Yesterday at the Manchester Beer and Cider Festival I attended the Great Manchester Beer Debate on the broad subject of “The changing beer scene”. This was chaired by Peter Alexander aka Tandleman, and the panellists were beer writer Matthew Curtis, Richard Burhouse of Magic Rock Brewery, Good Beer Guide editor Roger Protz and Hawkshead Brewery owner Alex Brodie.
However, the event turned out to be somewhat disappointing, with a great deal of beer bubble thinking and detachment from reality in evidence. For example:
- There was a disappointing amount of anti-business sentiment on view, with the pubcos denounced as “crooks” and fears expressed about the global brewers’ acquisition of craft breweries. But, at the end of the day, all pubs and breweries are going to be run by commercial operators.
- The hackneyed and unrealistic notion that people should be expected to pay more for cask beer was trotted out yet again.
- There was the usual dewy-eyed enthusiasm for the “controlled environment” of the pub and drawing a moral distinction between on-trade and off-trade consumption. This just plays into the hands of the anti-drink lobby, and the reality is that the trends of declining on-trade beer consumption and a growing market share for the off-trade aren’t going to be reversed in the foreseeable future. It may be regrettable, but railing against it comes across as Canute-like.
- Allied to this, there was what can only be described as rank snobbery at the thought of people getting cans of Carling for 50p from Tesco. The plebs are getting their beer far too cheap!
- Unfeasible panaceas were trotted out such as scrapping VAT on draught beer. Given that there are a whole list of other reasons for the decline of pubs beyond price, is cutting the price by a sixth really going to make all that much difference, even if it was all passed on to customers, which it wouldn’t be? And weren’t you just saying beer in pubs was too cheap?
- Once again, Roger Protz advanced the canard that pubcos were happily selling off successful pubs left, right and centre for redevelopment. I’m not saying this has never happened, but it’s simply not true to say that it has been a major cause of pub decline. If that were true, the remaining pubs would be packed out. But they’re not.
- The usual mythical view of the history of beer over the past fifty years was much in evidence. It simply isn’t true that in 1971 cask beer was on the verge of extinction and was only saved by the efforts of a handful of plucky independent brewers. Sorry, but back then the Big Six were churning out millions of barrels a year of the stuff.
And it’s equally untrue to say “Go out of this hall and within five minutes you’ll find plenty of pubs selling great beer. You couldn’t always do that.” Forty years ago, Manchester was brimming with cask beer. In fact, especially outside the centre, you’d be much more likely to find a great pint of cask beer by going in a random pub then than you can now. You’d also be much more likely to find a pub, full stop. And you could cross the road and have a pint of cask Greenall’s in Tommy Duck’s.
The best contribution from the floor was that of the youngish guy from West Yorkshire who pointed out that many drinkers were on a tight budget, and if you tried to significantly increase the price of cask beer they would be left with no alternative but to vote with their wallets. On the other hand, I couldn’t avoid a wry smile on hearing former hardline socialist Roger Protz happily arguing that the working man was getting his beer too cheap.
So, overall, not the most enlightening discussion, and not a single mention of the elephant in the room. Maybe they ought to invite someone like Christopher Snowdon next year to tell them a few home truths. And, as a serious suggestion, why not invite a few written questions beforehand, to ensure that a wide spread of topics is covered, rather than just opening it up to the floor?
As far as the event itself goes, it seemed to be a great success, and a number of issues from last year had been addressed, including introducing independent food stalls and increasing the amount of seating. It was good to see a dedicated bar representing the Independent Family Brewers of Britain. And I also met a couple of regular Twitter correspondents face-to-face for the first time. But nobody should delude themselves that the happy throng inside the hall meant that all was well with the British brewing and pub trades.