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The Ale City: Step Away From the Stella

Sheffield is a city famed the world over for its production of things, and though our major export has always been the stainless hard stuff, I'm here to explore the unassuming world of a far less famous trade that has continued to thrive while its metal counterparts have fallen foul to the nature of global economics. I speak, of course, of Sheffield's real ale trade. To define 'real ale' is remarkably simple. A natural beer that does not require any added carbon dioxide. And that's it. This makes for a staggering range of non-fizzy beers with subtle, individual characteristics, made kin by the simplest of factors - simplicity itself. It is no longer a secret that real ale is gathering popularity across the world and, during a time in which an average of 29 pubs close down per week in Britain alone, there is a good reason that the production of real ales is currently the only growth market in the whole sector. The real ale trade quite simply ticks all of the boxes during the worst economic downturn of a generation. It is produced locally using ingredients from the region in which it is made. Its growth is sustainable, because the scale of each individual operation does not allow for the perils of vast over projection, which have been the undoing for larger brewers such as Stones here in Sheffield and Carlsberg Tetley over in Leeds. Across the board, ale is a healthier option than the average carbonated lager, with nutritional benefits like vitamins, minerals and anti-oxidants, as well as an averagely lower ABV percentage and no artificial additives or preservatives. Another appealing part of real ale is the nature of the process on the microbrewery scale. The art-meets-science (with a whole lot of craft in between) approach to making the perfect pint is altogether more interesting and impressive than the 40 foot, automated vats you would find in a Carling brewery or the likes. The culture of real ale drinking is also a wonderfully civilised one, with the quality and not the quantity of the drink being king, making the term 'binge drinking' an alien one to the real ale drinker. Add these things to the fact that without the overheads and profit-hungry shareholders behind the scenes of corporate breweries, it's more often than not significantly cheaper per pint. Win, win, win. In researching this article I have also come to believe that the way the real ale trade does business, particularly here in Sheffield, could just be the perfect model for an independent alternative to the corporate structure that dominates today. Each brewer circulates their wares around each other's pubs and shops, swapping beers so that very rarely is an empty cask driven miles to be refilled. Each brewery works on a manageable scale of costs and outlay, making for a stable structure to the industry, with the 'in it together' ideology abundant throughout. The variety of products available due to this method of operating is incredible, and is not dissimilar to the famed little mesters of the city's past. Since the opening of the Blue Bee Brewery in March, Sheffield has ten independent breweries, all brewing both new and classic ales every week, as well as dozens of microbreweries in neighbouring towns and cities like Barnsley, Doncaster, Chesterfield and Rotherham. Naturally, the standard pride of ownership and personal touch that can only ever be found from independents is as noticeable in the world of real ale as in any other sector, if not much more, with each brewer in friendly competition with their contemporaries. They drink in each other's pubs, they consult each other on brewing techniques and new products and they all coexist very happily. I would go as far as to say that this is an industry built on a foundation of mutual respect and support which helps it withstand the pressures of modern economics. But this is not just a romantic story of good people working together nicely. The real ale trade is fast becoming a cornerstone of Britain's economy. It accounts for over 15,000 jobs in the UK, from brewers to publicans to delivery drivers, as well as some great minds at the heart of this artisan production process. The industry as a whole is worth an estimated £28 billion per year to the economy, contributing as much as many major sectors and having grown more than 6% of its market share since 2007 when compared to the free falling trade of lagers and keg bitters. The superior quality of the drinks produced in this manner has also found favour with female drinkers, with the number of women enjoying ales having doubled since 2009. I started to write this piece as an exercise in highlighting something good in our city and beyond and I would love to say that the future looks bright and rosy, with nothing but blue skies on the horizon. However, we have a joke of a government with other designs on an industry that has demonstrated how it should be done. Quelle surprise. The proposed duty increases, as well as insidious and underhanded changes to the way that each brewery's tax is calculated, are threatening to strangle the whole industry to within an inch of its life - again. According to the British Beer and Pub Association, tax on beer has risen 26% since March 2008. This year has already seen the largest ever increase in taxation since duty on ale was first introduced, and further increases could hit microbreweries hard. This does not make any financial sense to the government. The Treasury stands to make significant losses due to the near certain closure of hundreds of independent breweries as a direct result of the price hike. Bloody madness. That said, the people responsible for what I believe to be a shining example of how to make a trade work independently are a resilient bunch. There are many groups of people resisting the proposal, and they've been busy. If you would like to add your support or simply find out more about this fascinating world, please visit the links below. First things first though - step away from the Stella... Proud of Beer Video: Search 'Proud of British Beer' on Youtube. Society of Independent Brewers: siba.co.uk Campaign for Real Ale: camra.org.uk )

Next article in issue 40

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