Currently, there is a rather vigorous debate raging on the subject of the British 'guest beer rule', which allows the landlords of pubs owned by the large British brewers to buy one draught beer from another supplier. The rule is being challenged by the European Commission, which sees it as anticompetitieve as it only applies to cask-conditioned beer. This, they argue, is a restraint of trade, as only British breweries produce such beer. The reaction in Britain, where many small breweries have profited from the ability to gain a wider market for their beers, has been to interpret this as an attack on British beer culture. Europe, so some argue, is trying to force us to drink foreign beer.
As so often in the European Union, the debate has been plagued by misconceptions and prejudice on both sides of the English Channel. It is unfortunate that the British mistrust and misunderstanding of continental beer is often mirrored by attitudes in the rest of Europe. There appears to be widespread ignorance of the true situation in other countries, not that the media makes much of an effort to correct this. All too often national stereotyping, jingoism and xenophobia dominate discussion. Of course, for the politicians a little bit of Euro-bashing can never harm their election prospects, however damaging such simplistic attacks may be in the long term.
The guest beer rule, does not, any many seem to think, apply only to top-fermented beer. The definition in the law of cask beer, which is somewhat looser than the CAMRA definition of real ale, allows any unfiltered and unpasteurised beer. Basically, anything which is still alive in the barrel or keg. The method of production, top-fermentation, bottom-fermentation or even spontaneous-fermentation is irrelevant. There are countless continental beers which can be sold under the existing rules: trappist beers and unfiltered lagers from Holland; lambik, abbey beers and spiced ales from Belgium; kellerbier and hefeweizen from Germany; Zwickelbier from Austria. Interestingly enough, no-one seems to have attempted to find and sell continental beers which do fit the rules. In fact, no-one, not even the brewers, in the rest of Europe seemed at all interested in making use of the guest beer provision. The current argument was caused by a British importer who wanted to bring in standard filtered lagers, which obviously fell outside the rules. As far as I am aware, no-one from continental Europe ever objected to the rules.
CAMRA's opposition to the changing of the rules to include filtered and pasteurised beer is not that it would allow strange, foreign beers into the country, but that it would destroy the usefulness of the whole concept. The most likely outcome of such a change would not be a flood of continental pils in UK pubs. Most likely, guest beers would be the poor imitation lagers and nitrokeg beers which the large UK breweries so heavily promote. The real point of the guest beer rule was to reduce the power of these large brewing comapnies. It also worth noting that the UK already imports a higher percentage of beer than any of the other major brewing countries in Europe.
Personally, I am all in favour of the rule in its current form. Unfiltered beer is undoubtedly superior and the rule as it currently stands encourages publicans to stock a superior product. Not that I believe in any way that such beers are an exclusively British phenomenon. There numerous examples of worthy beers from other European countries. In Belgium and Holland most micro breweries do not filter their beers. In Germany and Austria unfiltered beer has been increasing in popularity in recent years. Isn't it a better approach to encourage the sale of these under the guest beer rule? This would prove that it is not a protectionist measure aimed at excluding foreign competition (which it never was). Retention in its current form would protect a useful outlet for small UK and continental brewers.
Given that the smaller, more traditional brewers are the ones more likely to produce unfiltered beer, European micro and regional producers are the continentals most able to take advantage of this generous rule. It as chance they are often denied in their home market. In other European countries the large brewery groups are free to dictate what many pubs can sell. Most of the Belgian market, for example, is sewn up by Interbrew and Alken-Maes, without these having to allow any of their smaller competitorsí products to be sold in the pubs they control. In Holland, Interbrew has been actively driving Palm out of the pubs it has gained through its takeover of Oranjeboom. Heineken got Hoegaarden out of its pubs after starting to brew Wiekse Witte, a beer in the same style. Perhaps, as PINT has suggested in Holland, it would be useful for other EU countries to introduce similar rules, with the objective of helping the smaller brewers to gain at least some access to the majority of pubs.
Unfortunately, most people are unable to debate this question rationally and many are lamentably ignorant of the true facts. So, in Europe they think that the British are trying to exclude foreign beer for protectionist reasons. In the UK, they think that only tasteless filtered and pasteurised lager is produced on the continent or that the EU wants to destroy British beer. The truth is rather different, but almost no-one seems to understand this. I was most depressed to read a series of badly-informed and nationalist letters on the subject in the CAMRA newspaper, What's Brewing. They really should have known better. I believe passionately that British cask beer is a wonderful tradition and well worth fighting to retain, but to do so blindly, without knowing or appreciating the beauty and variety of continental beer is pure bigotry. We should all, as Europeans, be struggling to help the survival of as much of our beer culture as possible, whichever country it may originate from.
Why doesnít someone try selling some of the excellent continental beers under the guest beer rules? That would be the best way of demonstrating to the European Commission that the rule doesnít necessarily give British brewers an advantage over their foreign rivals. It would give British drinkers a chance to try some excellent beers and may even inspire some British brewers to try their hand at some of the more exotic styles. Iím sure that this would be a far more constructive approach than yet another outburst of europhobia. Insulting the European Commission isnít likely to make it change its mind. Demonstrating to it that it may have got its facts wrong might well.
© Ron Pattinson