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.”