Pubs, and the beers they serve, are under threat from our thirst for wine. But supermarkets are offering brewers a lifeline

People are funny, and the grass is always greener. In what are arguably the two greatest beer-producing countries in Europe, the UK and Belgium, beer consumption is dropping while wine consumption is rising. In France and Italy, where the wine is awesome, it's beer sales that are on the rise. I'm not sure what's going on in Germany, the only country I can think of where beer and wine are on an equal level of quality. Perhaps they're drinking more vodka and Red Bull.

People are funny, and the grass is always greener. In what are arguably the two greatest beer-producing countries in Europe, the UK and Belgium, beer consumption is dropping while wine consumption is rising. In France and Italy, where the wine is awesome, it's beer sales that are on the rise. I'm not sure what's going on in Germany, the only country I can think of where beer and wine are on an equal level of quality. Perhaps they're drinking more vodka and Red Bull.

Of course, there are always complex reasons for these shifts in tastes. In the UK, these include the shift from drinking in pubs towards restaurants, the increase in drinking among women (who favour wine over beer), the love of southern Europe and its ways, and perceptions that wine is a food-friendlier drink than beer (of which more in a moment). And there are surely others of which I'm ignorant. Whatever the reasons, however, the trend is clear. According to the research group Datamonitor, wine consumption will increase by 16 per cent in the next four years, while beer sales decline.

The drop in beer sales is depressing for two reasons. One: it threatens the brewing industry, which is already in a parlous state. This affects jobs, obviously, but it's also a matter of diversity and excellence. Every brewery that closes, every interesting beer that no longer gets made, diminishes the country's heritage and its choice of drinks. Two: the drop reflects a pressure on the traditional pub, a unique institution that few want to see go the way of Routemaster buses and village shops.

But it's hard to see where the long-term future of the pub lies. Or at least of the pub as we know it. The Campaign for Real Ale says that 20 pubs close every week, and that 90 per cent of the British brewing industry will be controlled by two major groups within 15 years. Establishments calling themselves pubs will certainly survive but they will not be the locally run places that I learned to love when I first came to this country a long time ago. In some ways they will be better, sometimes serving good food, for instance. But if you're looking for what George Orwell celebrated in the pub - the "solid comfortable ugliness of the 19th century" and a homely atmosphere untouched by modern globalising uniformity - you'll be disappointed.

Of course, pubs are not the same thing as beer. There is a growing movement to place good beer into the realms of modern fashion and flexibility. Which in the case of drink means matching alcohol with food, or enabling people to drink it at home. The swish Aubergine restaurant in London now offers a beer list as well as a wine list, with full support from the sommelier.

Supermarkets also support beer with enthusiasm, especially Tesco, Sainsbury's, Booths and - for the moment anyway - Safeway. Tesco has reported a 20 per cent increase in sales of bottled real ale, which seems to buck the gloomy predictions. And Tom Cannavan, chef-proprietor of the highly acclaimed www.wine-pages.com website, has added www.beer-pages.com to his portfolio. There must be some life left in the national drink if Cannavan thinks that it's worth a punt.

The future of beer may lie in matching it with food, and the three below have a useful role to play. They're also good for drinking on their own, needless to say, and I tasted them that way in the privacy of my own home. A better setting than a pub, that unique combination of shared public space and private pod of solitary contemplation? Of course not. I'd rather have drunk any of them in a cosy nook in West Sussex, Dorset, or wherever. And it grieves me to think that in 50 years no one will remember what those places were like.

Top brews: Three food-friendly ales

Old Speckled Hen Around £1.85/500ml, tel: 0845 850 4545 for stockists Deep colour, but refreshingly light palate makes this a perfect companion for hard cheese, cheddar especially.

Löwenbräu Oktoberfestbier Around £1.60/500ml, Sainsbury's, Majestic, Morrison This well-rounded, limited-edition lager can be drunk with steak or bangers and mash.

Black Wych Stout £1.59/500ml, Sainsbury's Good creamy texture, nicely sharp hoppy notes on the palate, medium of weight. Good partner for a dish of braised beef or a steak pie.

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