THE ingenuity and hard work of the enthusiasts who produce real ale should attract more support, says Colin Valentine
The latest edition of CAMRA’s Good Beer Guide arrived through my letterbox earlier this month. One of the sections lists all of the breweries operating in the United Kingdom and the latest edition lists 87 breweries currently in Scotland. Few, if any, of these breweries are one-person operations and many employ more than just a handful, meaning that there are hundreds of people directly employed in the brewing industry in Scotland making and selling beer. To put that in some kind of perspective, the Good Beer Guide of 10 years ago lists 40 breweries and 20 years ago listed only 13 in Scotland.
CAMRA also organises the UK’s premier real ale competition, Champion Beer of Britain, in London every August and it is the one that all brewers want to win, given the increase in recognition and, more importantly, sales that it generates. In 2002 and 2003, Scottish beers won this accolade with Deuchars IPA and Bitter & Twisted from Caledonian and Harviestoun breweries, respectively. Last month, the hat trick was almost achieved when Jaguar, from the Kelburn Brewery in Renfrewshire, came within a whisker of emulating the previous two by taking the runner up spot. One of the more remarkable features of Kelburn is that it is run by retired maths teacher Derek Moore, his partner Margaret and his children Ross and Karen – surely the very definition of a family firm.
Some of the breweries set up in Scotland have had substantial financial backing to help with start-up costs, but most of them have been self-financed with redundancy or retirement money, small bank loans or savings. The men and women who set up these businesses neither sought, nor received, the kind of assistance that is given to inward investors, although some have received backing from local enterprise companies due to their geographic location. These are exactly the kind of enterprises that should be encouraged by central and local government and their agencies – they create sustainable jobs, often in rural areas, employ local people and their profits are ploughed back into the business not into the pockets of shareholders.
The remarkable thing about the majority of these breweries is that few, if any, of them have any guaranteed access to market as they do not own any pubs apart, possibly, from bars in their brewery that are open for a few hours a week. With no advertising spend behind them, they cannot compete on brand recognition having, instead, to compete on quality and service. Fortunately, almost all of them have top quality products and excellent back up service – as most of their beer is sold comparatively locally, any issues can be dealt with immediately without having to negotiate the sometimes Byzantine customer service (sic) call centres of the big boys and for publicans the point of contact in the brewery will be someone they know personally.
However, from my own point of view, the best thing about them is that virtually all of them produce real ale and for most of them this is their core business, not just a niche product. Real ale is not inherently difficult to look after, it just takes time and effort and the skill of the cellarman is in knowing how much time and effort is required. However, if not looked after properly, it goes off quite quickly and a publican’s local real ale brewery staff are just the people to help if they have never sold real ale in their pub before by helping set up the beer in the cellar and dispensing it a way that it remains in excellent condition. Many of them will even organise tasting nights whereby regular and not so regular customers can find out what real ale is all about.
Finally, I have to thank the editorial team at The Scotsman for picking up on the exhortation in my last article that, when reporting on alcohol abuse issues, they should not use a photograph of a pint of real ale being poured, but to use a photograph of a supermarket trolley laden down with huge quantities of cheap hooch. Well I am pleased to say that, in an article last month on the subject of alcohol related deaths, a photograph of a young man buying a bottle of industrial strength cider from a supermarket was used, because most alcohol abuse is related to drinking at home, not drinking in the pub.
• Colin Valentine is national chairman of Camra (Campaign for Real Ale) www.camra.org.uk