|Fergus McMullen … 'People want quality, and they want to have a taste'. Photograph: Graham Turner for the Guardian|
Hunter's is part of a remarkable early 21st-century flowering of traditional British ale. Helped by an increasingly enthusiastic public and a handy excise duty relief that effectively halves your tax bill as long as you make no more than about 3,000 barrels a year (thank you, Gordon Brown), some 50 new small breweries are expected to open around the country this year.
There are now, in fact, more breweries in Britain than at any time since the end of the second world war: well over 800, against half that number, of all sizes, less than a decade ago, and a mere 140 in 1970. And we clearly like what they're brewing: sales of "live", cask-conditioned ales, which ferment a second time in the barrel, have surged by 25% over the past five years.
What makes this more striking is that overall, our national drink is in seemingly irreversible decline. The UK beer market, still dominated by the big keg lagers such as Carling and Foster's – which, for the sake of shelf life, get filtered or pasteurised after brewing to kill off the yeast, then are injected with CO2 in an effort to give them back some semblance of life – shrank by 7% last year. And we're losing 25 pubs a week.
Apropos of my earlier post about british supermarket beer sales eclipsing pub sales:
The big retailers have certainly got it: Sainsbury's is organising a Great British Beer Hunt that will see 16 new British ales, selected in regional heats, battle it out from early September for a permanent place on the shelves in some 300 stores. "We're seeing 7% year-on-year growth in premium bottled beers," says Oliver Chadwick-Healey, its beer buyer. "This is a real phenomenon, driven by choice and quality."