We're only here for the lager

Real ale fights a losing battle as breweries spend millions on putting the same brands into every pub in the land
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The Independent Online

If you can't sell real ale in a British working-men's club, where can you sell it? This weekend, Camra - the Campaign for Real Ale - is in the middle of an Action Week to try to persuade the members of the Wheeltappers and Shunters Club, and like institutions all over Britain, of the delights of such brews as Moorhouse's Black Cat - the champion beer at this year's Great British Beer Festival.

If you can't sell real ale in a British working-men's club, where can you sell it? This weekend, Camra - the Campaign for Real Ale - is in the middle of an Action Week to try to persuade the members of the Wheeltappers and Shunters Club, and like institutions all over Britain, of the delights of such brews as Moorhouse's Black Cat - the champion beer at this year's Great British Beer Festival.

Camra wants to transform the clubs from no-go into free-flow zones for ale, and thus re-enter a market that last called time on them in the days of Watney's Red Barrel.

There is no doubt. Real ale is in deep trouble. Marketing magazine is blunt: "Beer sales go from strength to strength, due mainly to the phenomenal rise of the lager market. There seems to be no stopping the appetite of Brits for lager."

Lorna Harrison, editor of The Publican, believes that the idea of the traditional pub serving a locally brewed beer is out of date: "Now we find the same beers sold throughout the country and we have national brands. These are the brands that every pub wants to have."

Another reason for the decline in real ale consumption is the fact that more and more drinkers prefer a six-pack at home, in front of the television. During the European football championships in June, Britain's armchair army spent more than half a billion pounds on canned and bottled beer from supermarkets - almost all of it lager.

When they do go to the pub, drinkers take their new habits with them. Punch Taverns, the country's biggest pub owner, announced this month that its Firkin chain of real ale houses was to be "modernised" and re-branded to take account of the "real move to lagers and spirits".

The sale of Bass and Whitbread to Belgian beer giant Interbrew is likely to encourage the trend. Interbrew produces the "reassuringly expensive" Stella brand, as well as Labatt. In the 12 months to June, sales of Stella and Carling (also now owned by Interbrew) grew by more than 20 per cent. Stella is found today in just under half of all pubs, while draught Bass and Greene King IPA, by far the most popular real ales, can be found nationally in just one pub in five.

Many believe that marketing is responsible for what is happening. Between them, Stella, Guinness and Budweiser spent more than £100m on advertising last year. Budweiser saw its sales jump 8 per cent, to more than £100m, following its television ad campaign featuring Mafia-style lizards.

By contrast, real ale has not been advertised on television since the mid-Nineties. The only nationally marketed non-lagers are John Smith and Boddington, both of them pasteurised keg ales.

When Camra launched its celebrated offensive back in the Seventies, keg beer was the principal target, with lager little more than a distraction. Today, lager has swept all before it.

Jonathan Mail, a Camra spokesman, concedes that the industry is moving away from real ales; but, he says, the war is not yet lost. There is Theakston's Cool Cask, a contemporary ale from Scottish and Newcastle, now being promoted in the North, and also Young's Triple A, served at a slightly lower temperature than usual, which is showing promise in the London area.

"We believe that the big breweries are making a huge marketing mistake," he said. "Look at the 41,000 visitors we had this year at the Great British Beer Festival. Look at the hard work and enthusiasm being displayed by the micro-breweries.

"It is up to the major players to give a lead. We would like to see Interbrew give some form of commitment to draught Bass - one of their finest products - which has had no real advertising budget for five years. We want to see the Chancellor bring in a progressive beer duty which reduces the excise paid by micro-breweries and helps them to compete. Whatever happens, we will continue to fight for the future of real ale."

Brave words, but Stephen Foster, editor of Checkout magazine, which this summer carried out a survey of British drinking habits, is in no doubt of the end result. The UK, he says, is "no longer a nation of warm ale and low-quality plonk drinkers". Consumers are becoming more "discerning" and shifting towards a "continental pattern of consumption".

Lovers of the traditional pint of wallop, including, perhaps, the novitiates of the working-men's clubs, must hope that the glass Camra is raising is not the parting glass.

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