The latest dig at mutinational brewers could carry some weight, argues Stephen Beaumont

The latest dig at mutinational brewers could carry some weight, argues Stephen Beaumont

Rarely a week goes by without the multinational brewers being given a hard time by someone or other. However, the latest flare-up, in the UK, has caught the attention of our regular beer commentator, Stephen Beaumont.

For 45 years, the Good Beer Guide, published by the UK's Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) has acted as, in turn, the champion of cask-conditioned ale, the defender of the UK pub and the conscience of the country's brewing industry. One would presume, then, that it was not without much thoughtful consideration that the latest edition of the pub guidebook features an essay warning that so-called 'Big Beer' - which is to say the world's largest brewing companies - are attempting to stifle consumer choice.

In an article headlined 'Global beer giants are on the march, buying up small breweries in UK and US', veteran beer writer and Good Beer Guide editor Roger Protz warns of the "erosion of drinkers' choice" caused by large-scale breweries buying up their much smaller competitors. To support his case, Protz recounts a litany of such purchases, including Anheuser-Busch InBev's acquisition in late-2015 of Camden Town Brewery in London and the purchase of Sharp's Brewery in Cornwall six years ago by Molson Coors. He also notes that the beers of at least two acquired breweries in the US, Goose Island (by A-B InBev in 2011) and Lagunitas (by Heineken two years ago) "are now widely available [in the UK] in major supermarkets and at remarkably cheap prices".

The reason behind those "remarkably cheap prices" are the economies of scale that the big breweries afford their acquisitions, writes Protz. "It's estimated that Big Beer has 40% lower costs than even big- and medium-sized brewers," he asserts, adding that smaller UK breweries cannot match such pricing and are thus prevented from entering the supermarket channel and relegated to speciality store sales only.

Further, and echoing concerns that were raised in the US when AB InBev asserted its control over the South African hop market in March of this year, effectively cutting off the (admittedly) small supply that was heading to US craft brewers, Protz also casts his critical gaze upon efforts to restrict the availability of beer's raw ingredients.

"Big Beer not only seeks to dominate what we can drink but is also attempting to control the ingredients used to make beer," writes Protz, "In June, the German campaign group No Patents on Beer revealed that Carlsberg and Heineken had had patents granted to cover two strains of barley, with a third patent that will allow the two strains to be used together."

Staying on the topic of ingredients, Protz also considers the effect on flavour that the tremendous up-scaling of brands like Goose IPA might bring to bear. "A different yeast culture is used [for Goose IPA] as the original yeast wasn't suitable for big batch brewing in conical vessels," he notes as one of several modifications to the beer's recipe, adding that yeast "makes a vital contribution to beer flavour".

To the large global brewers, there must be an overwhelming sense of déjà vu to all of this. Since AB InBev purchased its first craft brewer as far back as 2011, concerns have been raised and aspersions cast each and every time a new brewery investment or acquisition comes to light, by consumers, industry watchers and small brewery owners alike.

In the end, the concerns voiced by Protz and others are somewhat overstated. Of the many thousands of craft brewers now operational worldwide, AB InBev has purchased fewer than two dozen, and other multinationals have bought far fewer. While the patenting and control of ingredients is without question a matter of genuine concern, there remains still more than ample stocks of malted barley, while new hop fields are being planted and new strains developed every year. Meanwhile, pricing trends over recent years have proved that beer consumers are more than willing to pay extra for quality (although there are signs that price tolerance is beginning to reach its limit).

Still, degrees of rhetoric aside, what makes the Protz essay more significant than what has come previously is its positioning. Not only is it written by one of the most measured and respected beer writers in the UK, but it appears in what is for the country's beer consumer a hugely influential book. As such, it has the effect of elevating the volume of the conversation greatly.

In this age of social media and the rapid-fire news cycle, volume and image count. Should the notion that the multinational breweries are trying to restrict beer choice take hold among the beer-drinking public, it will matter little whether or not there is validity to the claim.

As we have seen time and again over the past decade or two, when it comes to winning the hearts and minds of consumers, perception can be the key to victory, or to defeat.

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