Guest-beer battle opens in Brussels

EU and Britain clash over claim that beers from Continent are being kept out
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The Independent Online
Government and brewing representatives met Brussels officials yesterday to try to preserve the livelihood of many small brewers. The dispute is over the British "guest-beer" provision, which allows tied landlords to sell a cask-conditioned ale from a rival brewer. Brussels objects to the requirement that it must be "cask-conditioned", saying it prevents other European brewers selling their beers, many of which are lagers, in Britain.

The British say small brewers would be at risk if the protective guest- beer provision were removed. They are already struggling against a competitive tide arising from consolidation that has seen Scottish & Newcastle Breweries take over Courage, and Bass's move to acquire Carlsberg-Tetley. Those acquisitions alone mean 70 per cent of beer drunk in Britain is produced by two brewers.

Changes since the Government forced brewers owning more than 2,000 pubs collectively to sell more than 11,000 outlets 1989-1992 have hit some smaller brewers hard. To recoup lost takings, the big brewers have been waging a price war.

Small brewers have not benefited greatly from the guest- beer provision. Many landlords declined the chance to sell beers produced by rivals, and distribution costs have also been a hindrance. In addition, British pubs sell many Continental beers, which undermines the EU argument. Other member- states have erected far bigger protective trade barriers. Ironically, the touch-paper for the guest-ale spat with Brussels was a complaint by a British importer who wanted to supply customers with a Bavarian beer. Big brewers said the beer failed to qualify under the guest-beer provision because it was not cask-conditioned.

The European Commission says it has no objection to a measure which helps small breweries compete with the giants but what is unacceptable is resulting discrimination against any small brewers of artisanal beer in Germany or Belgium who might want to sell to Britons. The heart of Britain's defence is that 40 Continental breweries produce cask-conditioned beer and so enjoy privileged access.

The case for retaining the rule has also been questioned by Britain's Federation of Small Businesses, which says it has not even provided small British brewers with new sales opportunities: big brewers have simply emerged as the main suppliers of cask-conditioned beer the Federation says.

EU officials said a possible deal would be to agree to define a guest beer as one which has not been pasteurised. Another Commission compromise, limiting eligibility to breweries whose annual production is beneath a certain threshold, has been rejected by the industry.

A matter of live vs dead

CASK-CONDITIONED

After the brewing process, the "beer" is poured into a steel cask and live yeast is added.

The cask is then sealed and the ale allowed to ferment for two to three weeks, producing its own carbon dioxide. It is then served through a "hand- pulled" pump.

NON-CASK-CONDITIONED OR 'KEG'

Brewed the same way as cask-conditioned beer but filtered at the end of the brewing process, making it completely "dead".

The beer is poured into a keg and attached to an extraneous carbon-dioxide source. The fizzed-up brew is then served via a keg-dispenser.

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