REAL ales are battling for survival. With British national brewers separating their brewing from their pub interests, independent brews have been slowly squeezed from their guest beer slots behind the bar. As far as choice and diversity are concerned, this is a sad state of affairs.
But you can't keep a good beer down. The situation in pubs, ironically, has lead to a proliferation of bottled beers in our off-licences and supermarkets. On a recent visit to my local Safeway, I noted shelves filled with more than 40 British beers, including bottle-conditioned gems such as Morland's Hen's Tooth, Fuller's 1845 and Hop Back Thunderstorm.
The 25-strong foreign section featured Belgian fruit beers, Trappist ales, several organic lagers and even the incredible Aventinus (8% abv) - a spicy, malty wheat beer from the Schneider brewery near Munich. At Tesco, the aisles boasted a similarly broad selection, including the chain's own-label porter, stout, pale ale, premium ale and organic beer.
This boom in bottled beers was highlighted by the launch this month of the Good Bottled Beer Guide, published by the Campaign for Real Ale (Camra Books, £8.99). The new edition features more than 300 bottle-conditioned UK beers, an increase of over 30% in the past year and a massive improvement on the five varieties available when Camra was founded in 1971.
Says author Jeff Evans: "As the pub door closes, so the doors of supermarkets and specialist beer shops continue to open. Small brewers have begun bottling like never before to expand their business into the off-trade. The beer choice in supermarkets is staggering compared with the situation only a few years ago, when the aisles were filled with bland, ugly, canned beers. Now you can buy wonderful beers of all description, from brewers of all sizes."
Not all brewers agree, but Camra considers bottle-conditioned ale (which contains yeast and continues to mature in the bottle) superior to bottled beer that has been filtered, pasteurised or artificially carbonated.
As long as the spread of such beers into the shops doesn't mean drinkers stay at home completely, the trend could be a boon for hotel bars and even restaurants, which can attract beer lovers by offering a range of good bottled beers.
A great one to stock at the moment must be Young's Special London Ale, winner of the bottle-conditioned beer category at the Great British Beer Festival last month. Brewed with plenty of Fuggle and Goldings hops, this dark golden beer has a hoppy nose, malty palate and smooth mouth feel. Try offering it as an aperitif. n
Beer of the month: Special London Ale, 6.4% abv, Young & Co, £16.06 plus VAT in cases of 12 x 500ml bottles. Enquiries: 0208 875 7000.
by David Shrimpton