By Dave Hynes
Take a good look at Scotland’s brewing industry and you will see change wherever your eyes fall; be it in the local village or the modern city, the Highlands or the Lowlands. But change works at its own pace and it often takes years to discern where it has impacted most. Change brings a host of contradictions too. Since the smoking ban more and more pubs are closing, yet they are also diversifying, occupying ever more subtle market niches and market segments. Lager sales across Scotland are down but more ales are being sold than ever before. There are less pubs but thanks in part to the Campaign for Real Ale – more choice.
Scottish Students are also becoming more conscious of what they sup and the old stereotype of the binge drinking lager lout (whilst holding true in a general sense) is similarly evolving. I spoke with a busy Lindsay Grant, CAMRA’s Scotland & Northern Ireland Director, (busy because CAMRA are preparing for their 2012 Good Beer Guide launch) about the peculiarities and particulars involved in both Scottish brewing in general and young Scots in particular.
The battle between beer and lager is a complex one, combining historical factors with changes in the UK’s social pyramid, but undoubtedly lager’s ascension brought with it a dirty war of marketing and branding which real ale lost. Grant attributes the beginning of lager’s success to “aggressive marketing by large brewers that resulted in a change in the Scots’ palate with a preference for bland, highly carbonated products. By the late 70s only a few breweries still produced real, cask conditioned ale.”
But there is a resurgence from real ale and the fight-back has been growing throughout the noughties. Interestingly, this fight-back rests on pressure from below (demand); not above (supply). It’s people-led, thirsty for a ‘proper’ beer, and it’s publican-led, supported by a range of successful micro-breweries who have understood the market opportunities for ale. But the flag-bearers of real ale’s resurgence surely comes form the eponymous CAMRA and its missionary zeal in bringing back the brown and black stuff.
So what about young Scots? Surely real ale’s fight-back rests on old men grumbling about the demise of ‘proper’ beer. Surprisingly no, young drinkers can also be receptive to the subtleties of bitters and ales. The problem is, their demand is more elastic, pricesensitive and marketing-influenced. As Lindsay concedes, CAMRA’s outreach to young Scots is based on
budget; “young drinkers – at which most beer marketing is targeted – including students, are probably more influenced by marketing than their older counterparts and the much smaller real ale producers simply can’t compete.”
Yet there have been some efforts, such as Hobgoblin’s successful poster campaign, ‘What’s up lager boy, afraid you’ll taste something?’ So, too, has events sponsorship begin to prove a fighting ground for ales against lager. Tennants’ may sponsor
T in the Park but the Caledonian Brewery is fighting back with their sponsorship of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Grant says; ‘their Deuchars IPA is probably the most widely drunk real ale in Scotland.’
Alas, the resurgence of real ale in Scotland, amongst the young and old alike, needs to be qualified. It must be contextualised, viewed through national and local conditions. Lindsay makes the point that; “there are far more pubs in England than Scotland offering real ale and in many of them real ale is the choice of the vast majority of their beer-drinking customers. Some pubs do not even offer lager or it is relegated to being very much a secondary offering. The same cannot be said of Scotland, particularly in the west, where fizzy keg is the norm and a real ale drinker has to research which pubs to visit.”
But in other areas Scotland’s ale situation is far brighter. Edinburgh for example has real cause for joy as entire pubs dedicate themselves to a varied provision of micro brewery ales. Indeed, even Leith Walk is now a positive haven for continental beers
and UK based offerings. In the north of Scotland Cairngorm and Black Isle breweries are selling in Scottish and English cities. Lindsay notes that in Glasgow “there are 90 real ale pubs out of a total of 452 listed in Yellow Pages and so the market must exist, otherwise these pubs wouldn’t bother stocking it.”
“The real ale scene in Scotland is improving,” says Lindsay. “We now have 48 breweries brewing real ale compared to a handful 20 years ago. I returned to my ‘homeland’ of Ayrshire in 1998, after 15 years in England, and after a short time could quite proudly say I had visited every real ale pub in the county; there were 28. Now we have 70, too many to have visited them all!”
So good news overall, Scotland is becoming an important battle ground in the UK-wide war against lager. I asked Lindsay perhaps the most important question of all; could Tenants ever be trumped by CAMRA? “In a nutshell, extremely unlikely, they have the marketing budget we don’t.”