Real ale squeezed out by big brewers

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IT SHOULD have been the finest moment of the year for the Campaign for Real Ale. Old Groyne, Tanglefoot and more than 300 other real ales were flowing at last week's Great British Beer Festival in London, which attracted 70,000 visitors.

But beneath the frothy heads (on the beer, not the drinkers) the future is looking murky for the real ale industry and the men, and a much smaller group of women, battling to keep it alive. Only a few years ago Camra, formed in 1971, was the consumer campaign group everyone wanted to emulate. Almost single-handedly it had forced the big brewers to reintroduce traditional, hand-pumped beer and had kept open scores of threatened pubs.

Yet now sales are dropping as drinkers snub real ales in favour of mass- brewed lagers. In recent months several small and regional brewers have been guzzled up by the giants of the beer industry. Only last Thursday Greene King announced the takeover of the Abingdon brewery in Oxford, which makes Old Speckled Hen, with the loss of some 100 jobs.

"There's still a market for people like us out there," said David Adams, development manager with George Gale & Co, a Hampshire-based, family owned brewery that has been operating for 150 years. "But it's getting more difficult. We just can't compete with the economy of scale of the big boys."

Realising it is losing the battle, Camra is attempting to regroup and change strategy. In what could prove to be its last stand, it is launching a fighting fund to pay for a new publicity drive. The group is calling for a reduction in beer duty for small brewers, a law to allow tenants the right to buy their pubs and campaigning against the introduction of genetically modified hops for brewing. Billboard and broadsheet press advertising will follow shortly.

"In the past we've tended to be just a fire-fighting operation protesting against brewery closures," said Iain Loe, research manager for Camra. "Now we need to shout about the benefits of real ales and their qualities and do something to counter the big brewers."

The typical real-ale drinker, according to David Hawkins, Camra public affairs manager, is now a man who reads a broadsheet newspaper and works in middle management in East Anglia. He believes that if small brewers are allowed to tap fully into this group of people with a high disposable income they will be rewarded with huge profits. "The big brewers say that people want this fizzy nitro-keg beer," he said. "But our own research shows that people prefer the traditional country pub to the corporate theme pub or places run like McDonald's."

Camra believes that what ails real ale is not the product but the aggressive tactics of the four giant brewers (Whitbread, Scottish and Newcastle, Carlsberg Tetley and Bass), which Camra says have employed their vast advertising and marketing resources to drive out the smaller brewer and strangle the availability of traditional British beers.

"We're just asking for a level playing field for the small brewers to fight their corner," said Mr Hawkins. "It's not about market forces. The bigger brewers are cutting consumer choice. Smaller brewers can't afford to match them with their advertising."

The figures back up Camra's fears. Real ale enjoyed a 17 per cent share of the draught beer market in 1995 but since then sales for cask-conditioned ales and stouts have slumped, to 11 per cent last year. Meanwhile sales of lager have risen by almost 9 per cent since 1980, to 32 per cent of the market.