Over the weekend, the European Beer Consumers Union (EBCU) held its autumn congress in Edinburgh. It numbers 13 organisations from across the main European beer drinking countries and has a combined membership of some 170,000. One of the topics debated was the difficulties breweries face in getting their beer to market.
There are many factors that undermine what should be a great Scottish success story, where the number of breweries has gone from ten some 20 years ago to 65 listed in the 2014 edition of the Good Beer Guide. I will concentrate on two – the dominance that supermarkets have over what we buy; and large pub-owning companies, who dictate what their tenants can and cannot sell.
In the late 1970s, 80 per cent of beer sold in this country was sold in pubs, with the remainder sold in supermarkets and off-licences. Over the past 30 years that has changed dramatically, with the off trade, mostly supermarkets, accounting for roughly half of all alcohol sold.
Small producers cannot compete with mass-market brands and, as a result, you will only see a token presence of small brewery beers on your supermarket shelf. Whilst I would encourage everyone to drink beer in the pub, if you are going to drink beer at home then buy it from your local specialist off-licence. There are many quality retailers out there and, if you live in Edinburgh, you won’t be too far from at least one.
Another barrier to small breweries selling their beer in pubs is the reach of the large pub-owning companies whose tied tenants can only buy their beer from the company which owns the pub, often at a much higher price than a free-of-tie publican can buy them.
Allied to that is the fact that only national – and by that I mean UK – real ale brands are available to the tied tenant when, these days, savvy beer drinkers are looking for choice. The Westminster government is currently looking at changing the law to allow every tenant of a pub-owning company that has more than 500 pubs to be allowed a free-of-tie option and they must be encouraged to bring forward legislation that will allow that to happen.
Despite all the above, and more, that acts as a barrier to new, small and, invariably, innovative brewers getting their products to market, I firmly believe that, with a few changes, we are looking at the beginnings of a major Scottish success story that should be shouted from the rooftops.
Colin Valentine is chairman of the Campaign for Real Ale