A meander down memory lane

Melissa Cole reminisces on 21 years of writing about beer


So, here’s a thing, it’s my 21st year of writing about beer this year. 

No, I don’t know how it’s happened either and it is most certainly not the year I would have chosen for this landmark but, here we are… oh, and if you placed a bet on me making it this far, congratulations on your newfound riches, they must have been VERY long odds.  

I may be older, I am possibly a little wiser, but what I definitely have is a wealth of perspective on the expansion and contraction the beer industry as something I’ve watched over the years and it is possible to see patterns emerge, and a lot of them ain’t pretty. 

So, please, bear with me, as I take you on a ramble down memory lane for very good reasons. 

Not long after I started on, what is now, the Morning Advertiser, then known as the Licensee & Morning Advertiser - a twice weekly publication run out of the Society of Licensed Victualler’s offices in sunny Slough - rumblings started about a shadowy entity from the continent sniffing around UK breweries. 

...rumblings started about a shadowy entity from the continent sniffing around UK breweries.

The incredibly connected Mike Bennett - an astute and kind man who quickly became my mentor along with the inimitable Garth Williams and, later, Sally Bairstow - had suspicions something was up and over the course of about six months, was slowly pulling at threads and we broke the story that Interbrew (as Anheuser Busch Inbev was then known) was to buy the brewing arm of Whitbread. 

Shockwaves pummelled through the industry in a way that hadn’t been seen since the Beer Orders of 1989, a mish mash of Governmental interference in the industry that saw a brief purple patch for smaller brewers but eventually led to the formation of the pub companies and the arrival into the market of corporate sharks like Hugh Osmond, founder of Punch Taverns and Pizza Express, amongst others. 

And before it had even had time to recover, again, Bennett again broke the story that Bass’s brewing arm had also been snapped up by the Stella Artois brewer, followed hot on the heels by a Government review, that then saw Molson Coors enter the UK market, picking up brands that Interbrew (ABI) discarded, in order to meet competition requirements and it didn’t stop there. 

In a column on his website ProtzonBeer.co.uk in 2014, titled ‘Tied Hand and Foot’ the inimitable Roger Protz goes into far more detail if you’d like to know more of the history, and he also quotes cantankerous beer historian Martyn Cornell’s book, Beer:the story of the pint (2003), which lays bare the incredible shake up these sales begat.

“Seventeen years earlier, six brewers had owned 77 per cent of the market: if the Beer Orders had been intended to increase competition, they had completely the opposite effect. In addition, the beer market has become increasingly dominated by big brands. 

“In 1989 the top five best-selling beers had just under 21 per cent of the total market, the top 10 31.6 per cent. Over the next 10 years the independent pub companies increasingly bought the beers they perceived to be the most popular, that is, the existing best sellers, and sales of the big brands rose accordingly. 

“In 1999 the top five beer brands in the UK had 34 per cent of all beer sales, the top 10 just under 50 per cent...Eight out of 10 pints now come from brewers who do not own any pubs.”

But, plus ça change as our continental neighbours say, and here we are, in 2020 and Heineken has moved into the pub business in the UK and then new tie-in between Carlsberg and Marston’s, gives the Danish brewer a long-term supply and distribution deal to supply Marston’s 1,700 sites. 

And to this, Greene King’s 2,700 pubs, Heineken’s 2,900 pubs and the plethora of tied premises around the country (sorry, there are just too many tangled webs for me to put a number on), and the ability for small brewers to access on trade taps and fridges is looking increasingly bleak. 

So, around we go again, and whilst I could fill the pages of this whole magazine, and then some, on the potential ramifications of this macro pattern, along with reiterating another concern I expressed in a column in this magazine back in 2015, when the ‘beer tie’ was supposedly expunged in favour of ‘fair market rent’ (give me a moment, I’ll stop laughing hysterically soon), that opened the door to breweries being able to simply ‘buy up’ taps, there is another issue that stems more from human nature than anything else that I think the readers of this magazine could actually impact. 

It’s not going to save all the breweries from this devastating return of vertical integrations of brewing and pub ownership, but you can make a grassroots difference.

It’s not going to save all the breweries... but you can make a grassroots difference

Resist the FOMO, the need to be one of the cool kids, deny the desire to be first in line for things and I strongly urge you to think hard about talking to your local free of tie pubs, bottle shops and online outlets about stocking a local or small brewery you think is great and isn’t just the ‘hype juice’.

Don’t get me wrong, if you want to spend your lunch hour in a queue for a beer release that, it turns out, gets sunk by people hitting refresh so much the website thinks it’s being attacked, and then spend the rest of your afternoon giving some poor sod behind a Twitter account crap, well then, that’s up to you.

But wouldn’t it be a better idea to, say, spend that money somewhere else, save that ire for a Government that DGAF about ‘the plebs’, expend your anger on causes for social justice - or just maybe, shout at a tree in the park if you need to shout at anything - and then circle back to enjoy that brewery another time?

I know it sounds simplistic, but if there is one power we will always hold, it is where we choose to spend our money and, I don’t know about you, but I think supping a beer that might not exist without people power, will always be a victory sip worth taking.  

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