The British pint is fast becoming the beer equivalent of junk food. But it's not sunk yet...

You do not have to be a xenophobe, or even a nationalist, to enjoy something that Britain does well. Or even nostalgic to be dismayed when we abandon our greatest products, from the Rolls-Royce car to the British pint.

You do not have to be a xenophobe, or even a nationalist, to enjoy something that Britain does well. Or even nostalgic to be dismayed when we abandon our greatest products, from the Rolls-Royce car to the British pint.

As I recall, the Rolls-Royce became German. Bass, the internationally known British pint, is about to become Belgian. The company's breweries are being sold to Interbrew of Leuven. Bass makes nearly 10 million barrels of beer a year but, in its fourth century as a brewer, would rather run pubs, bars, restaurants and hotels. Perhaps its beers will be safer in the hands of a company with "brew" in its name, but don't bet on it. At Bass, the men in suits drove out the brewers. At Interbrew, that struggle continues, but in the long term the suits nearly always beat the people who make things.

The extent of Bass's self-castration distracted attention from a second such amputation. After more than 250 years in the business, Whitbread is selling its breweries - also to the Belgian giant. In the distant days when the two British companies were seriously interested in beer, some of their pints gave me magic moments. I cannot say the same for nights in (Bass-owned) Holiday Inns or meals in (Whitbread-owned) Pizza Huts.

Many drinkers may not care who owns the brewery that makes their beer, or be aware of the knives flashing behind the brew kettles. While there have been some stories in the news and features pages, the hard information has been in the business sections, where breweries turn into "units" or "operations", beers become "brands", while pubs, bars, restaurants and hotels metamorphose into something called "the leisure and hospitality industry". Have you ever heard anyone say "let's go out for some leisure and hospitality tonight"? I wouldn't care if these managers, after inflicting so much damage, didn't then desert leisure and hospitality after a year or two for the marketing of fabric softener or deodorant before going to the great golf course in the sky.

Producing a decent pint will always depend on a brewer who himself loves beer. Can big brewing companies manage it? Interbrew is best known for fair-to-middling Stella Artois and the pretty good wheat beer, Hoegaarden. Most can muster a decent speciality brew, but there are great pressures to cut costs. A penny per pint saved on millions of barrels makes it worth, for example, cutting the proportion of barley malt in favour of corn flakes (an ingredient popular among cost accountants). To a brewer making only thousands of barrels, such cheap tricks are not worth the trouble.

Adding corn to beer makes it lighter in body and flavour without affecting alcohol content. Diminish the hop content, and you save further costs while making the beer even blander. A cut here and there over the years, and you soon have the beer equivalent of junk food. Lots of people seem to enjoy junk food, and the same is true of its beery counterpart. So the brewers are urged by their marketing men to concentrate on junk beers, whether they are bland apologies for British ales or even more neutral excuses for Continental lagers. What happens next is that the bad drives out the good. Breweries making a decent pint lose their bottle in face of competition from bigger companies with bland "brands".

Bass and Whitbread had long ago lost a wholehearted commitment to British beer, and might argue that more than half their customers had too. Being a lover of British beer is sometimes like being a member of a threatened minority; under attack, minorities often feel it is better to keep quiet. By protesting, they may simply be sticking their heads above the parapet. Should I admit that this has been the worst ever year for British brewers? About a dozen regional breweries announced in the past 12 months or so that they were to close, including much-loved names such as King & Barnes (Sussex), Ward's (Yorkshire) and Mitchell's (Lancashire). By drawing attention to this, do I sustain the City's belief that brewing is not a worthwhile activity?

This creed was seen this month at the annual meeting of Young's brewery, in London, where a representative from the New Zealand investment group Guinness Peat, a shareholder in the brewery, was deservedly heckled. According to the business pages of this newspaper, he urged the company "to participate in the current wave of industry consolidation". That was my pint he was talking about.

Why do I care? Not, despite my feelings of national pride, because it is British. Nor, whatever my sense of history, because there has been brewing on the site since 1581. I care because I like Young's beers. So do many others. Nearly 50 million pints of Young's were sold last year. Why should we lose them to please someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing? Young's bitter has a distinctive and complex balance of flavours that would soon be lost if it were made as a secondary "brand" in someone else's brewery.

When I exercise my local choice of either Young's or Fuller's in one of my local pubs tonight, the fresh flavours of live beer will lap over my tongue. My senses will be aroused by the sweetness of the barley malt and the herbal, cleansing, dryness of the hop blossom. The world will seem a better place. No junk beer can do this.

Some regional brewers have been saved in management buyouts, and gone on to make wonderful beers, such as Highgate, in the West Midlands, Castle Eden, in County Durham, and Caledonian, in Scotland. We also continue to gain new, smaller micro-breweries. More than 50 micros opened this year. Some will struggle, but others will thrive. New-generation breweries such as Hopback (Wiltshire), Black Sheep (Yorkshire), Mordue (Tyneside) and Harviestoun (Scotland) are now well-established.

I shall be looking out for beers from new brewers such as Potton from Bedfordshire, Tindal in Suffolk and Nottinghamshire's Broadstone at this year's Great British Beer Festival, next week. On offer will be 284 British beers from 186 breweries... and 40,000 people are expected in the course of the week.

The suits won't see us. We are beneath their radar.

The Great British Beer Festival, Olympia, London W14 (0870 904-0300/www.gbbf.org) Tue 1 August, 5-10.30pm; Wed, 11.30am-3pm and 5-10.30pm; Thur and Fri, noon-10.30pm; Sat, 11am-7pm. Ticket prices £1.60 to £6.

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