Micros under the microscope

By Roger Protz

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Good beer guide Beer

Protz: Microbrewers are booming
Protz: Microbrewers are booming
Demand is high for the training courses run by the Brewers' Laboratory.

An old friend, Keith Thomas, phoned last week with yet more evidence of small clouds with silver linings. Keith runs the Brewers' Laboratory, Brewlab for short, that trains keen home brewers who want to go the extra mile and start making beer commercially.

Keith has been running courses for many years. He was based in London but now practises his art at Sunderland University. He tells me his courses are well attended and, as well as students from Britain, he also attracts people from North America, Africa and Asia keen to learn brewing skills.

His experience fits with mine. The 2009 edition of the Good Beer Guide, published today, lists 60 new small breweries that have fired their mash tuns and coppers in the past 12 months. They follow in the footsteps of the 80 who started brewing in 2007 and a similar number in 2006.

Some fall by the wayside but the majority not only keep plugging away but also notch up considerable success. I reported recently on the Triple fff brewery in Hampshire that started in 1997 with a five-barrel plant and has just installed a 50-barrel kit to keep pace with demand. The increase in capacity was timely as, out of the blue, Triple fff won the Champion Beer of Britain award last month and has seen sales take off like the restored Watercress steam trains that run alongside the brewery.

There are now more than 600 breweries in Britain. There is greater choice today than at any time in the past 30 years. As most craft brewers concentrate on producing draught beer — they don't have the necessary kit to bottle their products — they must sell it to pubs, otherwise they would quickly go out of business.

If you believe the media, the pub is an endangered species. Yet members of Camra (the Campaign for Real Ale) have found close to 5,000 pubs to grace the pages of the new Good Beer Guide. In many areas, there is intense competition and debate at Camra branch level over which pubs to choose. Votes are taken and less active members are invited to vote by post or email.

As I edited the new edition, I was struck by the resilience of the British pub. Battered by the smoking ban, wickedly unfair price cutting by supermarkets and increases in both duty and brewery price rises, nevertheless most licensees still open their doors every day, determined to stay in business.

Beer festivals

They stay in business as a result of looking for new ways to entice custom.

I am struck, reading the guide, by the number of licensees who stage regular beer festivals. This explains the success of small craft brewers: they are getting their beers to market because so many pubs now seek out beers bursting with character, and zinging with malt and hop aromas and flavours.

Pubs not only advertise their beer festivals but also space them throughout the year. They offer spring and summer festivals, concentrating on the new and ever-growing number of golden ales. Then come autumn beers, using grain and hops plucked straight from the harvest, followed by dark beer festivals — stout, porter and winter ale — for the period leading up to Christmas and the New Year.

While the launch of the guide rightly attacks the crude discounting of the supermarkets that is driving customers away from pubs, I believe there are grounds for optimism. The pub has deep roots. In the 30 years I have been writing about beer, I have seen the fortunes of the pub wax and wane on many occasions. During that time, we have been told that Chinese restaurants, then Asian outlets followed by fast-food takeaways would kill the pub.

But it's survived. Many pubs — as the Good Beer Guide testifies — now serve food of top quality and with remarkably imaginative menus. Reports this week show that pubs are witnessing a sharp upturn in the number of people choosing to eat within them as the credit crunch drives diners away from more expensive eateries.

Budget hotel chains are also seeing a similar increase in business. This will spin off on to pubs that offer accommodation, many of which have far pleasanter rooms than the Spartan attractions of many motels.

The knock-on effect is obvious. Pubs that can pull in custom as a result of either food or bed & breakfast or both will see an increase in sales of beer, wine and spirits.

If I'm being cautiously optimistic, I am still seething with rage at the supermarkets. They show a complete disregard for social responsibility, selling cheap booze without a thought for who might be drinking it.

But even if this weak-willed and knackered Government does nothing to tackle the frightening power of the supermarkets, I have no doubt that pubs will eventually pull through the current crisis. Fewer, leaner and fitter but able to offer something no supermarket can — a friendly welcome, warmth, comfort, good food and, above all, a great pint of British beer.

They're queuing up at Brewlab to provide the beer.

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