The Jefford Column - Whitbread and Bass sell their souls but Belgians are best for British drinkers
Draught Bass, one of the world's most famous ales and one of only two authentic Burton Pale Ales surviving from the glory days of Britain's greatest brewing town, is soon to be Belgian-owned. Providing the sale of Bass's brewing interests to Interbrew goes ahead, only two of Britain's top-selling twelve beer brands will actually be British. It's a rout.
It's easy to be bitter, as headline writers have been gleefully discovering. Despite all their protestations to the contrary, Bass and Whitbread in the end did not give a damn for the brewing traditions which had brought them to prominence and on which their success was built. The invective heaped on them by consumer groups like CAMRA (the Campaign for Real Ale) has been proved correct in every detail. In the end, profit was all that mattered. Brewing was the grandmother of both Bass and Whitbread, and they've just sold her. Without a tear.
Consumers have every reason to feel angry and betrayed. Both Bass and Whitbread have been instrumental in reducing the British beer scene to its present level of homogenisation and tedium. The fact is that Britain produces the most complex, subtle and expressive draught beer in the world (cask-conditioned real ale), yet both Bass and Whitbread did everything they could to build their highly profitable lager brands at the expense of real ale. If Draught Bass ("Our finest ale" was the time-honoured company slogan) had received even a tenth of the marketing and promotional support lavished on the mediocre Carling Black Label, it would not be in its present sorry position of decline. Such trends are not inevitable; consumers do not intrinsically prefer the bland to the characterful. Accountants may do; shareholders may do; consumers don't.
Just look at Belgium. If ever there was a country with a chaotic, anarchic, archaic proliferation of brewing traditions and styles, it's Belgium. Gueuze and lambic are, in my opinion, a more authentic taste of the past than you can find in either the wine world or the spirit world; indeed their sour acidity and brettanomyces yeast flavours are regarded as rank faults in winemaking. (So too, by the way, is the sulphury 'Burton snatch'). Yet the Belgians still have a drinking culture of rich, sympathetic depths. They have open minds and catholic palates. They still appreciate the sensual possibilities and resonances these beers offer, and their brewers continue to make them and promote them. Drinking beer in Belgium is a delight - not least because the table is wiped clean after every client, because you are served by an efficient, aproned waiter, because every beer has its own glass, and every glass its own little napkin.
Has the penny dropped yet? Yes, that's right, it's the Belgians who have just acquired Whitbread's granny, and who are in the process of liberating Old Mother Bass. If it had been Anheuser-Busch, I would already have shot myself. If it had been SAB or Fosters or even Heineken, I'd be fingering the revolver. But Interbrew … the Belgians understand beer. They even like it! They even like it when it doesn't taste boring! Interbrew owns a subsidiary called Belle-Vue which produces authentic gueuze and lambic. It's proud of it; it supports it; it promotes it. Interbrew chooses to call itself "the World's local brewer." And - joy unconfined - it's a company owned by a family rather than investment-banker hyenas and pension-fund sharks.
I deeply regret the consolidation which is such a feature of the drinks world at present, because it is always driven by financial considerations rather than cultural ones. It diminishes diversity of choice for the consumer, and it erodes the depth and richness of long-founded traditions. For the time being, though, that is our world, and we have to live with it. And just occasionally, just occasionally, something good happens. Like a fit, healthy and long-sighted Interbrew taking over the relay from stumbling Whitbread and podgy Bass.
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