Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - July 1996

* More Freedom, Less Choice *

July is traditionally the time to celebrate the independent breweries, something particularly relevant today when their survival may be threatened by the European Union review of the tied house system. But is the tie such a good thing anyway? If you live in Hazel Grove, eight out of the twelve pubs on the A6 are Robinson's, and apart from a single appearance of Old Tom, none offers any beers other than Hatters Mild and Best Bitter. Not much choice there. If only they could break the tie, and free them up to choose from all the distinctive, quality beers produced by the micro-breweries....

The reality would be very different from the vision. The key point to remember is that, for most independent brewers, the value of their pubs is far greater than that of their brewing business. They wouldn't sell off their pubs, they'd hive off their breweries and become pub companies. As we have seen with Greenalls, pub retailers can control the range of products on sale in their pubs just as tightly as any brewery. With no brewery to support, they would be free to sell national brands, and no doubt the big brewers would offer some tempting discounts. The "choice" you would get wouldn't be Whim and Passageway, it would be Caffreys and Boddingtons Bitter. And what would be the rationale of the Robinson's pubs without the brewery? It would be just another pub chain, and one very vulnerable to being snapped up by predators like Greenalls.

The future for the "freed-up" breweries would be equally bleak. Those with strong brands like 6X or Pedigree would be quickly grabbed by Bass or Whitbread - and how long would they keep production in places like Devizes? On the other hand, those like Robinson's or Hydes, which are not nationally known and have relatively little free trade, would find their sales dwindling as national brands wormed their way onto the bars of the pubs they once supplied. It would be very surprising if, after ten years, the number of substantial breweries still operating in independent hands was more than could be numbered on the fingers of one hand.

Make no mistake, ending the tie would be a disaster for beer and pubs in this country. It would lead to both the brewing and pub retailing markets being totally dominated in each case by a handful of giant national or multinational companies, far more than is the case today. The tie may offend those who believe in unfettered competition, but it allows the continued existence of significant independent brewing and pub-owning businesses providing much-needed diversity and choice in the market, which must be of benefit to the consumer. The natural tendency of completely unrestrained competition is for the big fish to swallow the little ones and dominate the pool.

And never forget that, in the 60's and 70's, the tie saved real ale in this country. While the likes of Robinson's were sticking to what they knew best, the multi-beer freehouses of the day served Worthington E and Younger's Tartan. Even today, the tie is holding up the march of nitrokeg - there's none in any Robinson's, Hydes, Holts or Lees pub, and long may that continue. Are Hazel Grove folk really deprived because it's hard to get a pint of Caffreys in the village?

* Suit You, Madam? *

"Would that half-pint be for a lady, sir?" You can imagine the suggestive tailors from "The Fast Show" making great play with this question if they were transferred to bar work. But it's still very common to hear it asked, as the widespread view persists that it's unladylike for a woman to drink beer out of anything other than a half-pint glass with a stem. Beer must be about the only kind of food or drink that is routinely served in a different container depending on the sex of the consumer.

It's quite right that pubs should offer their customers a choice of different types of glass - mugs and stems as well as the usual sleeves. But in the 1990s the concept of the "lady's glass" is old-fashioned and patronising and deserves to be laid to rest.

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