Courage itself had been a brewer with no pubs since 1991, having sold its pub estate to the Inntrepreneur pub company. Scottish and Newcastle had around 2600 pubs, mostly in the North and Midlands.
The main breweries left are Bristol (Courage Bitter, Directors), Edinburgh (McEwans, Youngers), John Smiths (John Smiths), Tyne (Theakston, Newcastle Exhibition) and Theakstons. What, what, what? If they own Theakstons Brewery, why are Theakstons beers produced in Newcastle? In reality, the tiny Theakstons plant in Masham is little more than a P.R. front. The fact that it exists and still produces a miniscule amount of beer (for consumption in its own locality) allows Scottish Courage to place big adverts in the colour supplements extolling the rustic charm of the Theakston brewery and implying that the Theakston beers down your local have been lovingly crafted in this idyllic backwater, complete with wooden barrels, ancient coppers and amusing characters. However, read the small print - "Theaston ales are also brewed in Newcastle". Yes, about 95%.
Round here, the expanding Olde English Pub Co. (Royal Oak, Barrington; Red Lion, Horseheath; Pheasant, Gt. Chishill) takes its bulk beers from SC and most of the ex-Watney pubs around Ely (now Phoenix or Swan Inns) offer the dubious delights of John Smiths and Websters.
What of the beers then? Well, amongst a lot of dross, some fine ales do exist. Directors from Bristol is a robust well-balanced brew with a powerful finish, seen regularly but not extensively in these parts. Much scarcer is Magnet from the John Smith Brewery, a beautiful, dark ale with a complex fruit and nut flavour. The Theakstons beers are largely pale shadows of their former selves, the Best Bitter being particularly uninspiring. However, the legendary Old Peculier still deserves its reputation and the little-seen Mild is also good. As for the likes of Websters Yorkshire Bitter and Youngers Scotch - these are the kinds of beer that give dishwater a good name.
Despite controlling some 30% of the market, Scottish Courage is a strangely anonymous enterprise with many beers to match. There have been a few moves in the right direction. The T.J. Bernard chain of real ale houses, of which the Fountain is one, features interesting guest beers. But overall, a big-business greyness pervades the company and its operations.