Calling time on Pedigree

Calling time on Pedigree

I placed my order at the bar of the Malt Shovel and publican Brad invited me to take a seat.

“I’ll bring your drinks over in a second,” he said. “I’ve just got to see Ray to his taxi.”

It’s Thursday lunchtime and the Telford pub has only been open for 30 minutes, but already 96-year-old Ray has enjoyed his pint and is heading back home. Brad walks him out to the car park and makes sure he is comfortably seated in his ride home.

Ray has made a point of coming in today. Word has got around that the Malt Shovel’s final cask of Pedigree is on the bar. It’s hard to overstate what an important part of the pub’s identity this beer is.

“This place was built on Pedigree,” Brad sighs. Local CAMRA branch member Stew agrees.

“Back in the day, if you didn’t drink Pedigree in the Shovel, you got funny looks.”

Every week, on a Thursday, a fresh cask of Pedigree is put on the bar. When it’s gone, it’s gone, and you have to wait for next Thursday if you want it. I’ve lived in the area for nearly 18 months now, and the weekly ale ritual has always given me a strange feeling of comfort. It feels quaint and homely, and knowing it’s Pedigree Day gives me a small sense of belonging.

But now the Carlsberg Marston Brewing Company (CMBC) has retired the union sets that Pedigree was brewed through, or at least, partially went through. It is reported that as they have brewed less of the beer, fewer of the sets were in use and some went through standard stainless steel fermenting vessels and was blended back.

Still, this was a system of venerable heritage, introduced in the 1830s. The Marston’s logo depicts the cast iron frames on the union barrels, showing just how important a part the technology has played in Marston’s positioning as a Burton brewer of historic pedigree (I know, I couldn’t resist). Now the abandonment of the union sets by CMBC marks its extinction in the UK. Until recently, the Marston’s website told us earnestly that the system “gives Pedigree its one-of-a-kind taste. No Burton union. No Pedigree. End of”.

A Pedigree drinker himself, down-to-earth Brad, a tied tenant, cares deeply about his pub and the quality of the beer. It looks like the decision to abandon Pedigree has pained him. I asked how he felt about the loss of the Burton union system. He is a man of few words.

“You can tell how I feel by the fact we aren’t going to buy Pedigree again.”

I wondered if the move was a bit premature, perhaps he might wait and see how the flavour might change in future casks. He sets his jaw and gives me a simple but firm “no”. No Burton union. No Pedigree. End of.

Brad is gently starting to tempt the Shovel’s most ardent Pedigree fans over to alternative brews. Frank, now 86, has been a regular fixture at the pub since he was 16. He’s been drinking Pedigree since it was legal for him to do so (probably) – essentially the entire time the beer has been available. Thanks to some recent changes in policy at Marston’s pub company (a separate entity to CBMC), the Malt Shovel can now stock guest ales from a limited pool of local breweries. Frank is being wooed with Wye Valley bitter. It costs a bit more per pint since Marston’s middleman is taking his cut along the way.

Time will tell how the changes at the Malt Shovel are received. Will Frank and Ray stop by as often? But the retirement of the Burton union sets feels like a purposeful withdrawal from cask ale and brewing heritage.

Since Carlsberg UK and Marston’s completed their merger in November 2020, we have seen the sale of London Fields and the Eagle breweries. Marston’s Visitor Centre in Burton plus Jennings, Wychwood and Ringwood breweries have all been closed. It has the stench of the Whitbread Tour of Destruction, denounced by CAMRA in 1990.

In its press release, CMBC justified the decision to retire the Burton union system by saying declining volumes in the UK cask market had made the process unviable. Certainly, Pedigree has seen decline. In 2019, the Morning Advertiser reported it was the seventh biggest cask ale brand in the UK, with nearly 41,000hl produced, generating £22.9m. At the end of last year, it had dropped to eighth place, with just under 33,500hl, generating £21.3m.

That’s nearly a 20 per cent decrease in production and a drop of £1.6m in revenue. Perhaps I’m a cynic, but there is a sense of the self-fulfilling prophecy about all this. If you choose to make a smaller volume of beer, you’ll probably sell less and make less money, I would have thought. Then I suppose you can get rid of inconveniences like the union sets guilt-free. But that’s just rampant, uninformed speculation.

Funnily enough, despite the “decline in the UK cask market” cited by CBMC, its other top-selling cask brand, Marston's Wainwright, has seen a growth in value over the same period. Production has remained relatively steady since 2019, and the brand generated £30.9m last year compared to £27.5m in 2019. But I’m sure that doesn’t mean anything.

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