Lady Thatcher’s policies affected just about every facet of British life—including beer.
True to her arch-conservative principles, Thatcher worked to dismantle the U.K.’s brewing monopolies. At the time of her 1979 ascension to 10 Downing, six breweries produced not only three-fourths of the kingdom’s domestic beer, but controlled most of its pubs as well (Bass, the biggest, owned more than 6,000). It was a libationary stranglehold, to say the least, in a nation where beer drinking was still a communal affair (not like in the U.S., where technology like the aluminum can and the TV had rendered most drinking done at home).
Thatcher’s 1989 Beer Orders declared that henceforth no brewer could own more than 2,000 pubs; and pubs must be allowed to sell at least one “guest” beer produced by a rival brewery. As Paul Kingsnorth put it in The Guardian, “The idea was simple: the smashing of the monopoly would see a flowering of smaller brewers, more varied pubs and more choice for drinkers.”
It didn’t happen like that. The brewers formed pub companies, taking advantage of a legal loophole that allowed a non-brewer to own as many pubs as it could amass. And other firms with no roots in brewing at all marched in through the same loophole.
Thatcher’s good-faith effort to increase competition and consumer choice backfired. Not only breweries, but pubs began closing en masse in the U.K.: more than 30 breweries would close in the 1990s, while many times more pubs croaked (at one point an estimated 20 a month), particularly in the kingdom’s more rural areas. The Japanese bank Nomura by the new century replaced Bass as the biggest pub owner, with more than 5,500, including 988 acquired from that same Bass estate in a nine-figure deal in February 2001.
The result of Thatcher’s bartending, so to speak, was not only the death of a good chunk of village pub culture, but the homogenization of the British brewing industry: about 130 distinct brands disappeared amid the brewery and pub closings of the 1990s. The U.K. was over as a serious brewing nation.
· Calling Time [Guardian]
· On National Beer Day, Spare a Thought for the 1990s [TomAcitelli.com]