THESE are hard times for many of Britain's beleaguered publicans. Low-duty imported beer from across the Channel is taking its toll on the trade. Now comes a new threat from nearer home.
A small brewery in Birmingham has become the first in the country to develop the concept of draught beer in a bottle. A two-litre plastic bottle it may be, but the contents can be kept smooth (neither fizzy or flat) with a creamy head for up to five days after opening.
The secret is a 'widget' installed in the neck. This is the device that has revolutionised canned beer through the draught-flow method. Since Guinness started it, almost every big UK brewer has followed suit.
But Aston Manor is geared up for bottles rather than cans. Indeed, it recently spent pounds 2m on new equipment to treble its capacity. The investment seems likely to pay off handsomely. 'Brewers from all over the country have been ringing up to ask if we'll pack for them, and we've had inquiries from Denmark and Japan,' said Michael Hancocks, managing director.
He is confident that the widget-in-a-bottle has two distinct advantages over the can. One is flexibility - the bottle can be resealed. The other is price. Cans work out, on average, at pounds 1.50 a pint. But each plastic bottle contains three- and-a-half pints and retails for pounds 3.49.
'So we're selling draught beer at pounds 1 a pint at a time when it's pounds 1.60 in pubs round here and anything up to pounds 2 in London,' said Peter Ellis, Aston Manor's finance director. 'We're targeting people who can no longer afford to go to pubs, particularly pensioners and the unemployed.'
Mr Ellis has been with the company since 1984. He joined with his father, Doug, who is chairman of both Aston Villa and Aston Manor. The brewery was in financial trouble when they moved in. It had been founded by a few of the workers made redundant when Ansells moved its brewing operation out of Birmingham.
They acquired six pubs and 50 free-trade outlets. But, as the younger Mr Ellis explained: 'The capital involved in tied estate was too high. We decided that the coming trend was the take-home market.'
Then, as now, Mr Hancocks supplied the hops from about 300 acres he owns in Hereford and Worcester. Since 1987, the company has also been making cider from apples grown on his estate. Aston Manor is now the fifth largest producer in the country. Last year, it sold 2.5 million gallons, and its share of the market is increasing by nearly 5 per cent a year.
But its foray into the bottled-water market has had its problems. Aston Manor Malvern Spring is the subject of a writ from Schweppes. Mr Hancocks, who discovered the spring on his land and had it tested, remains undeterred. 'Water's an important part of our future plans,' he insisted.
Nowhere near as important as beer, however. Last December, the company secured a pounds 200,000 deal to send more than 2 million pints of bitter and lager to Novosibirsk in Siberia. Nearer to home, it has found a lucrative market in supplying half-litre plastic bottles to rock concerts and leading sporting venues. They are soft containers, approved by the police, and with good reason.
Watching a televised big fight one night, Mr Hancocks was alarmed to see the crowd bombard the ring after taking exception to the judges' decision. Thankfully, nobody was hurt by a flying bottle. They were all empty.
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