Real ale campaigners fear for survival of independents

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Brewers are deeply divided about the benefits of guest ale. The high- profile Camra pressure group says hundreds of breweries face closure if the provision is scrapped but some small producers say their survival is threatened more by mergers among the big firms.

Yesterday Camra said expanding the guest-beer law to include non-cask- conditioned beer from Europe would see the British guest-beer market monopolised by big British brewers promoting popular lager brands.

If this happens, Camra said, about 200 independent brewers could close, with the smaller brewers being put seriously at risk. Under present rules, pubs tied to major breweries can buy one cask-conditioned ale from a supplier of their choice under the guest-beer law introduced in 1989.

It has resulted in thousands of landlords stocking new beers, creating a wider choice and promoting the traditional English penchant for real ale, which has been making a big comeback.

Not all British brewers benefited but guest beer did open markets for hundreds of small independent brewers. There has been a big increase in new micro-breweries, in particular on-site at pubs.

Stephen Cox, Camra's campaigns manager, said a change in the rule to include other EU countries would see the big brewers getting another slice of the market share: "Small brewers need local markets for local beers and the guest beer has been very helpful to them.

"But if Brussels insists that the guest beer can be mass-produced, all this choice will be under threat. Small specialist foreign brewers won't benefit either - the largest British brewers, with their well-known brands, will sweep all before them."

Mr Cox believes EU intervention is unnecessary: "Britain's pubs offer the widest choice of draught beers in Europe, we have more foreign beers on sale than any other European country and one of the most open markets to imports. Why doesn't the Commission investigate real restrictive practices in other countries?"

However, some independent brewers felt that Camra was over-reacting to the stance of the European Commission.

Olly Graham, sales manager of the Crouch Vale Brewery, in Chelmsford, whose six employees help to brew the famous Willie Warmer bitter, said the organisation was going "a little over the top".

"At the end of the day I understand their concerns but there will always be people who will want to drink real ale in this country.

"I'm certain that 90 per cent of my customers would rather have real ale as a guest brew than some continental lager from deepest Liechtenstein."