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Merging On The Ridiculous

Sommerset Newsletter, Summer 1999

By Adrian Tierney-Jones

The news of Scot-Co's intended closure of the Bristol Courage plant will come as no great surprise to watchers of the brewery world. All the big boys' axes are being sharpened at the moment and brewing beer and the heritage of the likes of Whitbread, Bass and Courage counts for nowt.

It's also big news in the financial world that Whitbread have recently put in an offer for Allied Domecq's pub estate (though there was some controversy about the bid but that is so mind-numbingly boring that you need an

O-Level, or GSCE in Economics to understand the ramifications), which according to competition regulations means that Whitbread have to get rid of their brewing operations - the law being that any company owing more than 5000 pubs must sell its brewing divisions.

So by the time you read this 257 years of brewing will probably have been flung out of the window like a stale pint - I collect the post-World War II Whitbread Library books about the art and culture of beer and wonder what this 'leisure industry leader' called Whitbread has to do with a brewery which once prided itself on its heritage.

The plots thickens - it has been alleged that Bass were also keen to trump Whitbread with a deal for A-D. Does that mean that Bass have future plans for coming out of the brewing picture? Is this the end for Draught Bass, which I admit is not what it was but at least if it's in good nick it's a reasonable alternative to an over-chilled Guinness with little flavour or tap-water which tastes of chlorine.

'So what' you might say as you sup a pint of Exmoor Gold, Summer Lightning or Pitchfork. Good riddance to bad rubbish. Stick with the micros. Pour me another regional (though Greene King's possible takeover of Morland shows that there's turmoil in this sector as well). That may be so on one level but on another it could have ruinous effects for our favourite beers, which have a hard enough time with the shrinking free trade and pub chains which are squeezing out more and more micros.

The products of the likes of Whitbread and Bass might be as tempting as a bath in cold sick to many CAMRA members but it's the power these big combines will have on the ability of their pubs to take guest beers that we should fear. Whitbread have said that the buying power of the enlarged pub estate would mean cheaper beer. But in reality it will mean that those brewing combines which can offer cheap lager, Guinness or nitro-keg will trample all over the regional and micro breweries who can ill-afford to match the massive discounts of the big boys.

To any licensee who doesn't give a monkeys what his punters drink as long as it keeps them merry and paying over the odds, a cheap barrel of smoothflow will always triumph over a more expensive (but still reasonably priced) barrel of real ale which actually tastes of beer.

The result? Less choice and more small breweries either still-born or going to the wall. The real ale drinker, as ever, will lose out. It might not mean too much to us in Somerset at the moment with our plethora of free houses and the Taunton Wetherspoons, but remember the pubs which were once free houses and are now managed. A former pub of the year springs to mind - where once there were six interesting real ales now you're lucky to see Old Speckled Egg.

Someone living in a small town or village where the Whitbread pub takes in 6X, Exmoor Ale or Cotleigh would soon find themselves stuck with Bass, Boddingtons (no doubt it will be bought by the likes of Scot-Co or Bass or even a Japanese bank) or Flowers. Or the pub will call itself a free house but one of the big boys might have helped set it up with a loan on condition of taking their beers alongside the landlord's choice. Cometh the cheap discounts and goeth the local ale choice.

According to Mike Benner, CAMRA's head of campaigns and communications, 'Consumers will be losers if this takeover goes ahead. This deal will create the biggest pub chain in the UK with some 7000 pubs and will undoubtedly lead to less choice to consumers. It could lead to the closure of Boddingtons Brewery in Manchester and continued moves towards consolidation may result in just two national brewers supplying over 80% of the market through supply deals with a handful of pub chains.'

The question is: what can be done. High finance and the big brewing world is a mystery to most of us. We can hardly boycott Whitbread when we never touch its products. But what we can do is write to our MPs or the minister responsible for these operations to say how these mergers and buy-outs affect our choice and the livelihoods of small brewers. We can also shun Whitbread's other outlets such as Hogshead, Brewers Fayre and any other bits and pieces they own. And most importantly we can give our support to those precious free houses where the landlord or landlady supports real ale, even if they have to put Flowers on the bar because of a business arrangement with Whitbread.

The final word goes to Martin Stafford at Dent Brewery, whose O'wd Tup was Champion Winter Beer of Britain: 'If big companies have their way, customers will be able to buy only three types of rubbish beer in whatever pub they walk into.'

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Adrian Tierney-Jones