Is the cheer running dry for Scottish breweries?

THE likely takeover of Scotland's largest regional independent brewer by an English rival could be seen as a major blow to the country's brewing traditions.

Purists will bemoan the fact that Belhaven's decision to recommend a 187 million bid to its shareholders will damage Scotland's independent brewing heritage.

Particularly after Scottish & Newcastle, Britain's biggest brewer, recently snapped up Capital-based rival Caledonian Brewery as it sought to close its Fountainbridge operations but maintain a brewing presence in Edinburgh.

Despite now being under the wing of S&N, Caledonian will argue that it is at least semi-independent.

Consolidation has become a fact of life for the brewing industry - and it's likely that there will be more of the same further down the line.

However, what's certain is that at least at the bottom end of the industry in Scotland, among the micro-breweries, there's a pipeline of activity maintaining traditions.

Ken Davie, a Scottish representative for Camra, the real ale association, says the industry has seen many start-ups in recent years, despite shrinkage in other areas.

"At the top end of the market there is consolidation, but at the bottom end there is expansion," he says. "For many, it starts as a hobby, which then grows to become a commercial concern."

Among the most recent start-ups is Edinburgh-based Stewart Brewing, which started production of hand-crafted premium beer in 2004.

Others include the Oyster Brewery, situated in the village of Ellenabeich, near Oban; the Isle of Mull Brewery, which started brewing at the beginning of May in Tobermory; and the Cuillin Brewery, which was born in September 2004, in the old public bar of the Sligachan Hotel.

Stewart Brewing, which employs four staff, has been making beer for just six months, but founder Steve Stewart says business has been good. "We have been increasing sales month on month," he adds. "It is getting bigger and better, even in the short time we have been in existence."

Mr Stewart believes the brewing industry in Scotland is very healthy at the bottom end, with a large number of small players getting into commercial beer-making. "There are a lot of opportunities for people to move into the market," he says. "But I wouldn't be surprised if there was consolidation in the same way that Atlas and Orkney breweries merged last year."

Across Scotland there's other tales of success and failure. On the plus side, there's the Tomintoul Brewery, which started brewing in November 1993 in an 18th-century water mill near to Tomintoul. It was part of the consolidation when it was taken over by Aviemore Brewery in 2000. Since 2001, however, the operation has run under the name of the Cairngorm Brewery.

On the down side, the Iris Rose Brewery, which was based in the Royal Hotel in Kingussie and started brewing in 1997, has seen its operation come to nothing. Although it halted brewing during 2001, it got a new lease of life after being reopened under new owners as the Newtonmore & Kingussie Brewery. But brewing was again spiked soon after the hotel was sold off in 2003.

At the top end of the market, companies like S&N and South Africa's SABMiller have concluded significant deals in recent months.

S&N, which took over rival Courage in 1995, has recently bought into a half share of Baltic Beverages Holdings to help it expand its sales in Russia and the Baltic States.

WHILE S&N is looking to firmly establish itself as an international player, its purchase of Caledonian proved it still had an eye on the home market.

There are, however, still concerns in the City about what strategy S&N is really looking to go for, with some analysts citing S&N as a firm that would make an ideal acquisition target itself, particularly with rival SABMiller's recent 4.3 billion acquisition of Colombia's Grupo Empresarial Bavaria.

Although Belhaven's chief executive Stuart Ross believes the probable acquisition of the Dunbar-based brewery by Greene King is a good move for both companies, some beer industry commentators are less certain, with Camra questioning the long-term survival prospects of Belhaven's Dunbar brewery.

Suffolk-based Greene King's recent purchase of brewer TD Ridley for 46m resulted in the closure of its brewery in Essex and is the reason Camra is cautious.

But Greene King insists the deal gives certainty to Belhaven investors at a time when it faces commercial and financial risks from the forthcoming smoking ban that is due to take place in Scotland early next year.

According to Greene King chief executive Rooney Anand, a move on Belhaven, which also has around 270 pubs, was also a way of giving the group a foothold north of the Border.

Acquisition certainly seems to be the preferred strategy for Greene King. Since 1996, it has acquired more than 1600 pubs in eight transactions - including the Laurel's 432-strong estate and Ridley's 73 pubs - with a total value of more than 1.3bn.

Analyst Greg Feehely at Altium Securities is another sceptic about Greene King's move on Belhaven.

"We don't like this deal at all," says Mr Feehely. "They paid a full price for Laurel and for Ridleys, but this is the highest price we've seen yet, and with the most immediate downside.

"Greene King shareholders are assuming all of the downside of the smoking ban."

However, another analyst says Greene King had made a reasonable assumption that Scottish beer consumers would not stop drinking, regardless of the smoking ban.

According to Camra, there are now only 30 independent brewers left in the UK, and it warns other takeovers may follow.

Earlier in the year, Wolverhampton & Dudley Breweries, Britain's biggest independent brewer, snapped up Lake District brewer and pubs group Jennings Brothers for 67m.

Camra's UK spokesman says: "I think Greene King is trying to take over the whole of the brewing industry," adding that the company had barely completed its last acquisition before unveiling the Belhaven deal.

Greene King, which brews Old Speckled Hen and Abbot Ale, also says being part of a larger group will open up new markets for Belhaven's products, something Belhaven's Mr Ross agrees with.

"The deal represents a great opportunity for Belhaven," Mr Ross says.

"There is no geographical overlap and our strategy will not change. Greene King is a perfect partner for us."

Belhaven's flagship beer, Belhaven Best, features among the top ten alcoholic drinks in Scottish pubs. Its other brands include St Andrew's Ale and Belhaven 80 Shilling.

Greene King's approach to Belhaven represents a continuation of what many analysts and trade bodies believe had been a trend that has been around for many years.

Punch Taverns, Scotland's biggest and Britain's second-biggest pubs group behind Enterprise Inns, earlier this year said it had "plenty of firepower" for further takeover opportunities.

It and its many counterparts are unlikely to leave the starting gun on another round of consolidation silent for long.