What's in a name? No more history

By Roger Protz

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Heineken, Heineken uk, Beer, Scottish & newcastle

Protz: sad day for British brewing
Protz: sad day for British brewing
Next month, S&N becomes Heineken UK and a piece of British brewing history disappears, says Roger Protz.

On 23 November the grip of the global brewers on British beer will be complete. On that day Scottish & Newcastle (S&N) will cease to exist and will become — surprise, surprise — Heineken UK.

It's an absurd abuse of the English language for a Dutch company to be known as Heineken UK. But the greater concern is that around 80% of beer brewed in Britain is produced by companies with no roots here.

I'm not wearing Union Jack shorts. I love beer from many other countries, revel in the great styles of Belgium, the Czech Republic and Germany. But their beers and their retail operations are different to ours.

For a start we have cask-conditioned ale, a style that scarcely exists outside these shores. And — despite all the changes of the past 20 years — we still drink most of our beer on draught in pubs, in sharp distinction to many other countries where off-sales are the norm. In the US, for example, 80% of beer is drunk at home.

A few years ago, before the Heineken takeover of S&N, I interviewed the then boss of the Dutch group's British operation, Rob Marijnen, for this newspaper. He admitted the company had a lot to learn about the British beer market. If that seems an odd state of affairs, it must be remembered that for about 50 or 60 years the production and distribution of the British version of the Dutch beer had been in the hands of Whitbread.

Marijnen said the big shock for him was the fiercely competitive nature of the British beer market. In the Netherlands, Heineken has only one serious competitor, Grolsch. In many Third World countries it faces virtually no competition at all. In the interview, he was adamant that Heineken would not play the discount game of the other national British brewers. It debased the product, he said.

But the world — as well as Rob Marijnen — has moved on. In 2008 Carlsberg and Heineken filleted S&N like a Craster kipper. Carlsberg now owns 100% of Baltic Beverages Holding, the Russian giant it had shared with S&N for some years.

Heineken controls the former S&N interests in Britain, France and Ireland. This gives it ownership of such major brands as McEwan's, John Smith's, Beamish and Kronenbourg.

And does Heineken refuse to sell heavily discounted beer to supermarkets? The group has recognised the realpolitik of the scrabble for market share and can't afford to be outsold by the likes of Carling, Carlsberg and Stella on the high street.

It may seem over the top to describe a mere name change as tragic, but the loss of S&N marks the disappearance of another piece of British brewing history. The Scottish end of S&N was a merger in 1931 of two tartan giants, McEwan and Younger. William Younger dates from 1749, with William McEwan entering the brewing scene in 1856 at the historic Fountain Brewery in Edinburgh.

If it seems strange that Edinburgh, snooty and a tad arrogant, was the brewing capital of Scotland rather than Glasgow, the answer is simple: Edinburgh and neighbouring Alloa enjoy superb brewing water.

Edinburgh's nickname of Auld Reekie stems from the fact that the city, despite its airs and graces, was once home to scores of breweries that soaked up the precious brewing liquor. There were six breweries along the Royal Mile, much to the displeasure of Queen Victoria.

It was the salty water that allowed McEwan and Younger to compete with Burton-on-Trent in the 19th century for a share of the lucrative India and empire trade with pale ale.

While Burton's interpretation of the style was known as IPA — India Pale Ale — the Scots preferred the term "export", which lives on in the best-known version of the style, McEwan's Export.

There's little else to remember about S&N. Long before the arrival of Carlsberg and Heineken, the company seemed determined to make most of its income from Europe,

Russia and the Baltic States.

At home it closed both Fountain Brewery in Edinburgh and Tyne Brewery in Newcastle. It had acquired the latter as a result of the 1960 merger of Scottish Brewers and Newcastle Breweries. For a while the group was known as Scottish Courage, but the name, with a fair bit of history behind it, didn't stop the closure of Courage plants in Bristol and London.

Today only John Smith's of Tadcaster, Reading Brewery, Caledonian in Edinburgh and the vast Royal Brewery in Manchester remain. Reading will close next year, so there's little left for Heineken to axe. Cynics say Caledonian is safe as long as Heineken thinks its main brand, Deuchars IPA, is a lager. If it twigs that it is actually ale, the axe could be sharpened.

Once again, it's all change at the top of British brewing. Did I say "British"? What a silly old romantic I am.

Related topics: Other operators, Beer

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