A couple of months ago, I wrote about how the unintended consequence of banning displays of “HFSS” foods in supermarkets had been a mushrooming of the quantity of alcoholic drinks in prominent view. But one thing that has been conspicuous by its absence from all these mountains of bottles and cans is beers in traditional British styles. Yes, there is Guinness, and there are Punk IPA and Hazy Jane, but the vast majority of it is lager of various kinds. There is nothing remotely resembling a Bitter. Not too long ago, there would have been slabs of John Smith’s Extra Smooth, Boddingtons and Tetley’s, and even, a few years before that, Stones. But now there is nothing.
While these beers are still available in four-packs in the alcohol aisle, their absence from the piles of seasonal drinks shows that they are no longer ranked amongst the big hitters of the beer world. And yes, those styles are well covered by the Premium Bottled Ales sector, but that again is a niche market playing several divisions below the Premier League.
In the on-trade, it is overwhelmingly cask that is carrying the standard for British ales. When cask disappears from a pub, it doesn’t get keg Landlord and London Pride, it is likely to end up with an apologetic cowl on the T-bar for John Smith’s or Tetley’s Smooth, and maybe a throwback keg mild if you’re lucky. These products are now zombie brands, receiving no advertising or promotion, and selling to a dwindling band of downmarket older drinkers. Maybe there is still some love for keg ales in pockets like the North-East club trade, but in general they are unloved and overlooked.
When Cooking Lager did his tour of the keg pubs of Edgeley earlier this year, he didn’t even mention the keg ales available. I’d assume they all stocked some form of smooth beer, but I’d guess these accounted for no more than 10% of draught sales. It wouldn’t surprise me if some of the more modern-themed pubs and bars that have dropped cask now no longer stock any British-style keg ales at all. I don’t tend to frequent such establishments, but earlier this year I stayed in a slightly upmarket hotel where there were eight kegs on the bar. One was some kind of craft IPA, but none were British ales.
When I started drinking in the late 70s, ale (mostly bitter, but still with a large component of mild) was the dominant category in the beer market. Lager was a trendy, upstart interloper. However, it steadily gained on ale, probably overtaking it at some time in the mid-80s, and has now for most people become the default beer. If you visited the house of someone who wasn’t a beer enthusiast, and they offered you “a beer”, odds on it would be a lager. As the Scottish Licensed Trade Network reports, lager has now become the quintessential pub product.
British-style ales are now on the verge of falling back from being a lower-volume mainstream product to something that is definitely just a niche. Over the next couple of decades it will become increasingly common in the on-trade to find them entirely absent, while in the off-trade the shelf space allocated to them will steadily diminish. Yes, there will still be places where they enjoy strong sales and appreciation, but they will be limited pockets in the general landscape. While cask may mount a determined rearguard action, its distribution is only going to contract, not increase. And, if you run a brewery that specialises in British-style ales, you may have a bleak future.
Of course it is a simple fact of life that customer preferences change over time. Porter disappeared, mild is now a tiny niche and bitter is going the same way. But it is a matter of regret that we are losing something that was the absolute cornerstone of the once-mighty British brewing industry. And you can’t help thinking that other nations such as the Germans and the Czechs would be more committed to cherishing such an important part of their heritage.
Yes, there has been a rise in craft IPAs, mainly on keg, but they are not ales of the traditional British style and their market share remains minuscule in comparison to lager.