Home-grown ales show major brewers that small is beautiful

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Small breweries are no longer small beer for the dedicated drinker, it seems. As Bass confirmed it was in talks about a stake in Carlsberg-Tetley yesterday - which, if successful, would tie up 40 per cent of the beer market - the connoisseur who dreads being condemned to drink nothing but warm lager can sup easy again.

While regional, family and microbreweries (small breweries which may only be tied to one pub) currently account for 15 per cent of the brewing industry, the number of smaller establishments has risen dramatically during the last 20 years.

In 1976 there were only 90 small breweries. Now their number is approaching 400, according to the Campaign For Real Ale (Camra). And the range of beers is growing wider, too, with new ales breaking into the national market through supermarket chains.

"You can get all these weird and wonderful beers from small breweries that you can't get from the big boys," said Iain Loe, research manager for Camra. "There are literally hundreds of them coming to the Great British Beer Festival next week."

Winning a prize at the festival can have a dramatic effect on a brewery. Last year's overall winner was Norman's Conquest, a strong beer made by Chris Norman, an airline pilot turned brewer, who set up the Cottage Brewing Company with his wife.

The win altered things significantly for the company, which now sells Norman's Conquest nationwide in Tesco, Asda and Sainsbury. "There's been a tremendous explosion in interest," said Mr Norman. "We decided after it won that we just had to go for it. We're producing about 120,000 bottles every month on top of the cask conditioned."

He said that there would always be a market for small breweries: "We offer a product the major breweries aren't particularly interested in producing. They are about producing beers for the masses, whereas we can offer a traditional product with high quality."

If the 7 per cent volume is not adventurous enough for a jaded palate, some of the more experimental beers produced around the country can have unexpected ingredients, such as coriander, honey, strawberries or, as in the case of Fraoch, heather. The Heather Ale Company uses flowering heather from June to December, which gives the ale a unique flavour and taste.

These forays have often been taken up by the major brewers once they have proved successful. Recent offerings from Whitbread include Scarlet Lady (flavoured with juniper berries), Fuggles Chocolate Mild and Colonel Pepper's Lemon Ale.

But where the smaller players score over the major brewers is their predilection for bizarre names. Serious ale drinkers face the dilemma of ordering a Sneck Lifter, or a Riggwelter, which is not easy after a couple of pints of the stuff. Riggwelter is the Yorkshire name for a sheep that has fallen on its back and cannot get up, which seems highly appropriate as the strength of the brew is 5.9 per cent alcohol by volume (ABV), compared with Boddingtons, which has 3.8 per cent ABV.

Patrick Greene, sales manager for the Black Sheep Brewers which makes Riggwelter, sees small brewers going from strength to strength. He is dismissive of the major brewers: "They are serving the lowest common denominator. We, on the other hand, produce extremely good beer by traditional brewing and it's no more expensive to buy."

Even with the renewed optimism in the real ale industry, the beardy image of the traditional beer-drinker is hard to shake. Chris Norman, who has named the rest of his beers after famous railway lines, is philosophical: "I think railway fanatics and traditional beer drinkers have a lot in common. Let's face it, they both still wear anoraks."

Takeover battle, page 15

Six local brews to drive you to drink

Norman's Conquest Brewed by Cottage Brewing Company, Somerset. 7 per cent ABV. A dark beer with a very robust flavour.


Brewed by Black Sheep, Yorkshire. 5.9 per cent ABV. A beer that is fruity without being too sweet

Fraoch Heather Ale Brewed by Heather Ale, Alloa, Clackmannanshire. 4.1 per cent ABV. Made with flowering heather from June to December, and the old heather in December to March.

Sneck Lifter

Brewed by Jennings, in Cockermouth, Cumbria. 5.1 per cent ABV. A dark, strong, warming beer.

Summer Lightning

Brewed by Hop Back, Salisbury. 5 per cent ABV. One of the first light summer ales, which was copied by many other brewers.

Spitfire Ale

Brewed by Shepherd Neame, Faversham, Kent. 4.7 per cent ABV. A fruity, hoppy ale with a yeast sediment.