Craft beer is a national treasure

It’s going from strength to strength, but duty system must be reformed
to help microbrewers fulfil their potential

SUCCESS stories in the drinks trade have been hard to locate since the recession first loomed into view.

That’s why the rise of craft beer has been something to savour these past few years. When I first joined SLTN, in 2001, the cask scene was still largely the preserve of the beer enthusiast. No matter how good the beers were, the idea back then that cask or craft could break into the mainstream in the manner it has seemed a far off prospect.
That the small brewing scene has come to thrive so impressively is down to several factors.
Ask SIBA (Society of Independent Brewers) and it will say the sector has undoubtedly been helped by the introduction and expansion of Small Breweries’ Relief, which grants tax rebates of up to 50% for those producing less than 60,000 hectolitres per year. Since the scheme was brought in under Gordon Brown’s chancellorship in 2002, SIBA said its membership has doubled, along with the number of people its members employ.
The tax savings have allowed brewers to invest in new equipment, brewing capacity and in marketing their businesses. At the same time, the craft brewing scene has almost certainly benefited as consumers have taken more interest in the diversity, provenance and authenticity of the products they buy.
As John Henderson of the new Scottish Borders Brewery attests, more and more people are seeking out goods that are different to the mainstream, made locally and underpinned by a good story – qualities many craft beers have in abundance. But while the progress of the category shows no signs of slowing just yet, SIBA says a glass ceiling is looming.
Pubs remain the most important route to market for many craft beers – indeed for cask ale it’s the only route, not counting cask conditioned bottles – but those outlets are coming under increasing pressure thanks to current government duty policy.
Successive duty hikes in recent years, added to this year’s VAT increase and rising inflation, are leaving many pubs with no option but to put prices up, according to SIBA.
And in the current climate, with fears over unemployment and public spending cuts, there’s a very good chance the price of a good pint of cask could soon move beyond the reach of some.
Sure, there’s a decent selection of craft and cask conditioned beers in the supermarkets these days, but home drinking’s not what this kind of product is about.
Cask has its true home in pubs, places where the beer is lovingly looked after and rotated to give drinkers plenty of choice.
If fewer consumers are able to enjoy such experiences it can only be bad for the trade (fewer customers are obviously bad news, with implications for jobs and businesses).
But it’s also bad for the policy makers charged with tackling the country’s problems with alcohol misuse, on the basis it could drive more people to drink at home instead of the supervised environment of the pub. So in my view there are many reasons to cherish craft beer, and the Treasury ought to be mindful of that as it puts the finishing touches to this month’s Budget.