UK challenged on beer policy

A TINY Lancashire beer importer has instigated a challenge to the Government from the European Commission over possible restrictive practices, which could throw the UK beer industry into fresh turmoil.

The Bavarian Lager Company, based in Whalley, complained to Brussels in 1993 that it was being unfairly hampered in selling Ingobrau, a Bavarian lager it was importing from Germany.

Andrew Ronnan, who set up BLC after he saw a gap in the market, claims he was unable to sell the lager - "a fabulous drink" - through the current distribution system to brewery owned pubs.

Nor could he break into tied outlets - despite a provision under the 1989 Beer Orders allowing them to sell a "guest ale", a provision to help small regional brewers. The company has now suspended operations while it awaits the UK's response to the Commission.

Mr Ronnan says the nub of his complaint is that the Government failed to take into account the interests of small importers. The guest ale provision specifies the drink on sale can only be a cask-conditioned ale. Stouts, lagers, and kegged bitters are all ruled out. "But any drinker might like to try a premium German lager, especially given their brewing heritage," said Mr Ronnan.

The industry is already unsettled by his move, confirmed in a letter last month from DG15, the Commission's directorate responsible for ensuring free movement of goods within the single market, to the Department of Trade and Industry. The letter, under Article 169 of the Treaty of Rome, demands that the Government proves it is complying fully with the Treaty. A DTI spokesman said on Friday the Government was "considering the content and will be replying in due course".

Jerry Fowden, chief operating officer of Bass Breweries, in Burton-on- Trent, is alarmed at the prospect of further change.

"Compliance with the Beer Orders cost Bass pounds 100m, and it is essential the industry has a period of calm to consolidate. Even though the Beer Orders were far from perfect, we would rather there was no further regulatory interference."

Although the market for guest ales may seem small, analysts say BLC's case may send shockwaves through the industry.