prosper.

* Extra Uncool *

“Extra Cool” is the latest marketing fad to undermine quality at the bar

On a recent visit to a pub I spotted no less than five “Extra Cool” keg beers on the bar – not only a couple of lagers, which you might expect, but also smooth bitter, cider and Guinness. It has always been the case that keg beers’ lack of flavour was to some extent masked by being served at around 8°, but the latest fad is to go further and chill them down to a ridiculous, teeth-chattering 3°.

At that kind of temperature, even the last remnant of taste will disappear and you will be left with what is basically a pint of ice-cold liquid. It may have a superficial appeal on a hot summer’s day, but it may literally go straight through you on a freezing winter night. The extra energy needed to cool it down to such an absurd degree is also hardly likely to be friendly either to the environment or the pub’s profit margin. It is basically just another marketing gimmick for which there is no genuine demand. Has any licensee been besieged by keg drinkers complaining that their beer wasn’t cold enough?

Far better to ignore all this nonsense and go for a tasty pint of cask beer served at a natural cool cellar temperature.

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