A lack of youthful real ale drinkers threatens the survival of UK brewers. Can the young be persuaded to drink something other than lager?
By Duncan Walker
BBC News Online Magazine
Trouble is, ahem, brewing in the real ale business.
Lager is now the drink of choice in Britain's pubs
With fans of Britain's traditional tipple rapidly aging, it could be only a couple of decades before the industry has no customers left and is forced to call last orders for good.
Nearly two-thirds of 18 to 34-year-olds have never tried the drink, preferring to stick to the familiar comforts of lager and alcopops, says the Campaign for Real Ale (Camra).
It hopes to persuade the young to broaden their horizons and try some of the 2,000 different ales available in the UK. Can it succeed?
Sandals and bellies
It was back in the 80s that things started to get difficult for real ale brewers, says Camra's Tony Jerome.
"Big global brewers started pushing lager and turned their backs on their real ales
. Back in the 50s and 60s the first pint your dad bought you was a real ale, today it's a lager."
While young people may not like to hear it, the problem is largely one of tackling their conservatism, says Camra.
But persuading a young pub-goer to lavish £2.50 on an unfamiliar dark ale is difficult, particularly when his, or her, drinking buddies are all clutching the same amber-coloured pints of lager, or alcopops.
Then there's the problem that real ale simply isn't cool (in both senses) and carries those tired old sandals and beards associations.
At the Great British Beer Festival, currently being held in London, real ale virgins enlisted in blind tastings have found themselves won over to the real ale cause.
But trumpeting the merits of a decent pint at a beer festival is simple compared to persuading 18 to 34-year-olds in the real world to drop their drinking prejudices.
Real ale is not seen as a young man's drink
However, Camra thinks it can be done, and points to the growing fashion for Belgian beers including Leffe and Hoegaarden, which, it says, show the young will try new things.
Further encouragement is given by the success of microbreweries and increasingly wide-ranging beer selections on supermarket shelves.
One of the main challenges facing the industry is its ability to compete against the international drinks firms, particularly when many of the real ale brewers are family run businesses.
Few have the means to pay for large-scale advertising campaigns, or to offer their products at the low prices for which the best selling lagers are available to pubs.
Breaking into this market will take a long time, says Nick Bish, chief executive of the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers.
"The average licensee does not wake up in the morning thinking 'how can I promote real ale?'," he says. "They wake up thinking 'how can I satisfy my customers?'"
Yet Mr Bish also says pubs can, and do, sell real ales made by small brewers and that this part of the drinks market is going through exciting times.
He says winning awards, forging links with local pubs and showing their customers that your drink is the one to order at the bar will bring about change over time.
In the meantime, Camra is trying to persuade more pubs to have guest beers on tap.
It wants to see landlords offering "thimbles" of beer to their customers, so they can try something before shelling out for a full pint
They are also asking supermarkets and off-licences to categorise ales in a similar way to that used for wines - to show off the many regions and varieties of beer available.
The alternative is not an attractive one for brewers.
"We could go 10 years down the line and see there's nothing but Stella and that's not good for the beer industry and it's not good for the consumer," says Camra.