Germans join in pub brawl

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THE GERMAN Government has taken the unusual step of intervening in support of a small Lancashire beer importer in his battle with the British Government.

Carl-Joseph Weirs, agricultural attache at the German Embassy in London, has written to Ian Lang, President of the Board of Trade, protesting about what German brewers see as unfair exclusion from the British market. The dispute has already raised concerns in the brewing industry, as well as from real ale aficionados, who fear a flood of cheap German lager.

The intervention from Bonn was prompted by lobbying from Andrew Ronnan, who set up the Bavarian Lager Company in Whalley, near Clitheroe, a few years ago. His plan was to import Inobrau Bavarian lager into the UK. He succeeded in selling the product to about 25 pubs in and around Lancashire but found he was unable to sell to tenanted pubs.

Tenanted pubs are allowed to offer one so-called guest ale under a special dispensation in the 1989 Beer Orders. Lager and keg beers are excluded.

Mr Weirs wrote to Mr Lang: "Some German brewers might want to enter the guest beer market but cannot do so because their beer is not cask conditioned. Please tell us what action you envisage taking in this matter."

The Bavarian Lager Company has already complained to Brussels over unfair competition from UK brewers, which it said stifled its plans to import German lager. Since then, the company has suspended imports while it awaits a decision, and possible government compensation.

The European Commission has since written to the Government, demanding it confirm that its current policy complies with European competition policy, and the free movement of goods.

Jonathan Evans, minister for consumer affairs, in a recent speech to the brewing industry, praised the guest ale provision. "The guest beer provision has been a resounding success. The guest beer has increased the interest in this traditional product, helping the small brewers break into and develop their market. It has also led to a rise in new products, providing the consumer with more choice and higher quality product."

It seems likely that the Government will fight to retain the status quo. If the guest beer slot was opened up to keg-conditioned beers and lagers, it would disrupt a profitable business for smaller brewers, which have been the main beneficiaries.

If German lagers could be freely imported, that would be a big setback for the premium lager market in the UK. Most premium foreign brands, such as Stella Artois, are brewed in Britain under licence.

The stance of the Germans suggests the row has only just begun. Camra, the campaign for real ale, objects to any weakening of the guest beer rules. A spokesman said: "We do not see any benefit to the industry of surrendering this allowance."