Beer capital in mourning for independents

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IN ITS Victorian heyday, the Staffordshire town of Burton on Trent was filled with the heady smell of malt and hops. More than 30 mainly family-run breweries in Britain's beer capital turned out three million barrels a year.

But the story of independent brewing in Burton effectively came to an end last week, with the takeover of Marston's, brewers of the much-loved Pedigree ale, by a rival, and the loss of 250 jobs.

The pounds 290m sale of Marston Thompson & Evershed's, one of Britain's best- known breweries, to Wolverhampton & Dudley Breweries, after an acrimonious takeover, leaves just one tiny brewer working in a town now dominated by conglomerates.

Marston's headquarters will be closed, although its Shobnall Road brewery, run by the Hurdle family, which still produces its famous bottle-conditioned India Pale Ale, will stay open. The deal will create Britain's largest regional brewer, with three breweries, almost 1,500 pubs, mainly in the north, and annual sales of around pounds 500m. Both sides say the move prevented even more job losses.

But locals feel the heart has been ripped out of Burton, as market forces and changing tastes put pressure on the industry to slim down. "Something's gone out of this town and it is a shame," said Anthony Gilson, supping a pint of Pedigree in the Oak and Ivy pub. Mr Gilson, who worked for the company for 15 years, added: "We hoped Marston's would somehow pull a rabbit out of the hat, but it wasn't to be. If all the independents are bought up then we get less choice and the price of beer goes up. Old Mr Hurdle [who founded Marston's] must be turning in his grave."

Jim Ward, a former liaison officer for the Campaign for Real Ale (Camra), who worked with Marston's, shared the sense of loss. "It's a great pity that a brewery like Marston's should lose its independence," he said. "The Hurdle family have run it for many years and it's quite sad to see that link broken. But in the long term, consolidation is inevitable, given the change in consumer tastes - you only have to look at all the wines in the supermarket."

It is difficult to overstate the historical importance of Burton on Trent to the British ale tradition. The local monks (Wulfric Spot, Earl of Mercia, founded Burton Abbey in 1002) were the first to realise the special quality of Burton's well water. By the mid-19th century, just about every major British brewer had a satellite brewery in the town. The great names included Bass, Ratcliffe and Gretton, Charrington, Worthington and Ind Coope - all of which have now lost their independence. In 1888, more than 8,000 people were employed in the industry. Bass still employs 2,000 people in the town. Last year it took over a neighbouring brewery owned by Carlsberg- Tetley and is now making some of its giant rival's beer on its behalf. Only one small independent, Burton Bridge, remains.

The national Campaign for Real Ale said the takeover had local implications in addition to job losses. "Independent brewers represent our heritage and consumer choice," said David Hawkins, Camra spokesman. "Amalgamation is a bad thing for heritage, the local community and jobs. We believe independent brewers give you a better beer."