A Sad Commentary

We’ve had the Big Three — Bud, Miller and Coors — for so long now that it would probably take me a few years to stop using the term. In the UK, once upon a time it was the Big Six; and they included Allied Breweries, Bass Charrington, Courage Imperial, Scottish & Newcastle, Watneys, and Whitbread. Until yesterday, only S&N remained. With the announcement earlier today of Carlsberg and Heineken’s buyout of Scottish & Newcastle, the last vestige of a bygone era will soon disappear, as well. England’s esteemed Financial Times today has a somewhat sad commentary on this entitled Few Crying into Beers at Decline of Big Six Breweries. As they observe, the change in the beer market and the mergers that began around 1989 have now come to a final solution, and with no one left to mourn them.

Here’s a few statistics. Since the turn of the century, imported beer to the UK has increased by 50%. During that same time, the number of large breweries fell by two-thirds. Today, a mere six remain, with 34 more considered regional breweries. Since the 1980s, the number of breweries has actually tripled, but that’s because of the UK’s own microbrewery revolution, which today includes over 500 small breweries whose total production accounts for only 2% of the nation’s beer market. Before today’s buyout, Heineken enjoyed only 1% of the total British market, but after the deal is approved they will have something in the neighborhood of 30%, making them Great Britain’s biggest beer company.

Maybe none of this matters. After all, as the FT’s editorial makes clear, British pub-goers, publicans and pub operators, and even CAMRA’s real ale aficionados will all be dishearteningly unmoved by today’s news. I can’t help but think that’s a mistake. So much of our early microbreweries owe such a great debt to the heritage and history of English ales that it seems a shame to let this dismal milestone pass so cavalierly. Perhaps I’ve romanticized these old breweries too much, but I don’t feel the same loathing for their products or their business practices that I usually do for our Big Three. That may simply be the 1,000-mile expanse of ocean separating me from everyday contact, who knows? But even though the British beer industry is nowhere near deceased, this is just one more wound that will again forever alter its landscape. I, for one, in the words of the immortal Edgar Allen Poe, “am drinking ale today.”



  1. says

    “even CAMRA’s real ale aficionados will all be dishearteningly unmoved by today’s news. I can’t help but think that’s a mistake.”

    From your post, the only reason you’d consider it a mistake is pure sentimentality!

  2. says

    Well, this Brit is unmoved. The arguments put forward by the beer world as to why I should give a toss seem to boil down to:

    (1) It’s sad to see a historic brand go – well, “Scottish and Newcastle” as a brand isn’t that old, and swallowed up many other historic breweries on the way. Being taken over by someone else is the natural end.

    (2) Johnny Foreigner doesn’t understand how to brew in the British market — if this isn’t plain jingoism, it’s a considerable overestimation of how complicated it is to brew some rather dull keg bitters and lagers. Heineken are quite capable of brewing those anywhere in the world.

  3. says

    You’re both quite right, of course, and I thought I’d said as much. It is “pure sentimentality” on my part. I felt the same way when Latrobe Brewery was going to be shut down over here (and their Rolling Rock beer was frankly pretty awful). I wasn’t suggesting anything be done, merely that it’s always a loss when these things go down, it’s never good for the industry and never has been. I’m not a big fan generally of the corporate mentality of merge and conquer and realize that S&N is an end result of that process, not merely an innocent victim. So all I meant to evoke was that it is appropriate to reflect and feel a little sad when these things happen. No more, no less.

    But there’s one more difference for us Yanks. For most of us, especially the old-timers (I’m pushing 50), we grew up on insipid lagers that for the most part tasted all alike. Like many of my generation, my first introduction to the diverse possibilities of better beer was English ales like Bass and Newcastle. Hard as it may be to believe, in the late 1970s those brands represented innovation and something very different than we were used to. I suspect none of you across the pond had the same experience since those brands would have been as familiar to you as Big Ben or the Queen, just something that had been there as long as you could remember. And most of our early microbreweries brewed a rough approximation of English-style ales so pale ales, brown ales, porters and all the styles you take for granted were astonishingly fresh and new to us. I still shake my head whenever I’m in your part of the world and see so many people drinking the tasteless lagers that were my only choice growing up. Maybe it’s human nature to crave the unfamiliar, and it sure seems every generation re-invents themselves and what they decide is cool and what isn’t. I like a good lager as much as the next guy, but I have a soft spot for your ales because they were such a catalyst to my own beery awakening. So perhaps you’ll forgive my maudlin nostalgia.

  4. Brian says

    The bigger the big ones get, the less they pay attention to good ale/beer. They, in fact, create the micro market by focusing only on mass-producible beers. I am rarely sad to see impersonal breweries merge and/or die, just humored how they are in their own pyramid-schemed world and ignoring real ale and beer drinkers more each day.

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