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  Keeping it Local... Free Trade or not Free Trade? 

Last Updated : 04/01/11

know, I know, I’ve suddenly turned into a raving hippy and keep banging on about “beer miles” and how we shouldn’t drink beer unless it’s brewed 15 feet from our front door… well, not quite, but I am starting to realise that our hobby, once perceived as an innocent pastime of social inadequates, is contributing to the release of excess greenhouse gases and, therefore, the problem of global warming. Suddenly, as more people realise this, it’s not just CAMRA campaigning for choice (and local choice at that) in the real ale sector; farmer’s markets are also signing up local brewers for stands at an alarming rate. Perhaps we need to play the environmental card a bit stronger with regards to local beer and tell people that this beer – which you’ve probably never heard of and have probably never seen in a local pub within ten miles of the city – is made locally and should be consumed locally.

This campaigning and evangelism about local beer needs to happen for real ale as a whole; more and more people are becoming interested in where their food comes from and "food miles" so, obviously, locally-brewed beer is a prime contender for customers to be informed that they have a local brewery - and then there's always the chance they will ask for it and/or search it out.  One thing I find amazing, in my experience, how many people who claim to be "alternative" or "locally-minded" seem to think that alcohol is exempt from this locality scenario and still drink multinational crap when they fill up the trolley with slabs of fizzy crap at Tatscos or at their local!

This begs the question "Why do newer, small brewers send their latest offerings all over the country to satisfy the relatively small "ticker" market rather than the tickers get off their backsides and seek out these beers in local (to the brewer) pubs?".  Well, in my opinion it’s a complex brew of reasons but the main ones are the lack of local outlets in many areas, wholesalers who take whole brew runs to sell remotely, no need to discount heavily to get your beer into those local pubs which might take it but want it for nothing, and the basic fact that most pubs these days are tied up tight and can’t have guest beers as much as they’d love to stock the local ale.  The most obvious one, however, is that brewers find it easier to sell their beer if they make a new one every week whereupon a friendly wholesaler takes a bunch – if not the whole lot - off their hands then away it goes into the big, wide world – OK, Sheffield – to be dispensed to beer scoopers with absolutely zero loyalty to any brewery; yes it means sales, but what use is it to building a local “brand”?  Not much, but it keeps the breweries afloat and therefore propagates yet more one-offs and seasonals to be sent out to whoever will have them wherever they are.

There is a half-way house, so to speak, and it’s something that is currently growing in popularity and that is sourcing beers from brewers within a certain number of miles of the pub. Obviously this won’t please those wanting the huge scoops (unless your local brewers are very adventurous and numerous!) but, in some cases, it can work; witness my December 2010 pub of the month, the Rutland Arms in Sheffield, which sources it’s beers from as close as possible with some coming a mere couple of miles and some, such as Raw and suchlike, not that much further… it can work, although obviously it depends how widely you draw the circle and which brewers are captured in this net… that’s the trade-off between more interesting beers and beer miles!

It may seem from this that us scoopers are one hoof away from Satan himself in demanding, via our free houses, as many winners as possible and who cares where they come from; alas, it wasn't always so.  The cause of this "why go anywhere, it all comes to me" mindset was the start of "ticker" festivals in the mid-90's such as Wakefield, The Brunswick, The Maltings, the Cask & Cutler, Nottingham etc - I'm not slagging them off because that's what we wanted at the time but it chimed the end of the days in scooping's early years when everyone simply had to "seek them out locally".  I well remember trawling Manchester and Stockport, to give just one example, simply to pick up a couple of local beers which, in this day and age when everyone expects 10 scoops per pub, would probably be classed as a waste of time!  Some of the beer wholesalers contributed too - the likes of LS&B almost entirely dealt in "scoops" and ushered in the heyday of the scooping pub as we know it today although, as I’ve said, this is what we wanted at the time – and what is still wanted by many scoopers now – so I can’t really complain lest I be tarred a hypocritical bastard... and, anyhow, this is exactly what Steel City do with our beer!

Nowadays most scoopers expect the beers to come to them and don't really have to go out searching for them - they just go to Sheffield, Manchester and Newcastle, for example, and pick up a whole bagful from all over the country without a second thought, but those of us heritage enough to remember the "old days" when you actually had to go roughly to the beer's origination to scoop it will always be with us - for example, in 1991 Fletch and I bailed off a Cardiff-bound Paxman at  Twyford to scoop the whole range of Brakspear beers, or how about the time we drove to Aldchlappie via Moulin just to score their single (admittedly massive) brew.... these days may never return, but it’s high time we stopped being so bloody lazy and started getting out and about again to hunt for scoops and not expecting them to be brought right to our doorstep at our beck and call!

In my opinion scooping is just too easy these days; there's hardly any challenge (except for finding the time to type up all those winners) which is why I almost gave up a few years back; it's only going abroad more, with all the challenges that entails, which has got me back into the habit of scooping again!  If we got back to basics, as it were, and started getting about to the brewpubs and breweries as scoopers used to in the “golden years”, then maybe we can do our bit for the local pubs and bring some of the fun back into the hobby which has turned into a bit of a treadmill in these days of more and more “ticker” festivals fed by more and more micros every month which can’t be sustainable in the long-term… can it?

Answers welcome, as always, on nice crisp tenners… 


See the other piece I wrote on the same subject four years back here.


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