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The brewing industry is in a slow, steady decline. Beer volumes are 25% down over 14 years. High duty levels are putting drinkers off and making profitability difficult, resulting in a wave of takeovers, mergers and brewery closures. Customers are increasingly being tempted away by the attractions of a night in at home. Sound familiar? Maybe, but that’s not 2011, it’s 1959.

I have a book entitled Called to the Bar – An account of the first 21 years of the Campaign for Real Ale, published in 1992. This contains an enlightening chapter by Richard Wilson on “The British brewing industry since 1750.” In this, he shows a table of UK beer production 1945-1988, which I have reproduced here. The steep fall from 1945 to 1951, and the continued slow decline throughout the rest of the 1950s, is very obvious. One of the main factors blamed for this was the rise of television, which was keeping people in their houses even when they had more money to spend. Wilson writes:
High levels of duty (not relaxed until the 1959 budget) and taxation bit hard into profits, and the brewers’ constant need to update their tied properties and breweries, after years of wartime neglect and severe building restrictions to 1953, meant that they had problems in generating sufficient capital to carry out their programmes of improvement. In these conditions of over-capacity, brewers continued to rationalise in the time-honoured way of acquiring additional breweries.
The 1959 production figure of 23.4 million barrels was the all-time postwar low. However, in that year’s Budget, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer Derick Heathcoat-Amory cut beer duty for the one and only time in the postwar era, which seems to have given the industry a stimulus that it didn’t look back on for twenty years.

The period up to 1979 was one of impressive and almost continuous growth. Beer volumes were 32% up by 1969, and 73% up by 1979, which was to prove the all-time peak. The 1960s tend to be associated with sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, but it seems that for many people they mainly involved drinking a lot more beer, something that popular history seldom seems to recognise.

Undoubtedly to some extent this reflected a society that had more money to spend and was less straitlaced and more hedonistic than that of the 1950s. Young people have always been some of the biggest spenders in pubs, and in the 1960s the postwar “baby boom” generation was reaching legal drinking age. And, although it may pain those who accept the “CAMRA narrative” of the brewing history of the 1960s, the money spent on developing and advertising national keg beer brands, and in refurbishing dingy old pubs, attracted a lot of new customers. The brewers succeeded in giving pubgoing a more modern, upmarket and aspirational image than it formerly enjoyed. By 1979, regular pubgoing was far more commonplace, respectable and entwined in everyday life than it was in the 1950s – or is now.

It is also noteworthy that, after a drop in the early 1980s which it’s probably fair to attribute mostly to the recession and the rundown of traditional heavy industries, production remained steady from 1982 to 1988. Indeed, even in 1997, total beer sales were still 34.8 million barrels. Maybe 5% of that was imports, so it wasn’t really much below the 36.7 million production barrels of 1988. The big decline has pretty much entirely happened since then.

Total UK beer sales in 2010 were 27.0 million barrels, which assuming the same 5% imports, is still comfortably above the level throughout the 1950s. The key difference is that much less of the drinking is happening in pubs.

Another repercussion of the 1959-79 boom in beer sales was that brewers assumed it would continue indefinitely and invested in a lot of new plant that was never fully utilised. Significantly, the massive Courage brewery at Reading opened in 1978, and closed in 2010.