Slump in beer sales
Government is killingthe brewing industryThe British brewing industry faces its gravest crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Latest figures show that for the three months to the end of September 2008 sales volumes in pubs declined by 8.1%, according to the British Beer and Pub Association.
And for the first time in 18 months, sales of beer in supermarkets dropped by 6%. This has prompted fears of a supermarket price war as retailers attempt to claw back lost sales. Any pick up in supermarket sales can only mean that fewer people will go to pubs, accelerating pub closures. Currently five pubs a day are closing.
It was hoped that, two years after the smoking ban in pubs was introduced, sales would recover. This has not been the case. Smokers are drinking elsewhere and non-smokers are deterred from visiting the pub as a result of the high cost of beer. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alistair Darling, increased beer duty in this year's Budget -- and increase that effectively slapped around 20 pence on the price of a pint. Brewers have also passed on rising costs of barley and hops to drinkers. The average price of a pint is now close to £3 in many parts of the country.
The British government seems determined to destroy one of the country's last remaining industries. Brewing and retailing employ close to one million people while taxes on beer and retailing -- duty, VAT and income tax -- deliver £9 billion a year to the government. And yet the government responds by adding to the crippling burden of duty brewers have to pay.
With the exception of the Irish Republic, Britain is the most heavily-taxed countries in the European Union where beer is concerned -- and the Irish froze beer duty this year and cut duty on low alcohol beers while Chancellor Darling was stoking the flames under British breweries.
One-third of the price of a pint of beer in Britain goes in tax. That's 42 pence , making Britain one of the most heavily taxed countries not only in Europe but in the world. In France, tax accounts for 5.9 pence of a pint, in Spain it's 4.5 pence and in Italy it's 12.8 pence.
And duty and other taxes disproportionately affect British beer as most of it is sold as draught in pubs, whereas in France, Germany and Italy 80% of beer is sold in the take-home trade.
The government's attitude is short-sighted to the point of blindness. If excise duty and other taxes were cut and brought into line with the rest of Europe, the government would actually gain. More people would visit pubs. Beer sales would increase, providing more duty for the government. Food sales in pubs would also increase, generating fresh income, while the need for more staff would lead to a bigger income tax haul.
If the government responds to such suggestions by saying a cut in beer duty could only fuel "binge drinking", the answer is simple: most binge drinking -- a problem now in decline -- is connected not to pubs but to supermarkets. The problem should be addressed by preventing supermarkets selling alcohol as "loss leaders", for less than the cost of production.
The government should also lead the way in Europe by calling for a look at the way beer is treated as an "industrial product". Wine is treated as an agricultural product and benefits from grants to wine producers. If brewers enjoyed the same benefits, it would mean a reduction in production costs.
Action on all fronts is needed to stop breweries and pubs closing.
Pale liquid or stored beer?
Lager -- but not as we know it
What does the term lager mean? And do we need a clear definition of the style in order to protect it from modern techniques, especially those practised by global brewers? If the response to the first question is: “Lager is just a cold, pale beer” then it also answers my second question.
The word lager is German and means a storehouse or storage place. It's similar to the English word larder, where perishable food and drink were stored before we all had refrigerators. Where beer is concerned, it's a system where beer, following fermentation, is stored at low temperatures to mature and allow yeast and protein to settle, leaving a clear liquid behind. Traditionally, lager beer has been stored for long periods, between two and three months for standard products and up to a year for stronger lagers, such as the powerful Bock beers of Bavaria in southern Germany.
But there is a growing tendency now to produce lager beers more quickly. The question of what constitutes lager was a hot debate at the British Guild of Beer Writers' annual seminar this month. Alastair Hook, who runs the Meantime Brewery in London, trained at the world-famous Brewing Faculty of Munich's Technical University, and brews a fine Pilsener, spoke out in defence of true lager brewing. The alternative view was argued equally forcefully by Paul Buttrick, a former brewer with Stella Artois.
Paul's case was that advances in technology have changed the manner in which lager beer is now brewed. Nobody would dispute his belief that the quality of malted barley is today much better than it was 50 years ago. Where global brands are concerned, his view that their brewers use fewer aroma and bittering hops and their beers are less fruity and hoppy as a result is not a cause for disagreement.
Paul would not have pleased his former employer with the remark that “many beers that became global brands have less distinctive character than they originally had”. But the real meat of his contribution lay in the way in which so-called modern lagers are produced. “The fermentation and conditioning of lager was traditionally a three-month process,” he said, “with fermentation reaching a maximum of 9 degrees Celsius. Modern fermentations tend to be at a higher temperature – nearer 15 degrees C – and are therefore faster. The conditioning or lagering period is also short because higher temperatures are used.”
The temperatures mentioned by Paul Buttrick are crucial to the debate. What he is describing is beer that is virtually indistinguishable from ale, made by a method known as “warm fermentation”.
Thanks to the awesome dominance of the global brewers we are in danger of losing one of the world's great beer styles. On my travels and in my research, I have found that lagering or storing beer is far older than has previously been thought. It's commonly believed that lager is a child of the industrial revolution of the 19th century, when ice-making machines were invented. But the style is much older.
In the famous brewing city of Bamberg in Upper Bavaria, brewers there have, since the 16th century and possibly earlier, stored beers in caves hewn from sandstone rock and cut ice from lakes and rivers to keep the beer cool. So determined were the brewers to maintain the quality and flavour of their beers that they imported further supplies of ice from Finland by boat. The best-known brewery in Bamberg, Heller-Trum, whose smoked beer is widely exported, now keeps its beers cold in the cellars with air conditioning but still lagers them for between two and three months.
The best-known beer that adheres to strict lagering techniques is Budweiser Budvar in the Czech Republic. The premium beer is matured for 90 days in cellars beneath the brewery. Brewmaster Josef Tolar delights in tapping the lager tanks at one, two and three months to show visitors how the beer improves with age, ending after 90 days with a mellow, clean, honey and vanilla character totally absent at one or two months.
I have seen the global versions of “lager” at close hand, too. At the Vena Brewery in St Petersburg in Russia, owned by Carlsberg, the total production time for its beers – that's mashing and boiling as well as maturation – is 21 days. Earlier this year I witnessed exactly the same system at work at the Zywiec Brewery in Poland, owned by Heineken. Here again, both Zywiec and Heineken beers are produced in just 21 days. Yet a short drive away, Zywiec's second brewery at Cieszyn produces the remarkable Zywiec Porter – in reality a dark lager – that is matured for 90 days.
The global brands are not lagers in any real sense of the word. They are pale, cold alcohols produced as quickly as ales. In Britain, Siba – the Society of Independent Brewers – defends the interests of cask ale producers. Perhaps it's time for European craft brewers to create a similar body to defend and promote true lager beer before this great and noble style disappears beneath the ice floes.
Portman Group wields the axe
If Skullsplitter is withdrawn, could this bethe beginning of the end for strong beers?
What is the point of the Portman Group? It's a marketing watchdog that oversees a brewing industry code of practice on the naming, packaging and promoting of alcohol -- and its main aim at the moment appears to be to close down a successful Scottish beer on the grounds that it could encourage violence.
The beer in question is Skull Splitter, a 8.5% beer produced by the Orkney Brewery. According to a report by management consultants PIPC, commissioned by the Portman Group, the name of the beer "implies violence". The report was also concerned about the impact the strength may have on the drinker.
You might draw the conclusion from this that Skull Splitter is a "park bench" canned beer aimed at people with drinking problems. On the contrary, it's been produced for more than 20 years, has won CAMRA's Champion Winter Beer of Britain competition, is not sold in cans and, most importantly, is not available in supermarkets.
I know the Orkney Brewery well and have twice visited its remote and beautiful l0cation overlooking the sea. It was founded by Roger White, who is that rarity in the brewing industry -- a teetotal brewer. It seems unlikely he would produce a beer that might cause damage to those who drink it.
Roger has retired and Orkney is now part of Sinclair Breweries, which also owns Atlas, another small craft brewery in Scotland. Sinclair is enraged by the Portman Group's investigation and has mounted a vigorous defence of the name Skull Splitter.
Norman Sinclair, the group's managing director, says the beer is named after after an historic figure, Thorfinn Hausakluif. He was the seventh Viking Earl of Orkney and his nickname was Skull Splitter. Mr Sinclair adds: "We are completely stunned by the hard line the Portman Group has taken with Skull Splitter. When it first raised its concerns with us on the back of the PIPC report, we fully explained the historical background to the name and, as responsible brewers, we were happy to try and work with them to find a solution.
"Indeed, we've cooperated with them every step of the way, but it's apparently got us nowhere. Again and again, we have stressed to the Portman Group that Skull Splitter, like all our beers, is a high quality, hand-crafted product designed to be savoured by adults who enjoy the real ale experience. We never target any of our beers at a young market, nor do we allow them to be sold cut price. In addition, Skull Splitter is not sold in supermarkets."
Mr Sinclair said he had reminded the Portman Group that Sinclair Breweries was the first small independent brewer to incorporate new government alcohol consumption guidelines on all labelling. "Wev'e always promoted a responsible attitude towards our products and while we recognise that the Portman Group is trying to address a very real problem with under-age drinking in this country, real ales are not the cause of these issues."
I feel a sense of despair when I read the Portman Group's reasoning. Skull Splitter has been on sale for two decades. Did the PIPC carry out any research to discover whether the beer has ever been named by the police as having a direct link to violence? Have any drinkers appeared in court claiming they got hammered on Skull Splitter the night before?
You might think the Portman Group should be concerned about more high-profile drinks, easily available in supermarkets, that can be bought and passed on to under-age drinkers. But it has used its considerable clout to attempt to remove from pubs and the off-trade a beer that has been around for some time, has never been known to cause trouble and has picked up many awards, including the CAMRA accolade, from the industry.
The Portman decision has wider implications. Does this spell the end for strong beer in Britain? The PIPC menacingly says it is concerned not only with the name Skull Splitter but "also the impact the strength may have on the drinker". Britain has a long and rich heritage of producing strong ales, such as barley wines and winter warmers. Are they now to be axed on the grounds that, despite being brewed for centuries, they damage consumers? If so, would it be goodbye to Fuller's ESB and Young's Winter Warmer as well as the "wee heavies" produced in Scotland.
That wonderful beer, Greene King's Strong Suffolk, would have to go for fear it might lead to an outbreak of mayhem on the streets of Bury St Edmunds, What on earth is Greene King doing, using the word "strong" on its labels?
There is another drink named after a Viking chieftain that shows arrows thwacking into targets and could be considered to encourage violence. It's called Strongbow, a Bulmers cider now owned by Britain's biggest brewer, Scottish & Newcastle. I wonder if the Portman Group has the balls to tell S&N to remove Strongbow from supermarket shelves?
Don't hold your breath.
Once again on 'old' Stella
You'd be amaized!As a follow up to my recent criticism of InBev for suggesting, in a television commercial, that Stella Artois has been brewed since the 14th century -- it was launched in 1926 -- Nigel Jury has contacted me to point out that the advertisement mentions the use of maize in the beer. If InBev is claiming that maize was used in any of its beers in the 14th century, he says, that is a remarkable achievement as the grain was only discovered by Europeans growing in America some 200 years later.
Has anyone caught sight of the commercial recently? I haven't seen it. Perhaps InBev has pulled it. Was it something I said?