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Britain's Centuries-Old Mortlake Brewery To Close

Brewery is scheduled to close next year, putting roughly 300 workers out of work and depriving London of the last major brewer set on the banks of the River Thames.

LONDON (AP) -- They say booze is recession proof -- that people don't quit drinking when times are tough.

But Britons' collective passion for beer, ale and hard cider wasn't enough to save the centuries-old Mortlake Brewery. The brewery is scheduled to close next year, putting roughly 300 workers out of work and depriving London of the last major brewer set on the banks of the River Thames.

The demise of Mortlake follows the recent closure of several other breweries in Britain. The breweries are victims of changing times: Beer sales are falling nationwide, and pubs, like breweries, are closing across the country.

"Habits are changing, and the brewery industry is changing," said Dennis Larkin, union leader at Mortlake. "The big beer companies are becoming global breweries now and for us, just a small local brewery, it becomes much more difficult."

He said Mortlake, where brewing is thought to have started in the 15th Century, is geared toward the pub trade -- and pubs are suffering in part because government tax and duty policies make beer in pubs relatively expensive compared to supermarkets.

"Supermarkets are using alcohol as a loss leader to bring people in, so people are not going into the pubs, where it's more expensive to drink," Larkin said.

Other historic breweries that have been shut recently include a West Yorkshire plant that started producing Tetley beer in 1822 and a Scottish and Newcastle brewery in Reading that employed more than 350 workers. Industry groups say, in all, about 50 major British breweries have closed since 1990.

Figures released Tuesday by the British Beer and Pub Association show a sharp drop in beer sales to pubs and restaurants. The figures show sales fell more than 8 percent for the final quarter of 2008 compared to 2007 -- a drop of 2.2 million pints of beer each day. London has some microbreweries, but only one other major brewer -- Fuller's in nearby Chiswick -- remains open.

The new figures are a continuation of bad news for beer sales in Britain. In the third quarter of 2008, total beer sales fell about 7 percent, according to the association.

Facing this reality, the union at Mortlake is negotiating with the owner, Anheuser-Busch InBev, over the planned phased closure of the plant, with doors set to be shuttered for good early next year.

Workers want to get some job training and help finding new positions -- but hopes are not high with many of Britain's major companies slashing thousands of jobs in recent months due to the recession.

"If it carries on like this, there will be a glut of skilled tradesmen out there looking for work," said plant engineer Simon McGuinness. "This is a new experience, a learning curve. Without a job I can't pay the mortgage."

He said workers expected some jobs to be cut when Belgium-based InBev took over the plant last fall as part of its acquisition of Anheuser-Busch -- a move which created the world's largest brewing company, with roughly 120,000 employees -- but they never expected a total shutdown at Mortlake.

The company blamed "challenging market conditions and significantly higher costs imposed as a result of record rises in beer taxation" for the decision to shutter the brewery.

Roger Protz, who writes the good beer guide for the Campaign for Real Ale organization, said the decision to close Mortlake is part of an industrywide consolidation accelerated by the InBev takeover of Anheuser-Busch.

"It would be a tragedy if the brewery completely disappears," he said, holding out some hope that it might even be turned into a museum about brewing.

Protz said that in the 18th and 19th centuries there were two major brewers and many smaller ones along the Thames, but they started to fade in the last 30 years. The brewers relied on nearby springs, not the polluted Thames, for the water they needed, he said.

The brewery shutdown announced several weeks ago has sparked legislators into action.

"It's got 600 years of brewing history," said Susan Kramer, who represents Mortlake in Parliament. "We've been in contact with senior management, but it's clearly a business-driven decision."

Her fear is that the site will be turned into luxury apartments that won't be affordable for locals. London land is so valuable that the 11-acre site can probably command a top price for use as river-view apartment blocks, even during a recession.

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