While hundreds of small brewers celebrate their 50% cut in beer duty, Britain's family brewers, most of whom will not benefit from Gordon Brown's budget largesse, are calling it a con

Stuart Neame of the Kentish brewer Shepherd Neame, and vice-chairman of the Independent Family Brewers of Britain, said the cut "will affect only one pint in every 100 consumed in the nation's pubs."

Neame, a long-term campaigner against Britain's high alcohol taxes, which encourage smuggling of beer, wine and spirits from abroad, said: "It won't really help the microbrewers who will be expected to pass on any duty changes to their customers. And it does nothing to benefit the 99 per cent of drinkers who enjoy national and regional beers such as those produced by family brewers."

Rob Hayward, chief executive of the British Beer and Pub Association, said the cuts conned drinkers into thinking they will get cheaper beer, when what they actually did was help small brewers to compete.

He pointed out that many small family brewers such as St Austell, Bateman's and Timothy Taylor, among others, will not qualify for the proposed tax break.

The 50% cut in duty, due to come in by June, applies to the first half million litres, or 3,000 barrels a year produced by any brewer making fewer than 350 barrels a week. The maximum duty relief will be worth £120,000 per brewer, and the scheme is reckoned to be costing the government £15m.

The companies who will benefit do include several of Britain's old-established family brewers, including Elgood's of Wisbech, Felinfoel, Holden's of Dudley and Palmer's of Bridport, as well as around 440 new small breweries that have started up since 1977.

But it is bad news for most of the country's 40 remaining family brewers, who had hoped that the duty cut would extend to them as well, and the very largest of the new brewers, who also find themselves over the cut-off point.

They include Ringwood, Hopback, Wychwood and Black Sheep, who all produce too much to benefit.

Nick Stafford, chairman of Hambleton Brewery in North Yorkshire, and chairman of Siba, the small brewers' association, which has been campaigning for progressive beer duty for the little producers, said: "This is very, very good news for the industry as it will allow some brewers to survive and will allow considerable investment.

"However, it should not immediately be taken for granted that this will mean cheaper beer over the bar."

The government claimed in a statement that duty relief will help nine out of 10 British brewers, "including all micro brewers and local brewers, the majority of which are based in rural areas."

It said: "Britain's several hundred small breweries make a valuable contribution to the nation's cultural heritage, particularly in rural communities, bringing both tradition and diversity to the UK beer market. The government is keen to celebrate the talents and skills of the nation's small brewers, and help them compete effectively for their fair share of the beer market." Some of the eligible brewers currently own their own village pubs, "and many more are expected to use the savings from the scheme to buy one," the government said.

Seven other countries in the European Union with strong brewing heritages, including Germany and Belgium, run similar duty relief schemes but the British government claims the UK scheme will be one of the best-targeted, simplest and most generous schemes anywhere in the EU, with the 50% relief for the smallest brewers the maximum available under EC law.

The cut in beer duty will also apply to exports to the UK from brewers in EU countries that also produce fewer than half a million litres a year, a boost to imports from small family brewers in places such as Belgium, Germany and Northern France.

Despite cheers from the brewing industry's tiddlers, however, a study earlier this year by Dr Geoff Pugh and John Wyld, from Staffordshire University's Business School, together with David Tyrall from the Open University, says progressive beer duty would not have the huge direct benefit that Siba and the Campaign for Real Ale may have hoped for.

Instead it found that the common factor for those small breweries that did succeed was that they all owned their own tied estate, which means they owned at least one pub.

Dr Pugh said: "By owning a public house, a small brewery has direct access to their consumers and can overcome the distribution problem."

The Chancellor also announced a freeze on duty on spirits and wine.