Local Ale for Local people (& visitors)

by Steve Renshaw

As a native-born yellowbelly, it’s been a real delight to be an increasingly frequent visitor to Lincoln. In London, where I live, we’ve had an explosion of interest in craft brewing and local beers. A joy for me is the wonderful diversity of beers we can now find all around the UK, especially in and around Lincolnshire.

There are 20 breweries within 25 miles of Lincoln. Some cracking beers they brew too. The likes of Grafters – Darker Side of the Moon (4.2% ABV) dark, with a smokey, chocolate after-taste; Poachers – Shy Talk (3.7% ABV) golden and refreshing; Brewsters – Stilton Porter (5% ABV) dark, rich and hoppy, to name just three favourites. The sad thing is only a small number of pubs in Lincoln regularly stock local beers.

CAMRA “LocAle” accreditation comes if a pub agrees to set aside one hand-pump for locally-brewed beers. This reduces beer miles and supports local brewing and related jobs. It’s like the Echo’s Love Local campaign, but for beer. The Lincoln LocAle scheme was launched in 2009 but, to date, we have just a dozen accredited pubs, with only five in the city.

So why is it that we have so few pubs selling local beer? It’s complicated but I’ll try to keep it brief.

Back in 1900, the UK had over 2,000 commercial breweries plus around 4,000 pubs brewing their own beer. When I joined CAMRA in 1977, we were down to 160 breweries, 50 of which were owned by the infamous “Big 6”.

The expanding closed shop of the big brewers’ tied-house system, and aggressive mergers, were throttling the life out of local brewing well into the 1980’s. In 1989, the Government passed Beer Order legislation that was intended to break up the big brewers’ monopolies. The modest aim was to release some pubs from the tie, and allow others to stock a guest beer. The impact was dramatic, but not as intended.

Rather than let other brewers’ beer into their tied pubs, the big breweries sold them off. Most were snapped up by what became known as pubcos (pub companies). The big, national pubcos had no connection with local brewers. Their focus was making profits and they were able to use their buying power to negotiate substantial discounts from large brewers. The landlords who leased or managed these pubs had no option but to buy their beer from their parent company, at a significant mark-up.

CAMRA has long campaigned for a competitive and diverse brewing industry, responsive to the needs of the consumer. We don’t want to scrap the tied-house system but believe that the large pubcos should provide their landlords with free-of-tie and guest beer options. Recently MP’s overwhelmingly supported calls to reverse the Government’s decision to let pubcos continue to regulate themselves.

So, if your regular pub doesn’t serve a local ale, ask them why not. The big pubcos are beginning to get the message that beer drinkers want choice. In the end, it’s down to us as consumers.

The Jolly Brewer is one of Lincoln’s LocAle pubs, and a freehouse. When I was in recently, landlady Emma Chapman told me, “Our regular LocAle, Black Abbot from the Idle Brewery in West Stockwith, Nottinghamshire, is very popular with customers.” Emma is now planning to dedicate a second handpump to local brews.

And what about the beer? Black Abbot is a 4.5% ABV stout. As the name suggests, it’s very black, with a creamy head. Full-bodied, fruity, with a malty edge. My kind of beer.

Don’t forget to make a date in your diary for the Lincoln Beer Festival (May 24th to 26th, the Drill Hall).