Lewes the other week I picked up a copy of "Sussex Drinker"; the quarterly news-magazine published by the combined Sussex CAMRA branches. Seeing as my son and I were in the company of friends from Maidstone & Mid Kent CAMRA, I also picked up the latest edition of “Draught Copy”; their own magazine, which also appears on a quarterly basis.
I hadn’t really looked at these magazines until the other night, when flicking through them I was amazed, and also somewhat taken aback, by the numbers of breweries there are in the two counties. Kent currently has 39 operating breweries whilst Sussex can boast a staggering 60!
With beer sales in decline, fewer people going to the pub and indeed pubs continuing to close at an alarming rate, where exactly is the market for all these beers or, more importantly, where are they managing to sell their beers?
Of course some of these 99 breweries are brew-pubs, or one man bands. Others specialise in bottles and concentrate on selling their beers into farm shops or at farmers’ markets, but this must be a pretty precarious way to earn a living. On the other hand, there are also quite a few success stories amongst this number,
“Sussex Drinker”, of the demise of Ballard’s Brewery; one of the pioneers of the small brewery movement, a phenomenon which actually predates the much more recent micro-brewery explosion. Ballard’s started brewing in 1980, so were not far short of their 40th anniversary.
However, just over two weeks ago it was announced that Ballard’s would be closing, but their beers would continue being brewed by the Greyhound Brewery in West Chiltington, which is just down the road from Ballard’s home at Nyewood, West Sussex. Francis Weston, Ballard’s brewer for many years, will oversee the transfer of the recipes to their new home, whilst the brewing plant has been sold and is being shipped out to Serbia, of all places.
Then of course there is news of start-ups, such as Brewing Brothers in Hastings and Brew Studio at Sompting.
As others have pointed out, we must be close to saturation point with regard to breweries; if we haven’t reached it already, and although the choice of beers which are now available appears a good situation to be in, the converse is actually true. These days when confronted in a pub, by an unfamiliar beer on the bar, I am likely to think twice before ordering a pint, whereas at one time I wouldn't have hesitated to give it a try.
Ultimately, some of these poorer efforts will fall by the wayside, but in some instances not before one or two of the better breweries have been driven out of business by too much competition chasing far too few outlets. This really is an example of competition actually stifling choice and not working in the consumer interest.
The pattern of what is happening in Kent and Sussex is being repeated up and down the country, with most areas of Britain potentially offering a range of beers which would have seemed unimaginable a decade or so ago. But will this amazing choice ultimately "kill the goose that laid the golden egg", or will we see the long predicted, but yet to materialise, shake up in the brewing industry, and the cutting out of the slack?