Brewers face new 'widget' real ale challenge

Giant breweries may be merging in response to rising competition, falling beer consumption, and the steady flow of cheap cross-Channel imports. But minor breweries are opening every week, with a record 57 new brewers starting up last year alone. This brings the total number of producers of real ale to 347, according to the industry's guardian angel, Camra.

New entries to this year's Good Beer Guide have set up shop in buildings as varied as a disused woollen mill, an historic dockyard, an old forge, a garage, a converted granary, and a former county court building.

While the beers may vary in quality, their names are almost universally awful, including Double Whammy, Bog Standard Bitter and Piddle in the Snow.

The companies themselves rejoice in equally idiomatic names such as Leaking Boot, Leatherbritches - which also keeps pigs and makes beer sausages - and Frog Island, which happens to operate in the shadow of the Carlsberg lager brewery in Northampton.

Some of these will undoubtedly fail, some will operate for fun as much as profit, but the chances are that maybe a dozen will follow the example of Bruce's Brewery and its "Fill-in-the-blank and Firkin" pubs. Founded in 1979 near the start of the real ale revival, the chain now numbers 60 pubs - with 21 in-house breweries - and is part of Carlsberg-Tetley.

The big brewers revived real ales alongside their standard ales and lagers, and now treat them as premium beers. A few years ago peace almost broke out between the big brewers and Camra.

But the editor of the Good Beer Guide, Jeff Evans, has declared war on the big brewers again for a development that he says amounts to reintroducing keg beers under false colours. They are using the "widget" technology, first developed to preserve draught beer in a can, to simulate real ales and serve them from a keg, using a swan-necked dispenser to aerate the beer and topping the display with a dummy hand-pump. These nitrokeg beers, as Camra calls them, are cheaper to brew and three to four times more profitable than genuine real ale, which needs greater care and keeps less well.

Real ale has made a big comeback since the dark days in the 60s, when mass-produced keg beers like Watneys Red Barrel were driving cask conditioned beers out of existence.

The worst offenders in Camra's eyes are Yorkshire-based breweries like John Smith and Tetley, which offer parallel versions of their best beers. Camra suspects that Courage is about to follow suit.

Caffrey's Irish Ale, brewed in Northern Ireland by Bass, is typical of nitrokeg beers, and makes no claim to be anything else, says Camra. But customers pay an extra 10p a pint for it on average, which must be working wonders for Bass profits.

However, Camra and the big brewers are united in their appeal to the Chancellor to stem the tide of cheap beer that is crossing the channel.

The average UK pint of bitter costs pounds 1.43, of which the Chancellor gets 46p, comprising 25p of excise duty and 21p of VAT. Brewing and delivering the beer cost 27p, while running costs of the pub add a further 32p, leaving a gross profit of 38p, says the guide - of which the shareholders get an average 6p. By contrast, the duty in France works out at around 4p a pint.

As a percentage of total costs, tax has actually fallen, especially from the high point caused by the imposition of VAT. But the average UK pint could still be 30p cheaper if cross-Channel taxes were harmonised.

The Good Beer Guide lists 5,000 real ale pubs and 53 Beers of the Year, divided into eight categories and covering the country from the Orkneys to the South Coast. The winners include three medium-sized regional breweries - Fullers of London, Eldridge Pope from Dorset, both quoted companies, and the Lincolnshire-based Bateman.

Clifford German