ALE November/December 1996 No. 286

Company Profile No. 7 - Scottish Courage

The planned merger of Bass and Carlsberg-Tetley will result in two brewery combines controlling some 70% of the British beer market - a most unhealthy state of affairs. The other giant is Scottish Courage, itself created only last year when Scottish and Newcastle bought Courage from its Australian owners, Fosters.

Courage itself had been a brewer with no pubs since 1991, having sold its pub estate to the Inntrepreneur pub company. Scottish and Newcastle had around 2600 pubs, mostly in the North and Midlands.

Breweries to Spare......

The 1995 deal found Scottish Courage owning seven real ale breweries and, surprise, surprise, a decision to "rationalise" soon followed. Both the Websters plant in Halifax and the Home Brewery, Nottingham have been closed. For the time being, production of the various ales has been transferred elsewhere but history suggests that most of the brands will soon disappear.

The main breweries left are Bristol (Courage Bitter, Directors), Edinburgh (McEwans, Youngers), John Smiths (John Smiths), Tyne (Theakston, Newcastle Exhibition) and Theakstons. What, what, what? If they own Theakstons Brewery, why are Theakstons beers produced in Newcastle? In reality, the tiny Theakstons plant in Masham is little more than a P.R. front. The fact that it exists and still produces a miniscule amount of beer (for consumption in its own locality) allows Scottish Courage to place big adverts in the colour supplements extolling the rustic charm of the Theakston brewery and implying that the Theakston beers down your local have been lovingly crafted in this idyllic backwater, complete with wooden barrels, ancient coppers and amusing characters. However, read the small print - "Theaston ales are also brewed in Newcastle". Yes, about 95%.

The Cambridge Connection.......

Historically, Scottish and Newcastle were always poorly represented in our area, for many years owning a single pub, The Fountain in Regent St. A few years ago they bought a clutch of managed houses from Grand Met who, in turn, had bought most of them from Tolly. All in Cambridge, they comprise The Pickerel, The Spade and Becket, The Racehorse, The Master Mariner and The Golden Hind. Both The Fountain and The Pickerel now have a heavy emphasis on real ale, The Fountain offering at least two guests as well as Scottish Courage products. The company is a major player in the free trade and has supply deals with a number of pub chains.

Round here, the expanding Olde English Pub Co. (Royal Oak, Barrington; Red Lion, Horseheath; Pheasant, Gt. Chishill) takes its bulk beers from SC and most of the ex-Watney pubs around Ely (now Phoenix or Swan Inns) offer the dubious delights of John Smiths and Websters.

What of the beers then? Well, amongst a lot of dross, some fine ales do exist. Directors from Bristol is a robust well-balanced brew with a powerful finish, seen regularly but not extensively in these parts. Much scarcer is Magnet from the John Smith Brewery, a beautiful, dark ale with a complex fruit and nut flavour. The Theakstons beers are largely pale shadows of their former selves, the Best Bitter being particularly uninspiring. However, the legendary Old Peculier still deserves its reputation and the little-seen Mild is also good. As for the likes of Websters Yorkshire Bitter and Youngers Scotch - these are the kinds of beer that give dishwater a good name.

Despite controlling some 30% of the market, Scottish Courage is a strangely anonymous enterprise with many beers to match. There have been a few moves in the right direction. The T.J. Bernard chain of real ale houses, of which the Fountain is one, features interesting guest beers. But overall, a big-business greyness pervades the company and its operations.

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