By Simon Byrne
WHICH other product could you buy at the supermarket that has names like Skullsplitter, Nun’s Ruin, Hobgoblin, Badger’s Golden Champion, Fursty Ferrett, Old Speckled Hen?
British Real Ale. It’s a drink with a growing grassroots industry that’s close to many people’s hearts. As a result there are now over 2,500 styles of it brewed throughout the UK.
Whilst it may conjure up rather unfashionable images of basement brewing, it is in fact an industry that’s booming in spite of the recession.
In the last 18 months alone, over 100 new breweries have opened across the UK, meaning there are now more small ale breweries in operation than at any time since the Second World War.
Manchester’s legions of real ale enthusiasts were recently given a fantastic opportunity to sample the region’s eclectic real ales at the Sale Beer Festival.
The event, which ran May 21-22 at the Sale Masonic Lodge, Tatton Road, boasted 32 different local beers on tap, as well as three ciders and six wines.
The festival, set up by Altrincham-based website fancyabeermate.com, aims to spread the word about the region’s great real ales, with beers from all over Cheshire, Greater Manchester and Lancashire.
Justin Thompson, the festival’s director and ale-aficionado, said: “This was the first festival we have hosted in Sale, but not the last! The atmosphere was very friendly and engaging. It was a lot of fun!”
The popularity of the country’s real ale is soaring and Justin believes it’s the enormous variety of taste, flavour and character that makes British ale so special.
His business partner and co-organiser of the festival, Mark Jordan, is quick to highlight the fact that real ales are often brewed with natural ingredients and avoid the use of the chemical surfactants and preservatives that are normally associated with keg beers.
He said: “It’s also rumoured that due to the natural nature, the likelihood of hangovers is reduced. If you are not familiar with British real ales, then you owe it to yourself to try some.”
“At least then you can formulate an opinion, and probably a habit!”
The festival aimed to showcase the work of the region’s microbreweries, or craft breweries, smaller independent businesses that usually produce less than 15,000 barrels per year.
It’s these microbreweries that are bucking the national trend, booming at a time of national financial woe and making them one of the most successful areas in the small business sector at present.
One microbrewery featured at the festival was the Wigan-based Prospect Brewery, which was set up by Patsy Slevin in 2007 after she undertook a brewery course bought for her by her husband as a birthday present.
Things began to snowball from there and since then she’s taken her beer to festivals across the country with her Nutty Slack dark ale even winning the gold medal at the Society of Independent Brewers North Awards 2009.
What’s more, Patsy, 49, says she’s yet to feel the effects of the economic downturn and agrees there’s never been a better time for the region’s microbreweries.
She said: “Recession, what recession? We are busier now than ever because, despite the financial difficulties the country faces, people will still buy quality and a quality pint of beer is still available for a very small price.”
Patsy wears her passion for British ale on her sleeve and she believes the nation’s microbreweries can offer the drinking public something that the beers of the bigger breweries simply cannot.
She said: “The variety of tastes and flavours being produced by Britain’s microbreweries means that there is a beer for every taste. Quality has never been better and more pubs are stocking a greater variety of beer.”
“People are getting sick of drinking the extra cold, tasteless beer produced by the bigger breweries and are looking for something a bit different.”
Mark Hensby opened Liverpool Organic Brewery in 2009 and his bestselling ‘Liverpool Pale Ale’ and ‘William Roscoe’ have been impressing drinkers throughout the pubs of Merseyside.
He agrees that drinkers should eschew the carbonated keg lagers in favour of supporting the country’s great brewing tradition.
He said: “We have the largest number of small breweries per population capital of any developed country in the world, and thus the widest variety of artisan beers anywhere, produced by people who simply love what they do.”
Whilst Mark agrees that the microbreweries are the only part of the beer industry that’s currently expanding, he warns there are still dangers for fledgling businesses.
He said: “There are still plenty of big corporations who want to dominate the market with their national brands and fleece hardworking publicans out of every cent they can.”
Support for traditional British beer and smaller pubs led to the foundation of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) in 1971, an independent, voluntary organisation which now boasts over 100,000 members.
They promote good quality real ale and traditional pubs, as well as acting as the consumer’s champion in relation to the UK and European beer and drinks industry.
Their research recently found that 84% of people believe a pub is as essential to village life as a shop or post office.
Yet despite this, the most recent Beer and Pub Association report highlighted that an average of 39 pubs are closing every week.
CAMRA’s spokesman, Jon Howard, cites the impact of the recession, the smoking ban, high government taxation, the low-cost of alcohol in supermarkets, problematic business models, and an increasing cultural shift towards take-home drinking as just some of the causes.
He said: “Pubs are irreplaceable social hubs for local communities. Without them, local people are left without a central meeting place, and their losses have already caused much damage to communities throughout the UK.”
“After all, where else could you find a venue that could hold anything from a funeral wake to a Women’s Institute meeting?”
In response to this CAMRA set up the ‘Save Our Pubs’ campaign, which aims to support independent pub-owners and protect against further closures.
Jon points out, that depending on the circumstances, it can very much be a simple ‘use it or lose it’ scenario.
He said: “Supporting your local pub by dropping by every week to enjoy its atmosphere and welcome will go a long way to keeping it open, but more proactive campaigning measures include speaking out at local council meetings and getting your local MP interested in the plight of your pub.”
CAMRA is now organising the Stockport Beer & Cider Festival at Edgeley Park on June 3-5, which will showcase over 150 beers, ciders and perries.
With the World Cup looming and the tempting prospect of a warm summer, the great British ale will be hoping to be a staple of barbeques across the nation.
As Jon puts it, “What could be better for a hot summer’s day than a light, hoppy, golden ale – thirst quenching and full of flavour?”
For more information on the Campaign for Real Ale and any upcoming beer festivals across the region, visit www.camra.org or call 01727 867201.