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Last Updated: Wednesday, 3 November, 2004, 08:14 GMT
The booze business: Trouble Brewing
By Hannah Liptrot
BBC Money Programme

Prince Charles enjoys a pint of beer
Beer is a traditional part of British culture...

The 14bn beer industry is feeling the pinch as British drinkers abandon beer in favour of wine.

Beer is a traditional part of British culture, but more and more drinkers are putting down their pints and reaching for the bottle.

Beer consumption has fallen by 20% in the last 25 years, while wine drinking has grown by 260%.

Now some of our biggest brewers are taking action to stop the migration from grain to grape.

"I think wine has had a free ride where they have been on the front foot, but those days are rightfully over and we'll have some of that business," says Steve Cahillane, UK chief executive of Interbrew, the world's largest beer producer.

More wine, please

Mr Cahillane is gearing up for a battle for the hearts and minds of British drinkers, but he has got a fight on his hands.

Christopher Carson, chief executive of the wine giant Constellation, which produces the UK's best selling wine brand Hardy's, is confident that our love affair with wine is not over yet.

"If we go back to 1980, the British consumer was drinking nine litres of wine per year, now it is 24 litres," he says.

"This is a relentless march and the consumer is going to drink more and more wine."

Respond to demand

There are signs that the beer industry is tightening its belt.

Prince Charles enjoys a glass of wine
...but many are tempted to switch to wine

Next February, the brewery where Interbrew's Boddington's cask ale has been brewed for 200 years will close due to weak demand.

"For us it was clear that the brewery itself had been built in a time when ale was nine out of 10 pints drunk," Mr Cahillane says.

"Today it is much smaller than that so we had to adjust our business such that we can compete."

Beer to dine for

The problem for beer, it seems, is one of image.

Next to stylish wine, which conjures up visions of sun-drenched valleys and exquisite cuisine, beer is outclassed, its public face haunted by the twin spectres of the beer belly and the lager lout.

A young woman drinks wine
Wine has become an everyday tipple for many

To compete with wine beer needs a serious makeover.

And that is just what it is going to get if 200 year old brewer Greene King get their way.

More famous for brewing up traditional favourites IPA and Abbot Ale, now Greene King are coming after wine's home patch with "The Beer to Dine For", a British ale created especially to go with food.

"I think it would be fantastic if a girl is going round to her boyfriend's house and he's offered to cook her dinner," says Rooney Anand, managing director of the Greene King brewery.

"Instead of turning up with the obligatory bottle of wine, she brings a bottle of beer to dine for - and for her, not just for him.

"I'd think 'yeah we've definitely cracked it'."

Beer and kebab

Mr Anand faces an uphill battle.

For many Britons, beer has no place on the table.

Tony Carty, a football-loving wine drinker from West Bromwich, sums up the attitude.

"The only time I'd drink beer with food would be with a kebab.

"If you are sitting down for a meal then you certainly don't want to order very nice food and then put a pint of lager on the table next to it."

Aspirational

Mr Carty is a child of the wine revolution that has swept the country over the last 15 years.

Two men enjoy wine in a pub garden
Wine is going after beer's last stronghold, the pubs

From being a once-a-year luxury, wine has become an everyday tipple for many. Britain now imports more than any other non wine-growing country.

The British love affair with wine began in the upwardly mobile 1980s when brands like Blue Nun and Le Piat D'or became must-haves for the aspirational dinner party set.

But while we flirted with wines from France and Germany, the real revolution was gearing up on the other side of the world.

Australia's wine producers had spotted the burgeoning British wine market, and they were determined to make it their own.

Sunshine

The Australian wine invasion began in earnest in 1985 when the first modern Aussie wines hit the shelves.

"Sunshine in a bottle they used to call it - rich ripe fruit," says wine writer Oz Clarke.

"There's no question Australia virtually invented quaffable, commercial, enjoyable, pleasant wine on a grand scale."

The wines did not just taste good, they had labels we could read and names we could pronounce.

No more did wine wannabes have to resurrect their schoolboy French, or brave the obscurities of the appellation system to order a bottle of plonk.

These wines made instant experts of anyone and they flew off the supermarket shelves.

Today Australian wine outsells any other country, and it has helped wine to overtake beer in supermarket sales.

But the wine industry has not finished yet.

Unacceptable

Having conquered the supermarkets, wine is going after beer's last stronghold, the pubs.

"We are just about to run out a very, very big programme with one of the pub chains in the UK," says Mr Carson.

"I think we will not double their wine sales, I think we will treble them within two years."

Mr Cahillane welcomes the challenge.

"I have seen the odd occasion where I have walked into a pub and seen a man drinking a glass of wine," he says.

"I find that totally unacceptable, that's our occasion, we'll have that back."

The Booze Business: Trouble Brewing was broadcast on Wednesday 3 November at 1930 GMT on BBC2.



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