We know that the idea of small vs. big in the world of brewing isn’t new, but it was in the post-war period that brewers in Britain got really big to the point where it began to seem problematic.
They were complacent, arrogant and confident in the belief that consumers wanted consistency and familiarity above all else, and as a result, removed much of the diversity and flavour (for better or worse) from British beer.
It’s too much to say that big beer has been ‘overthrown’ in the last fifty years, but it has certainly been challenged — not only by consumers and small brewers, but also by governments which supported vibrant entrepreneurship over tweedy stolidity.
But none of those Big Six breweries began life as faceless monoliths. They were all small breweries once, founded by plucky individuals who saw an opportunity to challenge the status quo and make some money on the way. Eventually, though, they had to hand over control to sons and grandsons until, hundreds of years later, push-me-pull-you committees of cousins, in-laws and outsiders with no real interest in beer were in charge.
Our suspicion is that, of the current wave of new brewers (1970s to now) some will inevitably become the new Whitbreads and Watneys.
That doesn’t mean their beer will necessarily become terrible overnight (Watney’s beer was pretty good in the 1920s, it seems) but big breweries with lots at stake take fewer risks, and are more easily tempted into diminishing the beer for the sake of profit.
We don’t see, say, Sierra Nevada going into the Lite Lager business any time soon, but we can imagine, in thirty years time, a business which seems complacent and arrogant, and of which people will say: “They’re so dominant that no-one else can get into the market, and all they produce is that bland, dumbed-down, sub-6% pale ale crap…”
If that does happen, there will be plenty of brewers waiting to challenge them, and the cycle will continue.