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Wednesday, 28 November, 2001, 13:31 GMT
The plight of the micro-brewers
Alastair Hook
Alastair Hook reviews the range of Meantime brews
Jonathan Duffy
Independent brewers were ready to raise a glass to the chancellor of the exchequer on Tuesday afternoon, in the belief he would announce a tax cut for these cottage industries. But the news they wanted to hear never came.

In the small brewing hall at the Meantime micro-brewery in south London the air is thick with the rich malty aroma of its trademark German -style lagers.

But in the room next door, where boss Alastair Hook has just switched off watching Gordon Brown's pre-budget statement, a traditional English bitter might be a more fitting tonic.

At work in the Meantime brewhouse
Having had their hopes raised in March, when the chancellor said he was "minded" to cut duty for small brewers, Mr Hook and his colleagues had keenly anticipated confirmation on Tuesday afternoon.

The magic words never came, although it later materialised in the small-print of Treasury papers that Mr Brown had not entirely forgotten his pledge. He is still "minded" to help small brewers.

But Alastair Hook isn't going to wallow in this temporary defeat.

"I've been watching for 10 years and have been disappointed every time," he says.

For years Britain's small brewers have been calling for a sliding scale tax break on the beer they sell, believing it would help level the playing field that is currently dominated by the major conglomerates.

The big lagers are the sliced white of the beer world. Drinking it is like looking at a white wall

Alastair Hook
According to the Society of Independent Brewers, 85% of beer drunk in the UK is brewed by four companies - Scottish and Newcastle, Carlsberg Tetley, Interbrew and Guinness.

After the middle-sized companies, the 400 or so small breweries, or micro-breweries to use the trendier parlance, account for just 2% of the market.

A hardened capitalist might say, well, that's business.

But brewers believe they are a special case. Apart from the heavy market concentration, there is the fact that the big players also own the pubs and bars where so much of their product is sold.

Continental style

In Germany, Belgium and the Czech Republic, countries with extensive brewing histories, small producers already benefit from tax breaks.

Storage tanks
The storage tanks that most big brewers prefer to go without
It is no coincidence that the quality of beer in those countries is vastly superior to the average pint pulled in the UK, says Alastair Hook.

And he is well placed to comment. Mr Hook has devoted his life to beer in the way that many vineyard owners in the Bordeaux or Languedoc regions of France have to wine.

Having studied brewing to degree level in Scotland, he progressed to the venerated Weihenstephan University near Munich in Germany, where the brewer's art is accorded almost holy levels of respect.

There he learned the finer points of brewing German-style pilsner lagers, the very sort of beer that has come to dominate the British market over the last 20 years.

And that's where the similarities end. The average lager supped in a British pub bears virtually no relation to its German namesake, says Mr Hook.

Barman pulling pint
The "big four" brewers have 85% of the British beer market
"In German, 'lager' means to store. It's by storing that you stabilise the beer before it's released from the brewery," he says.

But storage is costly and so most of the big-names in the UK sidestep this process by adding preservatives and pasteurising (boiling) their beer.

Again and again, Mr Hook points the finger at "the accountants".

Many happy returns

"Brewers are no longer in control at these companies. It's the accountants who dictate how the beer is made. Because we store our beer for five or six weeks, it doesn't need preservatives or pasteurisation.

Hook pulls a pint
Pint of best: Pulling a pint at the Greenwich Union pub
"But still it only has a shelf life of about four weeks. We get beer back all the time because it's gone off and I don't mind. But accountants got sick of seeing beer come back. That's why it's boiled to hell."

By his own admission, Mr Hook is not the ideal candidate for popping down the local with friends for a couple of jars.

"Most of the beer we drink is dull, bland, tasteless rubbish. The big lagers are the sliced white of the beer world. Drinking it is like looking at a white wall."

The real crime, he says, is that Britain has such a rich brewing history. Its real ales are admired around the world although nowadays the mass produced brands are every bit as bland as the big-name lagers, according to Mr Hook.

Exclusive customers

But he believes the tide is starting to turn. The popularity of authentic continental beers is an indication drinkers want something more for their money.

Meantime is tapping into this demand. The micro-brewery, which opened two years ago with 750,000 of invested capital, turns out a variety of German-style brews.

They are stocked by some of London's most exclusive bars and Meantime has recently opened its first pub, in Greenwich.

Clearly business is fermenting nicely. Many other independent brewers, which tend to concentrate on the smaller, and less trendy, traditional ale market, are finding things much tougher.

For them the delay in Gordon Brown's budget decision promises to be an agonising wait.

See also:

24 Dec 00 | UK
What's in that glass?
18 Sep 01 | Business
Interbrew ordered to sell Carling
15 May 00 | Business
Whitbread and Bass to quit brewing
26 Dec 99 | The Economy
Brewers battle beer 'stealth tax'
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