Socialist Worker

Beer ‘counter-culture’ hits back at the big brewers

High volume and highly profitable lagers drive the brewing multinationals, but, says Roger Protz, they are not having it all their own way

Issue No. 2172

It’s a golden age for beer... Hold on, aren’t 50 pubs a week closing? Yes, but that’s only part of the picture.

In the past year 71 new breweries opened in Britain. There are more small breweries per head of population than in any other industrialised nation.

People are making beer and people are drinking it. Real ale is enjoying a boom in sales.

The recession means that many people can’t afford to go to the pub, and Alistair Darling has increased taxes on beer three times over the last year.

The supermarkets, in league with the global brewers who dominate the British brewing industry, sell beer so cheaply – often as “loss leaders” to attract customers into their stores – that they are killing pubs.

But many pubs are thriving. And it’s real ale that is driving their success. It’s a type of beer that global brewers don’t like because it has a short shelf life and is less profitable than pasteurised and carbonated lagers and keg beers.


Real ale is known in the brewing industry as “cask-conditioned beer”. It’s a living product and leaves the brewery in an unfinished form, continuing to ferment in the pub cellar. When a cask is tapped for serving it has to be sold within two or three days.

Unlike national lager and keg brands, real ale offers complex aromas and flavours. It’s a good drinking experience.

In spite of closures, there are still around 55,000 pubs in Britain, and the ones that promote real ale are drawing customers in.

Craft brewers are part of a beer counter-culture. Back in the 1970s, it seemed that Britain would lose its unique beer style as new national brewers closed down many smaller breweries and developed heavily advertised brands.

The Campaign for Real Ale (Camra) was formed to save cask beer. It rubbished the national brewers and their apologies for beer. It organised beer festivals to act as shop windows for smaller brewers’ products.

Camra, with 100,000 members, is an influential movement that has encouraged the craft brewing sector.

Don’t write off craft brewers as small business people driven by the profit motive.

Most of them are run by a couple of people. They are driven by passion for the product, not profit.

Many craft brewers started out brewing at home and decided to go the extra mile and make beer commercially.

Others were made redundant when big breweries closed and have sunk their money into buying equipment in order to start their own breweries.

However, pubs demand such big discounts on beer that there’s not much income left for the producers.

The craft brewers are great innovators. Britain used to be known as the country where people drank mild or bitter.

But now pubs are awash with recreations of great beer styles from the past – porter, stout, India Pale Ale, barley wine and old ale – and such new styles as golden ales and beers matured in whisky casks.

But should socialists support the consumption of alcohol? Isn’t alcohol, like religion, the “opium of the masses”?

Well, beer has been around for a long time. It dates from 3,000 BC and can claim a part in the creation of civilised societies.

Nomadic tribes in the Middle East stopped roaming and settled down with a simple aim – to grow grain in order to make bread and brew beer.

Some people misuse alcohol, but they are a tiny minority. Lurid stories in the Daily Mail about “binge drinking” are wildly exaggerated.

Beer is the people’s drink. Enjoy it. Go to the pub – and avoid the supermarkets.

The global giants

  • AB InBev – World’s biggest brewer. Brands: Budweiser and Stella Artois
  • Carlsberg – Breweries in Northampton and Leeds, which is home to Tetley’s but faces closure
  • Coors – Anti-trade union firm that bought the Bass breweries. Brands: Carling, Coors and Grolsch
  • Scottish & Newcastle – No longer has breweries in either Scotland or Newcastle. Brands: Heineken, McEwan’s, John Smith’s and Newcastle Brown

Roger Protz edits the annual Camra Good Beer Guide. He will be speaking on his book A Life on the Hop, at Bookmarks bookshop »

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Article information

Tue 6 Oct 2009, 18:30 BST
Issue No. 2172
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