View from City Road: Choose your drink with care

The decision by Courage to cut 700 jobs is no surprise. Courage has probably come off worst in the price war that has raged among brewers for the past 12 months and its decision to cut staff is the inevitable consequence of falling sales. Moreover, unless the cuts allow it to win back business, there could be worse to come.

All brewers are feeling the pinch because publicans have gained more leverage to drive prices down. That is partly due to the Beer Orders, which have dramatically increased the number of licencees free to buy drink from whomever they want. The recession has played a role too by making consumers more cost-conscious.

But Courage has some particular problems that compound its difficulties.

First it has too many brands. Alongide the valuable John Smith's and Director's bitter and Fosters lager it has some rather lame names that dilute the effect of marketing and advertising support.

Second, its effort to sell to the free trade is weakened because other brewers - notably Bass - provide superior back-up services. Where Courage can only compete on price, Bass can also help to make a publican's life easier.

Third - and unlike its main rivals - it has no dedicated estate of pubs that can form a base platform. True, it has supply agreements with the 1,500-strong Chef & Brewer pubs recently bought by Scottish & Newcastle and with the 4,500 strong estate of Inntrepreneur establishments, but neither of these arrangements is permanent.

Bad news from Courage underlines the vulnerability of other brewers and highlights the attractions of those companies that have quit brewing. Those who do want exposure to the drinks sector - and bear in mind its woeful 25 per cent underperformance against the market average over the past 12 months - would be best to stick to pure retailers like Boddington, Greenalls, Wetherspoon or Regent Inns.

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