Britain’s brewers are in a froth over planned changes in the nation’s 500-year-old network of licensed ale houses, or pubs.
A sobering report from the Monopolies and Mergers Commission suggests that the British beer drinker is not being best served by the big breweries.
Six brewers control most of the country’s inns and hotels, restricting the kinds of beers they can sell and how much they must charge.
That does not sit well with free-market Thatcherism. Lord Young, the secretary for trade and industry, is expected to endorse the findings in the commission’s 500-page report.
Central to the report is the suggestion that each of the Big Six brewers be allowed to own and run only 2,000 pubs. That would force them to sell a total of 22,000 pubs worth about $3.5 billion.
The Brewers Society has labeled the proposal “a charter for chaos” and “an unnecessary leap in the dark” that threatens to destroy the English pub, that age-old center of comfort and conviviality.
It also would imperil the livelihoods of thousands of tenant landlords and would trigger the biggest upheaval in British social drinking since licensing laws were introduced in 1917 to limit pub opening hours and minimize labor absenteeism during World War I. The restricted opening hours were abandoned only last year.
The Monopolies and Mergers Commission argues that increased competition will improve selection and reduce prices.
It says the system of licensed ale houses that developed in the 15th Century has become a “complex monopoly” that has allowed prices, particularly for lager, to rise too quickly, restricted consumer choice, hindered tenant publicans from following popular trends and limited access of small independent brewers to the market.
All this is serious business in a country that likes its beer from the barrel and prefers to lift a glass at the public bar rather than beside the private fireplace.
The commission decided in its report that the time had come for more freedom and flexibility behind the bar.
The conservative Daily Telegraph, ever the guardian of old English traditions, sounded a warning note in an editorial headlined “The drinker is King”:
“An Englishman’s pub is his castle. It is one thing for the government to tangle with the Bar (over the practice of law), or the doctors (over organization of the National Health Service), but if it upsets the nation’s drinkers, its goose will be well and truly cooked.”
The wholesale brewers, who brew at one location and distribute to a number of retail outlets, emerged in the 18th Century. Previously, landlords mainly brewed their own ale.