Private Investor: I only back beers I approve of - so research is essential

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The Independent Online

I enjoy a pint of ale as much as the next man, possibly more, and never invest in a brewery whose beer I don't like. Obviously, this requires a good deal of on-the-ground research, but I try to keep as level-headed as I can about my shares in this ever-fascinating sector.

I enjoy a pint of ale as much as the next man, possibly more, and never invest in a brewery whose beer I don't like. Obviously, this requires a good deal of on-the-ground research, but I try to keep as level-headed as I can about my shares in this ever-fascinating sector.

Thus it was in the early part of 2001, after a short break in Scotland, that I alighted upon Belhaven, a small outfit that I noticed enjoyed a good deal of well justified popularity north of the border. In fact, it is the largest regional brewer.

I bought the shares, as soon as I got south, for about 200p, and they've been defying original gravity ever since. Leisure spending recessions come and go, although it's fair to say that phenomenon has abated recently. Even the smoking ban in Scotland doesn't seem to have had much of an impact on the shares. They had a nasty fall at the end of last year, down to about 400p from 480p or so, but they are now back on an upward trajectory. This year they have seen an extraordinary run, and I notice a fair amount of gossip in the press about the possibility of a takeover.

Actually that wasn't, as I say, why I bought the shares in the first place. They seemed to me then to be a boozy counterpart to AG Barr, another Scottish institution that has served me well, and indeed served well all consumers of its excellent Irn Bru soft drink.

Belhaven is well run, traditional (the oldest brewery in Scotland) and immune to the fads and abuses that seem to characterise so much of the beer trade, hanging on to its pubs, for a start.

However, the brewing industry never seems to stop consolidating. One day we will, no doubt, be confronted by three or four gigantic brewing groups that will dominate the entire scene from South Africa to Russia and back again.

Can Belhaven survive this trend towards globalisation? It doesn't look like it. Thus, only this week, Belhaven has been breaching the 500p barrier with talk of Scottish & Newcastle wanting to take a slurp out of the glass. As it happens, I also own shares in S&N, and there is the chance that it, too, might be taken over by an even bigger group. I can see why, as S&N has shrewdly targeted the huge emerging beer market that is the Russian Federation.

Vodka may be on the rise over here, but over there they are turning to lager. Globalisation at work again, I imagine. Hardys & Hansons, a brewer I ought to have bought into but didn't, has also been up on bid speculation. Still, you shouldn't mix your drinks too much, should you?

At the risk of sounding like some crazed Scotophile, I am also heartened by the recovery in Stagecoach. I've been in there since the float in 1993, and it's been a rough ride at times. Now, though, Brian Souter, boss of this remarkable bus and rail company, has seen his vehicle through the worst of the turbulence, and investors have seen the shares rise from a nadir of 15p to the 100p-plus levels they currently trade at.

I don't especially like Souter's politics, but he is entitled to his views and I can't see it making much difference to the way he runs his companies, admirably laid back and relaxed as he is.

A few years ago, I watched a documentary about Stagecoach's bus operations on the south coast of England which made allegations about its sharp business tactics. The morning after, far from collapsing under the strain of impending scandal, shares rose. They are way off their peaks of over 200p, but at least Stagecoach is heading in the right direction.

The company's results last week confirmed that it is possible to make money out of public transport. Even Virgin Rail seems to be back on track (forgive the pun), and who thought that was ever going to happen? When so much of our public transport infrastructure seems bust and broken, I don't know how these companies manage to make a go of buses and trains, but there it is.

So, Stagecoach is another Caledonian outfit I'm happy to back. Indeed, my dream Scot takes a Stagecoach bus to a Belhaven pub, enjoys a few pints, and next day assuages his hangover with a glass of Irn Bru. Well, I've done it.

My task now is to try to sniff out other Scottish opportunities. Another journey to Skye beckons.

s.o'grady@independent.co.uk

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