War on small brewers is misguided and dangerous

Our beer expert Andrew Nowell
Our beer expert Andrew Nowell
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Our beer expert Andrew Nowell takes a look at a potentially 'disatrous' attack on smaller breweries...

It’s not been difficult to work out that for some time a certain section of ale fans has been increasingly unhappy with the incredible diversity of the moddern beer scene.

Now, however, things have been stepped up a few notches and they are officially going into battle. The consequences for those of us who love having lots of different brews to sample could be disastrous.

The attack of the dinosaurs, as we might call it, is couched in the technical language of the motions for the Campaign for Real Ale’s AGM, which includes a call for Small Brewery Duty

Relief to be “reduced in level”. This should be “coupled with an increase in the barrelage on which it is granted”.

Anyone who has the misfortune to read the letters sections of the trade press in beer will be able to work out very quickly what this actually means under the politics-speak.

It is an all-out offensive waged by people who think the only beers that are any good are cask bitters, a few milds and a smattering of stouts and porters, maybe a few golden beers and IPAs if they have been around long enough.

The only breweries that should be supported are big names who’ve been in business decades, because they, in these campaigners’ eyes, ‘know what they are doing’.

New brewers and independent start-ups, responsible for much of the vitality of the current scene, are treated to a wave of sneering and criticism. The campaigners deride them as “brewers on benefits”, chancers taking advantage of overly generous handouts.

Opprobrium is also poured on anyone who dares to add any additional ingredients or make beers taste of anything other than bitters, malts and hops. They must also all be British session strength, because anything else is “stupid”.

Camra must defeat this tendency within its ranks, and defeat it wholesale. That is because every single one of its propositions are flat-out wrong and could wreak havoc if given any sort of rein at all.

There is no distinction at all between virtuous large scale brewers and mediocre small ones. Some large companies brew excellent beer. So do many smaller ones.

Neither is there any clear water between the traditionalists and the modernists. Here in the borough we have the likes of Prospect and Wily Fox whose offerings are largely cask and bottle, fitting nicely into the established template of what pubs will stock. There’s also Hophurst, running as a social enterprise.

Elsewhere, Tiny Rebel blend cask with can and keg, to fantastic effect. Marble, a classic example of a brewery that can be a bit of all things to everyone, would be caught up along with the anti-craft movement’s favourite boogeyman at Cloudwater in the same city.

The proposals also completely ignore how businesses actually work. Tiny Rebel has gone from a couple of friends to a huge business quickly, because they make fine beers. Prospect started in a garage. So did Brass Castle over in North Yorkshire. Brewdog and Beavertown were once radical upstarts and are now the figureheads of a whole movement.

The diversity of beers being produced, which is always a sticking point among the beer duty brigade, is also an overwhelmingly good thing. Sours, red ales, super-strong imperials and many others besides: all these have roles to play in broadening the audience for ale and ensuring it appeals to a wide cross-section of society. That makes business sense too.

The campaign is also relentlessly insular and British. Other brewing cultures, like Belgium, the USA, the Netherlands, Germany and the Czech Republic do not at all stick to the template being proposed. In an era of communication and travel, why not widen the horizons?

Behind the blinding figures and numbers lies a sinister attempt to wreck most good things which have been achieved in beer in recent years.