Patrick Harvie MSP: Let’s roll out the barrel for quality local brews

FIVE Sisters, Schiehallion and then maybe the Black Cuillin. No, I’m not making my summer holiday plans but contemplating some of the great Scottish beers I’ll enjoy over the recess.

We’re in the midst of a real boom in quality beer, and whether you’re a fan of traditional ale, modern “craft beer” or even Weegie versions of quality German lager, there are a lot of great brewers out there who are worth raising a glass to.

Last week saw the Scottish Real Ale Festival take place in Edinburgh and it was clear from the vast array of iconic and creative names on the barrels that we are seeing a renaissance and a real pride in craft brewing.

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These pints are Scotland in a glass. They are crafted using local ingredients, by independent, locally owned businesses that benefit their local economies.

It’s a far cry from the mega-corporations of the industrial drinks business.

Headlines about Scotland’s food and drink successes tend to be dominated by whisky exports but we’re missing a trick if we ignore the value of the small producers whose businesses focus on quality instead of volume sales.

This difference of scale is important if we want a healthier relationship with alcohol.

Since the 1960s there’s been a centralisation of alcohol production and retail into the hands of ever fewer companies. This shift toward mass-manufactured products, and chain pubs with little real connection to their customers, has fuelled our unhealthy consumption.

Every Scottish Parliament debate about alcohol focuses on harm, and while this should not be ignored there is also a case for recognising what is good about alcohol. We won’t achieve a healthier drinking culture by finger-wagging.

The government’s food and drink policy has failed to keep pace with the small beer boom.

Ministers seem utterly obsessed with whisky exports, ignoring the golden opportunity presented by homegrown products that support small businesses and sustainable, local supply chains. Many of Scotland’s favourite drams are produced by non-Scottish “luxury brand” corporations with many registered overseas for tax purposes.

The cosiness with which our governments court the supermarket giants also doesn’t help either.

We need to tilt the balance in favour of consuming Scottish beer in community pubs, recognising the benefits that brings.

Even our national parliament lags behind. There are regular evening receptions and events in the committee rooms and garden lobby during the working week where MSPs schmooze with outside organisations. The refreshments on offer invariably present the simple choice of red or white wine.

Last week I took the opportunity to ask the parliament’s corporate body if it would look at offering local beers. A cheer went up from across the chamber at this suggestion. What better showcase for Scotland’s craft brewers than being served in Scotland’s Parliament? It’s local, it’s sustainable, it’s high quality, and it has a lower alcohol content than wine.

We should be proud to serve it to our guests at Holyrood. I now have a long list of craft beer businesses keen to supply their wares. We shall see if this obvious opportunity is taken up by our catering contractors.

Pubs are another aspect of the alcohol debate that’s often ignored. The rate of closure is a great worry, especially in rural areas, as these small businesses are often crucial in providing a focal point for a community. I’d like to see the relationship between large pub companies and their tenants rebalanced, with publicans able to diversify and offer local products. Such variety is surely not just a draw for locals but for tourists too.

Of course, price is a real barrier for many and the big drinks firms have the advantage of economies of scale. We must get across the quality of real ale and craft beer so we minimise the temptation to save a few pence by buying a cheap and tasteless mass-produced lager. One Edinburgh pub stocking real ales now plans to only serve half pints – a canny move as it will allow drinkers to enjoy a wide range of beers without overindulging.

The Real Ale Festival showed, with hundreds of beers from small independent producers, that a different kind of alcohol culture is possible – one where quality triumphs over quantity.

• Patrick Harvie is the Green MSP for Glasgow