Spectator on closing breweries

The letter begins ‘I am sorry to write with bad news. Since December, the brewery has received very little contract work. The causes are numerous. Energy and crop prices have risen dramatically, the smoking ban has hit pubs badly, and the very big brewers have been ‘dumping’ cheap lager into the supermarkets for sale at below cost price.’

It’s a notice of an Extraordinary General Meeting. I don’t know why it came as a surprise. I’ve watched pubs all around Suffolk close and property developers move in. According to CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, 56 pubs close in Britain every month. The British Beer & Pub Association produces even gloomier figures: four a day. Last week, the Slug and Lettuce chain went into administration. Greene King, whose brews fill the air with a bittersweet smell I love, has seen its share price plunge. Although they’re my competitors, I live in fear of a takeover that would turn their prime site in the heart of Bury St Edmunds into apartments and offices.

It’s a mite pretentious of me to call Greene King the competition. I only make one beer, it’s only sold on our farm in the restaurant and in the farmers’ market, I only do a brew every few months, and sell about 30,000 bottles a year. However, as this isn’t the BBC, I can tell you that my beer is called Good Dog Ale, with the slogan ‘Makes you Want to Sit and Stay’. Gracing the label is a black lab with soulful eyes and a muzzle with signs of grey. A low-fizz pale ale, it’s great with food and best served a little chilled in a nice wine glass.

Instead of  bragging about Good Dog Ale, I should brag about the brewer. Andy Hepworth is one of the most talented brewers in this country. Head brewer at King and Barnes in Horsham until they shut down (now modern housing), he then became a brewery consultant. He advised us on converting our old dairy, after a trip to Maine where every microbrewery we visited had sacks of malting barley stamped ‘Stowmarket’, ‘King’s Lynn’ and Ipswich’. When Andy set up his own brewery in West Sussex, we wisely decided to invest in him instead.

True, we didn’t quite fulfil our dream of a range of beers, including Lurcher Ale (wheat-based), Battersea Ale (a seasonal ale that would change with each brew), and Bad Dog Ale (dark and strong). Nor were we offered zillions from Budweiser for our clever idea. But we’ve had the satisfaction of turning our own malting barley into an ale people love, and of watching Hep-worth & Co Brewers Ltd grow and thrive. We’ve also felt a part of English history that’s as old as this farming community.

A couple of weeks ago, Simon Barnes confessed in The Times that every time a local closes something inside him dies. He wrote that the ‘existence of a living, thriving pub somehow validates the place you live in, ties us to the past, ties us to the place’. I’d go further: every time a brewery closes I tremble. Brewing is one of the last major British industries. It has shaped this country’s history and economy.

If any brewery can survive, Hepworth & Co probably can, even if it means redundancies, salary cuts and reduced hours. I accept all the causes Andy describes, but I’d add one more: a Government without the imagination to help pubs in the period after the smoking ban. By raising the duty on cheap supermarket beer and reducing the duty on beer sold in pubs, a small investment would have been made in that rare and precious thing called community, the soul of British life.