Microbreweries: Saviour of British Pub Culture?

With a remarkable rise defying the decline of the brewing industry, are microbreweries the saviour of British pub culture?

Bucking the Downward Trend

Declining beer sales and week-on-week closure of UK pubs has led many to predict the imminent demise of one of Britain’s beloved historical and social institutions, its pub culture. But with small independent breweries bucking this downward trend, recording growth of between 3 and 7 per cent each year, has salvation arrived in the form of microbreweries and cask beer?

The severe brewer’s droop experienced by the UK beer industry, with total beer sales declining by 8% a year, has been blamed on factors such as cheap supermarket lager, increases in beer duties, high operating costs, the smoking ban – but as much to blame is the poor quality beer on offer. The rise of local cask ales demonstrates that people are by no means losing their taste for beer or British pubs, but what they want now is greater choice, better quality and a unique local product. This growing demand for cask ale therefore offers an economic lifeline for pubs that are struggling through the recession.

Progressive Beer Duty – Catalyst for Change

To both meet and encourage the demands of the consumer, new small breweries are popping up with the regularity by which pubs continue to close. According to the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), around 50 new small brewers open every year. This has created a greater choice than at any time since the organisation was founded in 1971, and compared with then there are now over twice as many breweries.

One of the key driving forces behind this new small business surge was a change in government policy in 2002. The then chancellor Gordon Brown offered a lifeline to smaller brewers with the introduction of the Progressive Beer Duty (PBD). Hundreds of breweries were saved from extinction by the legislation, which meant that producers of fewer than 60,000 hectolitres a year would pay lower rates of duty on a sliding scale. With those producing less than 5,000 hectolitres entitled to a massive 50 per cent reduction, the incentive has drawn small-scale brewing enthusiasts into the market and allowed them to thrive.

Until this legislation all British breweries, regardless of size, paid the same level of excise duty, making it very difficult for smaller producers to survive.

Government action had prompted an earlier cask ale revival when the 1989 ‘Beer Orders‘ broke up the brewer stranglehold over pubs and allowed the market to open up, offering ‘guest ale’ pumps to new brewers. The renaissance was short-lived, however, as many of the landlords that attempted to capitalise on the real ale boom didn’t possess the necessary skills and cellars to look after the beer adequately. Quality suffered massively as result, and customers soon lost patience and moved back to lager.

Consumer Awareness and Localism

Another recent development that has benefited the cask ale revival is the growing conscientiousness about how food and drink is made and where the ingredients are sourced, as well as an increased demand for taste and craftsmanship.

When the desire for organic food went mainstream during the last decade it was in part due to growing environmental and quality concerns caused by the globalisation and industrialisation of food production, and that attitude and demand is no different with beer. Sick of bland keg beer produced with ruthless efficiency by global brewers using cheap rice and maize, and transported thousands of miles, beer drinkers want pints made by local craft producers that use good quality malting barley and whole hops from local farmers.

Consumers are also increasingly eager to invest money in a business model that benefits the local economy. Much like with farmers’ markets, microbreweries source locally and sell locally and so help cultivate relationships between consumers, farmers, producers and the local food culture.

Tapping British Traditions

Being locally orientated is of course a nod back to the traditions of British brewing culture, which at one time was made up of small, sustainable local industries. That rich heritage, which has been somewhat undervalued of late, is also being rediscovered by the populace. Drinkers are recognising that small breweries are heirs to a unique British tradition, where beer making is as traditional to Britain as making fine wine is to France, with just as many subtleties of flavour, and demanding similar levels of expertise.

The growth of microbreweries offers hope to the country’s ailing pub culture because cask beer is largely unique to the British pub meaning that the people that now want to drink cask beer must visit the pub to enjoy it. It is not as easy for supermarkets to undermine the growth by offering a much cheaper alternative to drink at home. If you want expertly produced cask beer then you have to visit the local pub and socialise.

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