Tuesday 20 October 2009

Broon fans should snub the accountants

It is a brave man who seeks to improve an aphorism coined by Oscar Wilde, but if he were alive today I suspect that he might refine his well-known definition of that individual who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. He is clearly not just a cynic; he is an accountant.

Day in, day out accountants beaver away identifying “cost savings” and “efficiencies”, oblivious to the fact that they may well end up destroying the very essence of the product on which they are working. Nowhere is this truer than in the brewing industry.

Time and again technicians demonstrate that they can replicate the water and other ingredients of a particular beer so precisely that even the bushiest-bearded real ale aficionado cannot tell the difference between a pint lovingly brewed in that fine, old, Victorian family brewery occupying a prime piece of development land in the town centre, and a hyper-efficient, computerised new plant three counties away.

Yet every time they close a traditional ale brewery drinkers somehow do tell the difference, and sales dwindle as surely as night follows day.

Brewers of English ale have been in a fix since the 1970s, when people started acquiring the taste for lager on foreign holidays, and the traditional, thirst-generating heavy industries closed down. Some local brewers responded by creating fine, distinctive lagers of their own, about which specialist beer writers often rave, but sadly the great British public only seems to want bland, fizzy, tasteless stuff backed by massive brand advertising.

The issue of authenticity matters profoundly to real ale enthusiasts, because they care passionately about what they are consuming. It evidently matters not a jot to the average lager drinker, who just wants it to be cold and probably the best in the world, or reassuringly expensive, or the one that Australians prefer. The fact that the stuff brewed under licence over here bears scant resemblance to the foreign original seems irrelevant.

So where does that leave Newcastle Brown Ale as it moves south in obedience to the accountants’ dictates? Its fate has been utterly predictable ever since Scottish & Newcastle was allowed to remove its protected area designation, which ensured that it was as likely to be brewed in Tadcaster, Amsterdam or Minsk as in Dunston.

The reassurances of accountant-run corporations are as worthless as those of politicians. Commitments to preserve breweries usually carry as much weight as those of property developers who promise to cherish the fine listed building on their site, shortly before it mysteriously catches fire and has to be demolished in the interests of public safety.

As Broon is not a real ale, and its international success owes much to the same sort of marketing techniques that have created the global lager brands, I fear that in overall commercial terms they may well get away with it. But not, one hopes, in this region.

Because the cynical relocation of its most famous ale is a truly shocking snub to Tyneside, and one which I do not think it should take lying down – any more than I can believe that Dubliners will keep happily quaffing the black stuff if the accountants ever get their way and close the original Guinness brewery there.

The Dutch brewing conglomerate Heineken may well own the brand, but surely Newcastle, the Tyne Bridge, castle and cathedral belong to all of us. So can’t we register some sort of protected area designation and force them to remove our name and local symbols from the labels of “The One and Only” and make them call it Tadcaster Brown Ale, as it is now to become?

It is the only recourse I can think of, apart from never buying a bottle of the stuff again. Which, come to think of it, is not at all a bad idea, either.


Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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