What goes around, comes around…It’s fitting that, as CAMRA prepares to celebrate its 50th anniversary next year, the case for an organisation representing beer drinkers is as strong today as it was in 1971, writes Roger Protz
Once again, mergers at the top of the brewing industry pose a threat to drinkers’ choice. The Campaign was founded in response to a series of mergers in the 1960s that created the Big Six national brewers. They dominated the pub scene to a frightening degree and they used that power to phase out cask ale and replace it with keg beers and lager.
In the past year there have been three major changes at the top of the brewing industry that are deeply disturbing. In 2019, Fuller’s sold its West London brewery to the Japanese giant Asahi. This was followed by Greene King being bought by an immensely rich property company based in Hong Kong.
And now we have the creation of the Carlsberg Marston’s Brewing Company, with the Danish group controlling 60 per cent of the business. The worry must be that Carlsberg has a poor record where ale brewing is concerned.
In 1991, when Carlsberg-Tetley emerged from the ruins of the old Allied Breweries group, the Tetley part of the name didn’t last long. The Danes closed the historic Leeds brewery and Tetley Bitter was shunted off to Banks’s Brewery in Wolverhampton.
At least the beer survived, which is more than can be said for another famous beer owned by Carlsberg. Ind Coope Draught Burton Ale played a key role in the real ale revival of the 1970s. It was launched by Allied in 1976 in response to the success CAMRA had had in boosting the fortunes of smaller regional and family brewers.
Allied had planned to serve Burton Ale in a handful of pubs. But the 4.8 per cent beer was a sensation. It went into thousands of Allied outlets and the quality of the beer was underscored when it won the top award in the Champion Beer of Britain competition in 1990. It remains today the only beer brewed by a national brewer ever to have gained the accolade.
You might expect Carlsberg to treasure such an important brand. But the Ind Coope brewery closed and Burton Ale was moved to Leeds. When the Tetley plant was shut down, the beer was brewed under licence by JW Lees in Manchester and lost all credibility as a “Burton” ale.
In 2015 Carlsberg performed the last rites. “Demand had fallen to an unsustainable level,” it said – not surprising, critics said, as the beer was impossible to find and not a penny had been spent promoting it.
Draught Burton Ale is now brewed – independently of Carlsberg — by the Burton Bridge Brewery, back in its home town. The brewery’s owners, Geoff Mumford and Bruce Wilkinson, had previously worked at Ind Coope and had been involved in developing the original recipe, which was based on a strong ale called Double Diamond Export.
It’s good to have DBA back where it belongs but Burton Bridge doesn’t have the marketing power to turn it into a national brand once more.
There must now be concern for the future of an even more historic beer, Draught Bass. When Bass left brewing in 2000, Draught Bass, once the biggest-selling premium ale in Britain, ended up owned by the world’s biggest brewer, AB InBev.
The group’s interest in cask beer can be seen by its willingness to sell Draught Bass, along with Boddingtons and Flowers, to anyone who has £15 million in spare cash. At present, Marston’s brews Draught Bass at its Burton plant and makes a good fist of it. But will Carlsberg be happy that its junior partner is brewing beer for the Danes’ global rival? Will Draught Bass get its marching orders and is there a regional brewer with the spare capacity to take it on? While much reduced, it’s thought Draught Bass accounts for a sizeable 30,000 barrels a year.
Fuller’s, Greene King and Marston’s are in play and the future of their beers remains a major concern. One thing is clear: as 2021 draws near, CAMRA needs to carry on campaigning.
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