Consuming Issues: Raise a glass to the rise of real ale

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The Independent Online

Drinkers in London have become wearily familiar with a phenomenon unthinkable even a decade ago: no draught bitter. Gleaming new bars with stainless steel bartops are the worst culprits. A request for Britain's traditional ale is often met with a quizzical look, which occasionally approaches pity. Some pubs, equally egregious in my opinion, serve only "smoothflow" brewery-conditioned bitter rather than the real thing.

Thankfully, pubs outside London have a much better record, with pubs in the traditional ale strongholds of the South West, Yorkshire, Derbyshire and Norfolk almost always offering cask beer on tap. Pleasingly it often comes from a few miles away, given that real ale doesn't travel well. A league table in the highly recommended Good Beer Guide shows that West Yorkshire has the most breweries (34), followed by Norfolk (31), Derbyshire and North Yorkshire (both 28) and Devon (27).

So, given the disappearance of real ale from establishments it's cheering that its historic descent into the saloon bar of oblivion has been halted, and – whisper it quietly – even reversed. Data from the market researchers AC Nielsen for the new Cask Ale Report, published last week, showed that sales of real ale rose for the first time in 27 years in the first six months of 2009, climbing from 235 million to 237million pints, an increase of 2.3 million.

Admittedly a 1 per cent increase is short of a full-blooded resurgence. But the last full-year real ale consumption rise was in 1982, when the Human League's Don't You Want Me topped the new-year singles chart. However, the sales rise should be no surprise, given signs that real ale is stirring from decades of slumber.

Almost 40 years after the Campaign for the Revitalisation of Ale was founded by four friends, Michael Hardman, Jim Makin, Graham Lees and Bill Mellor in 1971, Camra welcomed its 100,000th member this summer. Meanwhile, dozens of new micro-breweries have opened, turning out a glorious and eclectic collection collection of bitters, pale ales, milds and stouts. Britain now boasts 711 breweries, more than at any time since the Second World War.

Set against Camra's record membership and an increase in small breweries have been two developments bemoaned by campaigners: the decline of pubs and the rise of the national super-brewers: Greene King and Marston's.

According to the British Beer and Pubs Association, pubs have been closing at a record 52 a week. Some 7,500 may call time for a final time in the next couple of years – victims of the smoking ban, high taxes, and lower spending in the recession. Many may not mourn these pubs; most were old, nicotine-stained, male-dominated hard-drinking boozers, although there's a place in my heart for them.

As for the breweries, Greene King and Marston's (formerly Wolverhampton and Dudley Breweries) have been swallowing up smaller regional breweries on their march to national power. Greene King has gulped down Morland, Ridley's, Belhaven and Hardy's & Hansons, while Marstons has guzzled Ringwood and Jennings.

Undoubtedly, the disappearance of these historic brands has diminished choice and removed distinctive ales from the market. But set against that is the fact that Greene King and Marston's have larger advertising and distribution budgets to ensure real ale can compete against larger lager brands – and ensure that future drinkers have the opportunity to sup them.

Because, as rising numbers of drinkers appreciate, there's much pleasure to be had in malty, hoppy brews that are fermented once in the brewery and once in the cask. Rich, complex and distinctive, they are a world away from the carbon dioxide-infused industrial lagers available across the world.

Just as there is a place in a drinker's heart for a quality Continental lager, so every pub should have a place for real ale.

Heroes & Villians

Hero: The Co-op

During the past year, the Co-op has been steaming ahead on animal welfare, winning the the first RSPCA People's Choice award. The Co-op has given 20 million chickens more space, a more stimulating environment, better ventilation and banned eggs from cage hens. Animal welfare isn't always the most glamorous issue, though it is important. Congratulations, too, to Marks & Spencer and Sainsbury's, which were also nominated for the People's Choice award sponsored by The Independent. More than 11,500 of our readers voted for the awards. Thank you.

Villain: Scottish Power

Of course, it could have been any of the Big Six energy firms for failing to pass on steep falls in wholesale gas and electricity prices. But of EDF, E.ON, British Gas, Npower, Scottish & Southern and Scottish Power, the latter has the highest rates for all payment methods – £1,156 for direct debit customers, £1,264 for pre-payment, and a whopping £1,361 for standard quarterly accounts. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the relationship between national ownership and high fuel prices, Scottish Power is foreign owned, by Spanish utilities giant Iberdrola.

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