Britain’s brewing heritage in peril

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Protz: "The decline and possible loss of cask Boddingtons is a tragedy"
Protz: "The decline and possible loss of cask Boddingtons is a tragedy"
Why is it that international brewers seem to lack appreciation for Britain’s great brewing heritage, culture and traditions? A few weeks ago, Carlsberg announced it was stopping production of Ansells Mild on the grounds that volumes were so small there was no point ordering the malts and hops any longer.

Yet mild is enjoying a renaissance. The current Champion Beer of Britain is a mild — Mighty Oak Oscar Wilde from Essex. Scores of brewers are producing mild with both fervour and success — and it’s not just the minnows of the beer world.

Banks’s Mild from the Marston’s group is a major brand in the West Midlands. Greene King has brewed XX Mild for decades, while Thwaites is busily promoting its own dark mild, not only on draught but even — would you believe — in bottle-conditioned form.
But for Carlsberg, Ansells Mild is an irritant and the plug has been pulled on this famous Brummie ale.

Meanwhile, Boddingtons Bitter, one of the iconic cask beers of north-west England, is no longer in production and its future is in doubt.
The brand is owned by AB InBev, the world’s biggest global brewer, which acquired Boddingtons when it took over Whitbread’s brewing interests in 2000.

Production of Boddingtons in cask-conditioned form was handed to Hydes of Greater Manchester, but the contract has expired and Hydes is no longer brewing the beer.

AB InBev tells me it’s looking for a new brewer to take on Boddingtons in cask form. If it’s unsuccessful, the brand will die.

The decline and possible loss of cask Boddingtons is a tragedy. It was one of the beers that helped fuel the ‘real ale revolution’ of the 1970s.

The founder members of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) came from the north-west and for them ‘Boddies’ was a beer to measure against all others.
It was a distinctive beer, as pale as lager and with a modest strength of 3.8% ABV, but it had a wonderful drinkability. The first time I drank it, in a pub in Hyde, Cheshire, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven: I couldn’t believe beer could taste that good.

The Strangeways Brewery in Manchester was founded in 1778. Henry Boddington, from Oxfordshire, joined the company in 1832 in a humble role, but by 1853 he was the sole owner and he boosted production to 100,000 barrels a year — a vast volume for a brewery in a major industrial city with many competitors.

The creation of national brewing groups in the 1960s led to a wave of takeovers and mergers.

In 1969, Allied Breweries — Ansells, Ind Coope and Tetley — launched a hostile takeover for Boddingtons. It was rejected by the Boddington family and their shareholders.

But Boddingtons itself went on the takeover trail. It bought the Oldham Brewery in 1982 and Higson’s of Liverpool in 1985.

The size and success of the company brought it to the attention of Whitbread, one of the most acquisitive of the national brewers. In 1989 the Boddington family agreed to sell the brewery to Whitbread for £50.7m.

Whitbread took the beer out of its north-west confines and turned it into a national brand. Production was expanded to 850,000 barrels a year and by 1994 it was the fourth biggest cask ale brand in Britain.

But Whitbread changed the focus of the beer by producing it in keg and canned forms — promoted as the ‘cream of Manchester’ — and started to lose interest in the cask version.

In 2000 Whitbread left brewing and its plants were acquired by the Belgian group Interbrew, best known for Stella Artois lager.

Interbrew is now AB InBev and has no interest in what it deems to be ‘low-volume’ beers.

Draught Bass has been hived off to Marston’s and Flowers Original and IPA to Brains of Cardiff. The Bass, Boddingtons and Flowers brands are up for sale for £15m and so far there are no takers.

Brains told me it has no desire to take on cask Boddingtons as the volumes are now believed to be extremely small. The chairman of a large regional brewing group said he would prefer to concentrate on his own brands, thank you very much.

If AB InBev had an ounce of marketing nous it would have seen the potential in Boddingtons at a time when golden ales are enjoying a surge in sales.

But the global giant prefers to spend millions promoting such products as Stella Artois Cider — sorry, Cidre — and allow Boddies to wither on the hop bine.

Those of us who took up the battle for cask beer in the 1970s can only weep at the almost certain loss of a great ale at the same time as we watch Ansells Mild being poured down the drain.

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