There were more than 6,400 individual brewing companies in Britain in 1900 - but the figure has now shrunk to about 40, producing beer from about 60 plants. And the last 30 or so family-controlled brewers are fighting to maintain their independence, after watching five of their number disappear over the last year. Burtonwood and Jennings Brothers were both bought by Wolverhampton & Dudley, while Greene King acquired TD Ridley and Belhaven. Hardy & Hansons is tipped by some commentators as the next one likely to go, although it has a new chief executive who presumably will be given time to work his magic. One result of all the consolidation has been the decline of the real-ale category, which is down by about 10% a year. This is not necessarily because the beers are losing popularity, explains Jim Fallon, of corporate finance boutique McQueen. Rather it is because the brands are in the hands of the smaller players who do not have the benefit of the marketing spend enjoyed by the likes of Carling, John Smith's and Foster's. Richard Kershaw, chief executive of Manchester-based Joseph Holt, has no plans to sell up but admits it's "a much tougher industry than it was". Shepherd Neame, Britain's oldest brewing concern, is also determined to maintain its independence. But the Kent-based company has attracted interest in the past year from an unnamed investor group looking at a sale-and-leaseback of its property assets. The Sunday Times 22/01/06 (Business) page 3.9