Roll out the barrels as beer sales rise

The Real Ale Festival at Bo'ness is a great place to discover some excellent craft beers. Picture: Jonathan Faulds
The Real Ale Festival at Bo'ness is a great place to discover some excellent craft beers. Picture: Jonathan Faulds
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More of us are realising that there are some great new tastes out there. But sales in pubs could still do with more help, says Colin Valentine

Something happened last year that hasn’t happened in past decade – beer sales in the UK actually rose.

This is extremely encouraging news and it is surely more than coincidence that it has happened in the wake of the scrapping of the beer duty escalator and two consecutive reductions in duty – the first time that this has happened since the 1950s. It has also coincided with an explosion in the number of breweries in the UK, with the number being at its highest – over 1200 – since before the Second World War.

The most exciting thing about this increase is that it is the new kids on the block, not the standard existing suppliers of eurofizz, who are driving this growth. Drinkers are becoming far more discerning and are no longer willing to put up with the same old stuff when there are hundreds of brewers out there pushing the boundaries with hops from all over the world and ingredients like bog myrtle and lavender from closer to home.

I would strongly recommend that, if you are in the habit of sticking with the same beers that you have always drunk, give your tastebuds a treat and try something different in the future. You won’t like everything, but give the new Scottish breweries beers a try and I guarantee that you will soon find plenty of beers to your taste.

Unfortunately, although beer sales increased, sales in pubs declined. The positive thing to take from the figures is that this drop – at 0.8 per cent – is the smallest since 1996. Hopefully, this is a signal that the decline in the on trade has finally been arrested and I look forward to beer sales in pubs increasing in the coming years.

There are many benefits of walking to the pub, having a couple of pints of real ale, chatting to friends – or even strangers – and walking home. Walking is good for you, pure and simple, people who are moderate drinkers, all other things being equal, have a higher life expectancy than non- drinkers and social intercourse is good for your mental health.

With any luck, this should be the year that the pub finally starts to reclaims its rightful place at the centre of community life. Remember that, whatever problems with alcohol Scotland may have, well-run community pubs are part of the solution and cheap supermarket hooch is almost the entire problem.

Whilst it is fantastic to see overall beer sales back in growth for the first time in ten years, it is vitally important that beer sales in pubs move back into growth too. The 0.8 per cent drop in pub beer may well be the smallest decline in nearly two decades, but if we want to see fewer pubs closing it is vital that number is pushed into positive growth. A third beer duty cut in next month’s budget will help ensure that 2015 is the year when pub beer sales finally start growing again.

Finally, in my last article I argued that the Scottish Government should seriously consider a legislative consent motion to ensure that all of the benefits that are going to accrue to lessees of the large pub-owning companies which own 500 pubs or more (pubcos) in England – thanks to the addition of the Market Rent Only (MRO) option in the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill that is currently wending its way through Westminster – will apply in Scotland also.

Since then, two things have happened: the first is that the government has come forward with a revised clause on the MRO option, which almost certainly means that it will be part of the bill and constitutes a great victory for those of us who have been campaigning for this option over the past ten years.

The second is that representatives from CAMRA and the Scottish Licensed Trade Association, which represents most of the affected lessees in Scotland, met Scottish Government officials in January.

During that meeting we discovered that the legislative consent motion ship had sailed and was almost certainly not going to happen. This means that the Scottish Government must be convinced that having a Scottish version is a good thing – basically they said that, just because we think it is a good idea, doesn’t mean that it is and we must prove that it is.

The work on that has started and, in tandem, we will also be pushing the pubcos to consider voluntarily introducing the same measure in Scotland as will apply in England and Wales.

As I have said previously, it is surely wrong that pubco lessees in Annan and Carlisle and in Berwick and Eyemouth have significantly different arrangements with their landlords.

• Colin Valentine is national chairman for the Campaign for Real Ale camra.org.uk