Monday, 23 April 2018

Two cheers for Revitalisation

As I’m sure all my readers are aware, last Saturday saw the announcement of the results of the voting on the great issue of our times – CAMRA Revitalisation. While I hadn’t got to the stage of writing anything in advance, obviously I had given some thought as to what I would say in the event of the vote going one way or the other. However, in typically British style, what happened was not a decisive decision but a somewhat equivocal outcome. In a sense, I was being prescient back in September when I wrote “No doubt in the end some kind of uneasy compromise will be arranged.”

As the results show, all but one of the Special Resolutions were passed with the required 75% majority. The one exception was SR6 ‘To approve the insertion of the following Article 2(e) in CAMRAʼs Articles of Association: “2(e) to act as the voice and represent the interests of all pub- goers and beer, cider and perry drinkers;”’ which only secured 72.6% approval. The resolution was widely seen as putting into practice the aspiration expressed in the Revitalisation report to extend some measure of support to “quality” non-real beers and ciders.

In fact, the democratic credentials of the whole exercise were very suspect, as no opportunity was given to circulate to the membership any case against the Special Resolutions. Given this, it’s impressive that there was sufficient grass-roots discontent to reject even one of them. The whole thing was reminiscent of a Soviet Bloc election and leaves a distinctly sour taste in the mouth.

Contrast this with the National Executive elections, where Lynn Atack, the only candidate to set out an unequivocal stall against the entire thrust of the Revitalisation agenda, topped the poll with 8,491 votes. The total number of voters in this election hasn’t been stated, but it’s clear that Lynn received a substantially higher percentage of votes than those which opposed SR6. Maybe it is better to treat the electorate as adults and give them a for-or-against case rather than just implying they’re rubber-stamping something.

Taking the results as a whole, nine out of ten Revitalisation resolutions were passed, as were ordinary Conference motions to adopt an officially neutral stance on the cask breather, and to allow the selling of non-real British beers at beer festivals. I can’t really see the point of the last one, as it comes across as rather like allowing cats at a dog show. So the results have to be seen as a mixed bag rather than a decisive victory for either “side”. But this hasn’t stopped a hysterical toys-out-of-pram reaction in some quarters:

As I said in the post I referenced above, there remains an underlying tension in CAMRA between those who see it as essentially being about the preservation of a distinctive British tradition, and those who want it to wholeheartedly embrace the world of modern beer innovation. This decision has papered over the cracks and kicked the can down the road for another year, but the fundamental dichotomy has not gone away. Although there’s no doubt which camp I align with, it’s not a question of right and wrong, but a different way of looking at things, and the two outlooks remain uneasy bedfellows within the same organisation.

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

The votes are in

Today is the closing date for postal and online voting on the Special Resolutions about CAMRA’s Revitalisation project, so I’ve closed my own poll on the subject. The results are shown above.

Obviously the voters are drawn from my blog and twitter followers, and so won’t be representative of the wider CAMRA electorate, but if replicated that would see the proposals not only fail to reach the required 75% threshold, but be defeated outright. As usually happens in these polls, the relative proportions have remained fairly steady throughout the voting period, although there has been a small swing towards the “Pro” camp in the past couple of days.

I’ve also created a Twitter poll on what result people *expect* to see, as opposed to what they *want* to see. On current figures, the most popular option is “Fall with 50-74% vote.”

The actual results at the CAMRA AGM in Coventry will be made public at some time during this coming Saturday.

Monday, 9 April 2018

Feeling revitalised?

I’ve created a poll in the sidebar about CAMRA Revitalisation, which I have written about extensively over the past few months. However, knowing that people reading my blog on a mobile won’t see it, I thought it merited a post in its own right.

Edit: I have now closed the poll and removed the link. I won’t remove the post entirely as there are some interesting comments.

Friday, 6 April 2018

Bring out your bottles

The government have announced that they intend to introduce a deposit scheme for plastic bottles, which they will consider extending to glass bottles and metal cans. The intention is to increase the rate of recycling, curb litter and reduce the amount of plastic waste entering the oceans. Clearly this is a laudable aim, provided that the vessels are actually recycled rather than just being shipped off in containers to be dumped in the Congo. However, as with any such innovation, there are various aspects that need to be carefully thought through.

One of the most obvious is how it will impact on establishments that sell bottles or cans for consumption on the premises. As the ALMR have rightly pointed out, ideally they should be exempted from the deposit scheme, as anything else could lead to horrendous administrative complexity. But what then happens if customers take bottles out of the pub and try to claim refunds back?

Looking at the wider picture, we already have a well-established system of kerbside collection of bottles and cans, which may cause a certain amount of grumbling, but generally works well and achieves a high level of recycling. People have become used to this, so it would seem a bit destructive and wasteful to ditch it in favour of a whole new parallel infrastructure. Surely there must be some way in which reclaiming deposits could be integrated with the existing kerbside collections. The sheer amount of effort and investment needed to duplicate this should not be underestimated.

It’s all very well saying “take your bottles back to where you bought them”, but people accumulate bottles and cans from a variety of sources and would quite reasonably expect to return them for deposit reclaim to a single point. And, if they’re among the growing number who order their groceries online and have them delivered to their house, it would require them to make an additional journey purely to get their deposits back, which isn’t exactly very environmentally friendly.

In some countries, you get a voucher to spend at the shop hosting the recycling point, but it doesn’t seem fair to force you to spend it somewhere you might not choose to shop. A correspondent from Germany reports how the atmosphere around the recycling stations can become pretty unpleasant, especially in the summer, and resentment is inevitably provoked if apparently valid containers are rejected.

It’s not hard to imagine that, if the new system doesn’t work smoothly, it could even end up in a reduction in recycling rates if people perceive it as being too much like hard work. Of course in principle it’s worth doing, but great care will be needed to ensure that the scheme doesn’t bring with it a whole raft of undesirable and unintended consequences, which is so often the case with government initiatives.

Sunday, 1 April 2018

Restricted relief

In 2002, Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, introduced a system of Small Brewers’ Relief providing a lower level of duty for the smallest breweries. Basically, only half the standard level of duty is payable on annual production up to 5,000 hectolitres (3,050 barrels). Above this figure, the remission of duty is steadily withdrawn on a sliding scale, until it completely disappears once production exceeds 30,000 hectolitres (18,300 barrels).

The intention was to stimulate the small brewery sector by helping them overcome the economies of scale enjoyed by larger brewers, and thus establish more of a level playing field. On one level, it has undoubtedly succeeded, with the number of breweries in the UK rising to over 1,800, a higher figure than at any time since the 19th century. However, a number of criticisms have been levelled at the scheme.

It needs to be understood that it is very tightly drawn compared with what is permitted. EU rules allow the full duty rebate to be given to breweries producing up to 200,000 hectolitres (122,000 barrels), whereas in the UK it is only available in full up to a miserly 2.5% of that figure, and disappears entirely above 15%. Of course once we have left the EU, this is irrelevant, but we are not even doing anything like what we can already.

The current scheme excludes all but the smallest of the established family brewers, who feel that they end up being squeezed between microbreweries that are able to undercut them, and the international mega-brewers who benefit from economies of scale in distribution and marketing. The thresholds also act as a kind of glass ceiling that provides a disincentive to expansion. Some established brewers such as Hydes have scaled back their own production to take them below the 5,000 hectolitres figure, while several ambitious new breweries have complained that the rapid withdrawal of relief makes increasing production above 5,000 hl a very steep cliff to climb.

While the intention was to put smaller breweries on a firmer financial footing, much of the duty saving seems to end up in giving lower prices to pub operators. Thus SBR has ended up contributing to the widespread perception that cask beer is undervalued, and that there is oversupply and cut-throat price competition in the market. And, given that pub operators don’t tend to reflect lower prices paid in the price charged across the bar to customers, much of the benefit of SBR ends up flowing not to small brewers, but to pubcos.

Plus there is a law of diminishing returns when it comes to competition. Does it really make the drinker’s lot any better if there are 1,800 breweries rather than 900, especially if many of them are tiny and undercapitalised, with a minuscule share of the market? Might not customers be better served if there was a smaller number of stronger, more ambitious companies eager to fight to increase their market share?

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Small Brewers’ Relief falls into the same category as the Beer Orders, as something that was well-intentioned, but has ended up with a whole raft of unintended consequences and has failed to achieve the desired improvements in the overall marketplace. A group has been set up called the Small Breweries Reform Coalition to lobby for changes to the system, including both established family brewers and expansion-minded newer ones.

There are several options for reforming the regime. Simplest and cheapest would be to extend the tapered withdrawal of relief to a significantly higher figure, so the effect is more gradual and it becomes less of a disincentive to expansion. Or every brewery producing up to 200,000 hl could be allowed its first 5,000 hl of production at half duty. Or we could even follow the example of Germany and allow all breweries producing up to 200,000 hl the full benefit of the 50% relief, although obviously as UK duty is much higher, the cost to the Treasury would be commensurately greater.

Of course any suggestion of extending duty relief can be countered by the “schools and hospitals” argument, but CAMRA is happy to campaign for a general reduction in beer duty without specifying exactly where the funds are going to come from, and changes to Small Brewers’ Relief are at most only going to affect 10% o the overall beer market. A targeted measure could be a much better use of any money available for duty reduction, and be more in line with CAMRA’s objectives of increasing choice and diversity.

I wouldn’t want to propose depriving any small brewers of the relief they currently enjoy, but with the benefit of hindsight it might well have been better to design the system with a lower rate of relief, but a much gentler or even non-existent taper. And, if you’re only in business to take advantage of a tax relief, you probably shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.

I also must say I have considerable sympathy with the views expressed by Brian Sheridan in this letter which appeared in the April issue of the CAMRA newspaper What’s Brewing.

Thursday, 15 March 2018

Decision day

Last month, I wrote about CAMRA’s Revitalisation proposals in a post entitled Stick to the knitting, and expressed a considerable degree of scepticism about the project. I said: “We haven’t had sight of the precise wording of the motions yet. But my feeling is that I will be strongly inclined to vote against the main thrust of the revitalisation project. If you care about the protection of our beer, brewing and pub heritage, I would urge you to do likewise.”

The latest issue of What’s Brewing has now landed on my doormat complete with the full text of the ten Special Resolutions. Now, I don’t propose to bore the general readership with the fine detail – if you’re a member of CAMRA you’ll have the information anyway. Some of them have more merit than others, but I have to say my conclusion is just to vote the “straight ticket” and oppose the lot, as a general rejection of the principles of Revitalisation. Some might criticise this as a “scorched earth” policy, but all it does is to retain the status quo. Hopefully, if the proposals don’t pass, it will give the leadership the opportunity to formulate something that clarifies the organisation’s aims and objectives without needlessly antagonising substantial sections of the membership.

A further problem is that the proposals have been presented in a totally one-sided way, with no opportunity for any arguments against them to be circulated to the general membership. Surely this goes completely against the spirit of democracy. Would this be remotely acceptable for a national referendum on a major political issue?

As I said before, the exercise has created a considerable amount of ill-feeling, with harsh words being exchanged on CAMRA’s Discourse forum and bats being taken home. It is proving extremely divisive, and the risk is that, whatever the outcome, it will leave the organisation permanently diminished. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the whole thing represents pandering to a British craft beer lobby that initially set itself up in opposition to the perceived out-of-touch and old-fashioned attitude of CAMRA. And, at a time when real ale is under threat from multiple directions, shouldn’t the organisation be focusing on its core purpose rather than “embracing” competitor products?

But we will have to wait and see how events unfold in Coventry on Saturday 21 April before we know what the end result is.

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

The last straw?

In recent months, there has been a steady procession of pub operators announcing that they were phasing out the use of plastic straws, the latest being the Deltic Group. The reason given is that, heeding the message of programmes like “Blue Planet”, it will reduce the amount of plastic waste entering the oceans and harming aquatic wildlife. However, it has to be questioned how much effect it’s going to have. I’d guess the overwhelming majority of plastic straws used in pubs in the UK end up in landfill, not in the sea. Plus 90% of all the plastic waste in the oceans originates from just ten rivers in Asia and Africa. It’s not to say it isn’t worth doing, but realistically it will be literally a drop in the ocean.

There is an obvious alternative in the form of paper straws. However, presumably there’s a disadvantage that they become soggy after a while. Are they really any more likely to end up in the recycling, particularly if they’re treated with chemicals to make them more durable? And one pub found out that, what they gained on the swings, they lost on the roundabouts:

It’s also hard to avoid the conclusion that there’s an element of snobbery in the campaign against straws. Straws are used by the scummy plebs when eating at McDonald’s or slurping giant cartons of Coke in the cinema; they’re not for sophisticated people like us.

Is putting waste into landfill all that bad anyway? In his book The Skeptical Environmentalist, Bjorn Lomborg shows how the entire production of waste in the USA in the 21st century could be accommodated in a landfill that covered just 26% of a single county in Oklahoma, or one twelve-thousandth of the total area of the country. It’s far more manageable than is often claimed. Of course waste should be recycled if it’s practical to do so, but single-use plastics have brought us major advances in convenience and hygiene that shouldn’t be breezily dismissed. Wanting to make everything recyclable is very much a First World indulgence.

The conclusion must be that dropping plastic straws is really just a piece of easy environmental virtue-signalling rather than something that is really going to make a significant difference. If pub operators want to take a serious look at their environmental impact across the board, shouldn’t they be considering stopping shipping water (which is pretty much what beer is) all the way across the Atlantic and abandoning single-use containers for draught beer?

Thursday, 8 March 2018

Eat what you're told

Earlier this week, Public Health England came up with a quite jawdropping list of foods they intend to target as part of a campaign to reduce calorie consumption by 20% by 2024. It covers the greater part of most people’s diets, including such notorious junk food items as fish, rice and pasta. And, if manufacturers don’t make changes “voluntarily”, they will press for legislation.

The whole thing is filleted here with his usual aplomb by Christopher Snowdon, an article well worth reading in detail. He makes the point that there are only three ways to achieve this objective – reformulation, switching to lower-calorie alternatives and reducing portion size. But there’s a limit to how far you can change recipes while still retaining palatability, and how can you actually reformulate fish or chicken? Where “diet” items are offered alongside standard ones, they often achieve only a small takeup, leaving smaller portions as in many cases the only option.

It is difficult to find the words to describe how demented this policy is. Imagine a Soviet commissar, drunk on power and vodka, who had been driven mad after contracting syphilis. Even he would not issue an edict like this. It is off the scale of anything the ‘public health’ lobby has tried before. It represents the final severing of the thread that once connected Public Health England to the real world.
Yes, of course we should be provided with nutritional information about the food we eat and, where possible, offered a choice of portion sizes. But this is taking matters much further, and treating people not as intelligent, empowered citizens but as dim-witted dupes whose diet needs to be controlled from on high for their own good. It’s an unprecedented intrusion into the minutiae of people’s everyday lives.
All those who claimed that the tobacco control template was never going to be extended into other areas have now been left with egg on their faces, although hopefully not too much. It just never seems to stop.

It’s also a reminder that, when it comes to lifestyle bullying, it makes little difference which set of politicians you vote for. What is for certain, though, is that in the coming years our food is going to become less appetising and more expensive, and come in smaller portions. And you do have to wonder whether this will lead on to another attempt to reduce the strength of alcoholic drinks and normalise smaller measures.

Friday, 2 March 2018

Och aye, what a nice crocodile!

The introduction of minimum unit pricing for alcohol in Scotland is now less than two months away. The policy has provoked a huge amount of controversy, but it has attracted a perhaps surprising supporter in the form of the Scottish Licensed Trade Association, the trade body for pubs, clubs and bars in the country. They have been happily regurgitating all the familiar tropes of the anti-drink lobby on Twitter.

But, as I have explained in the past, all of these claims are, at best, highly exaggerated and misleading.

Selling alcohol at pocket-money prices is a largely meaningless statement, and carries a somewhat offensive insinuation that it is routinely being sold to children. We already have the fourth most expensive alcohol prices in Europe. How high would it need to go before it wasn’t being sold at “pocket-money prices”?

While it is true that it is possible to buy some very cheap beers for less per litre than some very expensive brands of bottled water, as a generalised statement alcohol is cheaper than water is not far short of an outright lie. In my local Tesco, I can buy two litres of fizzy water for 17p. I’d really like to know where I can get beer cheaper than that. It’s about as accurate and meaningful as saying you can buy cars cheaper than pedal cycles.

And the claim that supermarkets are routinely selling alcohol as a loss-leader doesn’t stand up to analysis. I’m not saying it doesn’t ever happen, but it simply makes no economic sense to sell something that makes up a substantial proportion of a shopping basket at a loss. There may be very little margin in those discounted slabs of Carling, but they’re not selling them for less than they paid for them.

The SLTA’s support for MUP might be understandable, if self-serving, if they actually stood to gain from it. But it won’t give anyone a single extra penny to spend in pubs, and if the price of a can of Carling goes up from 60p to 90p it’s not exactly going to encourage anyone to spend £3.50 on a pint in the pub. Indeed, as Christopher Snowdon argues here, it could even lead to people spending less in pubs if they need to reallocate a fixed budget for spending on alcohol.

Plus, much off-trade alcohol consumption is not readily transferable to pubs anyway. The pensioner enjoying a nightcap of whisky, the family sharing a bottle of wine with their Sunday lunch, or the group of friends cracking open a few cans with their back-garden barbecue aren’t going to suddenly rush down to the pub if it costs more. It’s simply a question of making the everyday pleasures of ordinary people on limited budgets that bit less affordable.

The SLTA’s stance comes across as a nihilistic dog-in-the-manger attitude, taking the view that they have suffered, so why shouldn’t other parts of the drinks trade be made to suffer too? It’s certainly true that the Scottish on-trade has been hit very hard in recent years by the smoking ban and the reduction of the drink-drive limit. But they mounted a pretty feeble opposition to both measures, so in a sense have only themselves to blame. Taking it out on others, though, will achieve no more than a pointless venting of rage. Surely all parts of the drinks trade should take a united stand against the neo-Prohibitionists rather than allowing them to play divide and rule and being treated as useful idiots.

It should also be remembered that the study by the University of Sheffield used to support the policy actually concludes that the most “beneficial” results would come from setting differential minimum prices for on- and off-trades, with that for pubs and bars more than twice as high. Any advantage gained from minimum pricing could turn out to be short-lived, as the spotlight turns to on-trade pricing. And, when the guns of the neo-Prohibitionists are retargeted on the on-trade, the SLTA are likely to find themselves with very little sympathy from a Scottish public who they have been keen to see charged much more for their modest pleasures.

As Winston Churchill famously said, “An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last.” And the SLTA are getting very pally with an extremely dangerous reptile. Their stance is one of contemptible hypocrisy and, given that they are vanishingly unlikely to derive any benefit from minimum pricing, utterly delusional.

Monday, 26 February 2018

Following in the footsteps of Morse

Why don’t we have a day out in Oxford, asked someone on the Beer & Pubs Forum. It sounded right up my street, with a great selection of characterful pubs full of historical and literary associations, in a city I hadn’t visited for thirty years. The only problem was that, while entirely feasible as a day trip by train from Stockport, Oxford is 143 miles away, and the standard return fare was a rather eyewatering £78. However, trainsplit.com came to the rescue and, taking advantage of split ticketing, I was able to get the price down to a much more reasonable £42, albeit at the cost of having a wad of thirteen tickets and reservations, as shown below.

So the tickets were duly booked, and the appointed day dawned very cold but sunny. I was able to get a through train in each direction and both trains were on time, which doesn’t always happen. I didn’t make any detailed notes, but here are some brief impressions of the pubs we visited.

  • Castle – recently acquired by Hook Norton, but rather tucked away on the “wrong” side of the Westgate Centre. Outwardly attractive but internally rather ordinary. A perhaps over-ambitious range of both Hook Norton and guest beers, but my Hooky Bitter was very good, and others were impressed with the Double Stout.

  • St Aldate’s Tavern – situated on one of the main streets just south of Carfax, this long, narrow pub was much busier. We were able to find seats in an upstairs room where tables had been reserved for the rugby from 2 pm onwards. One of those cases where you’re confronted by a row of beers you’ve never heard of before and have to make a snap decision in a crowded pub, I ended up with some Siren Undercurrent which didn’t really make much of an impression.

  • Chequers – located down a narrow passageway off High Street, this is a historic building dating back to the 16th century, with characterful drinking areas on several levels. You have to cross the courtyard form the main part of the pub to reach the toilets. Those of us who wanted to eat were well fed at reasonable prices for a city-centre location. Thornbridge Jaipur was OK, but not the best example I have ever encountered. Now under the wing of M&B offshoot Nicholsons, the plaque in the doorway reflects its former ownership by Halls Brewery. While largely forgotten nowadays, in past decades Allied Breweries through their Halls subsidiary were the biggest pub owners in Oxford, and a 1983 Oxfordside Beer Guide shows many pubs serving Halls Harvest Bitter.

  • Turf Tavern – tucked away down a couple of narrow passageways in the heart of the university, this is perhaps the most famous pub in Oxford. It has a extensive drinking courtyard, not surprisingly little used on such a cold day, and a warren of small, characterful rooms. It is now owned by Greene King, but also offered a choice of guest beers, although some felt the range was a little BBB-heavy. Nevertheless, I thought the Wadworth’s 6X was excellent, bursting with flavour and condition. Martin Taylor’s photo shows me looking suitably pleased with myself. For me, this was both the beer and the pub of the day.

  • King’s Arms – very close to the Turf Tavern, but much easier to find as it is prominently situated on a street corner. Today it was covered with scaffolding, but still very much in business. I’d been here a couple of times in the distant past, but had only been in the two more spacious front rooms, and hadn’t realised there were a couple of small, cosy snugs at the rear. It’s a Young’s pub, but most people went for St Austell Tribute, a new cask of which had just been put on. I had Young’s Special, a beer we hardly ever see around here, which was pretty decent.

  • Lamb & Flag – on the east wide of the broad, handsome St Giles, this is a free house owned by St John’s College. Like many in Oxford, it’s a narrow pub running a long way back from the street. One of its claims to fame is serving Palmers beers from Bridport in Dorset, and I wasn’t disappointed by the Palmers IPA, although there were the inevitable complaints that this rather malty beer wasn’t really representative of modern IPAs. There were also a number of beers from other breweries. I was saddened to read on Twitter of the death of comedy actress Emma Chambers, who played Alice in “The Vicar of Dibley”, at the age of only 53.

  • We took a brief look inside the Eagle & Child, situated opposite the Lamb & Flag, and famous for its links with Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, to see its small front snugs, before heading on to the Three Goats Heads, Sam Smith’s only pub in Oxford. Trusting to navigation from memory, maybe not the best idea at this stage of a pub crawl, we ended up heading down the wrong street before finally consulting Google Maps. This has a characterful interior on two levels and, right in the heart of the city centre, attracts a much younger and more upmarket crowd than typical of Sam’s pubs in the North. You also get to pay Sam’s southern rather than northern prices, so it isn’t quite such a bargain, although still well below the Oxford average. I went for the 5% ABV keg India Ale, never seen in my local Sam’s pubs, but the verdict on the cask Old Brewery Bitter was good too.

  • We finished up in the Pint Shop, a recent shop conversion belonging to a chain which also has a branch in Cambridge. Martin Taylor wanted to call in here is it was a possible “pre-emptive” tick for future Good Beer Guides. It was very busy, but I have to say not really my kind of place. There was a long blackboard list of craft keg beers, some at eyewatering prices, with three cask beers at the bottom. I didn’t note which brewery produced Maharaja - served in a straight-sided half-pint tankard, it was a fairly reasonable £3.50 a pint, but was to be honest somewhat forgettable.
I then had to catch my train home, but a couple who were staying a bit later also called in at the Good Beer Guide-listed White Rabbit, which they reported as being extremely busy.

In summary, it was an excellent day out, with plenty of good beer and stimulating conversation. It was good to see familiar faces again and also meet for the first time Tim Thomas from West Berks CAMRA and local resident Tim Hampson, who is currently the Acting Editor of What’s Brewing and BEER. Martin Taylor has been doing a pub-by-pub write-up of the day on his blog, starting here.

It was noticeable how busy almost all the pubs were, and how many younger people were amongst the clientele. However, this is only to be expected in such a major student and tourist city, and it would be rash to draw any lessons for estate pubs in Oldham or Oswaldtwistle. The return train was also virtually full all the way to Manchester, which shows how much times have changed since the days when, after 8 pm, you could often virtually have a carriage to yourself.

Unfortunately, it meant I had to miss my local CAMRA branch’s Pub of the Year presentation at Sam Smith’s excellent Blue Bell in Levenshulme, but the Oxford trip had been arranged, booked and paid for well in advance, and realistically you can’t have everything.

Friday, 23 February 2018

Craft for the masses?

Following last week’s debate about élitism in beer, there has been a bit of pondering about whether the high price of craft beer is deterring drinkers of limited means. The owner of a community pub in Brighton has criticised craft beer for ‘pricing out’ poorer consumers, while Dave S of Brewing in a Bedsitter has mused on all the different factors that make up the price of beer over the bar, and Boak & Bailey have posed the question whether it is possible to get a decent pint of craft for £3.

Most consumer markets have a premium segment where consumers are willing to pay more for what is, or is perceived to be, higher quality. But, in general, this is “similar but better” rather than something completely different, and is done to some degree as an assertion of social or financial status. That is, at least partly, why people buy Audis rather than Skodas. This is something that brewers have always struggled to pull off – while some beers are classified as “premium”, it tends to be because they are stronger. There are some undeniably premium brands, such as Peroni and Guinness, but they’re not craft. Possibly Punk IPA is now breaking out of the craft straitjacket to join them.

Craft, on the other hand, is something that is chosen as a means of expressing one’s individuality and discernment rather than status as such. If you’re out in a mixed group, and shun the Peroni or Punk on the bar in favour of that can of Gopherville murk skulking at the back of the fridge, frankly you’ll come across as a bit of an oddball. This doesn’t just apply to beer – Boak & Bailey have recently commented on the craftification of everything. The traditional market stratification is breaking down and people are seeing consumer choices as a means of self-definition.

Where a premium does exist in beer, is is much more between establishments than between brands. Wetherspoon’s is, across the board, markedly cheaper than Brunning & Price or the Port Street Beer House, and this is reflected in the clientele they attract. The status-conscious pubgoer is much more likely to say they frequent gastropubs than that they drink Brand X.

Of course it’s a truism that, broadly speaking, there is a trade-off between price and quality. However, as I discussed here, the actual cost of ingredients is a pretty small proportion of the price you pay over the bar, and with a small brewery you’re often paying more for less efficient production, distribution and administration too. The whole issue is clouded by the question of strength, as very often that shock £9 pint turns out to be 10.5%, and thus not directly comparable with a session beer. And the biggest factor affecting the price to the consumer is retail markup, not brewery gate price. It’s very easy to find pubs charging 33% more for the same product within a couple of miles of each other.

In pretty much every consumer market, there’s a range of products at a wide range of price points, and it’s accepted that the more expensive ones are going to be beyond the mean of consumers of modest incomes. Most people, though, do have a little to set aside for luxuries or self-indulgences, and if they choose to spend that on expensive malt whiskies, or theatre trips, or restoring a classic car, that’s up to them, and they do it in the full knowledge that they’re sacrificing something else, possibly that Sky TV subscription, to pursue it. But it’s not typical behaviour of their peer group.

If someone is interested in craft beer, and chooses to buy four craft cans for a tenner rather than a slab of Carling, there’s nothing to stop them. In that sense, craft isn’t unaffordable for anyone with sufficient interest in the subject. But, possibly because craft beer continues to position itself as fighting some kind of moral crusade against corporate interests, the whole issue of affordability touches a raw nerve.

But wouldn’t it be better all round if the “craft beer movement” could accept that it was just another somewhat pricey niche middle-class enthusiasm and stop pretending it's trying to change the world? As Tandleman wisely says here:

“Craft beer isn't beer for the people, it is beer for some people - people with a few bob - so shouldn't those making it and selling it be honest enough to say so? After all, not so deep down, we all know that already.”
Me? I’m off down the pub for a pint of Sam’s.

Friday, 16 February 2018

Some of my best friends are working class

This year sees the 100th anniversary of (some) women being given the right to vote in the UK. What has gained much less attention is that it is also the 100th anniversary of the introduction of universal suffrage for men. Before 1918, most working-class men couldn’t vote either. But, nowadays, as Brendan O’Neill writes here, working-class voices, especially the voices of working-class men, seem to be largely airbrushed out of public discourse.

So it is in the world of beer. We hear plenty about “beer sexism”, but much less about the exclusion of the working class. Has there ever been a more achingly right-on, middle-class endeavour as the whole project of “craft beer”? It seems that some involved in it have cottoned on to the fact that they “have a reputation as gentrification’s outriders” and, according to an article in the Guardian entitled Draft includers: how craft beer found its mission, have been “trying to bring in more women, working-class people and people with disabilities to both drink beers – and make them.”

However, the whole piece comes across as a classic example of Guardianista identity politics virtue-signalling. As an example of “reaching out”, it offers:

In Australia, the Sparkke Change Beverage Company is aiming to drive social change with its canned beers, ciders and wine, all of which raise money for charity. The pilsner, for example, is called Change the Date; it supports the campaign to move Australia Day away from 26 January, which is “a date that marks the beginning of two centuries of dispossession, theft, colonisation and violence”.
Anything less likely to win over the average ocker is hard to imagine. What does it have to say to a Stella-loving, Sun-reading, white-van driving, footy-supporting, Leave-voting working-class drinker? And yes, that is a stereotype too, but one with a strong base in reality. To a working-class beer drinker, Peroni is aspirational. Cloudwater is something beamed down from another planet.

In the early days of CAMRA, real ale was something consumed as much, if not more, by working-class drinkers as by middle-class ones, although to them it was just bitter or mild. The middle-class aficionados would go on excursions to down-to-earth pubs in Eccles and Lower Gornal to seek out rare brews. But people don’t do that now, and in many cases the pubs themselves will have either closed or lost their real ale. And how many working-class drinkers would you find in your average trendy suburban craft beer bar?

While class is a matter of identity, not just money, the oft-heard claim that beer is too cheap, and the push for the £5 pint to be normalised, are in effect putting two fingers up to any drinkers who are struggling to make ends meet.

For the avoidance of doubt, I am middle class and have never pretended to be otherwise. But, unlike some, I don’t sneer at people who drink Stella, eat at McDonald’s and shop at ASDA. Indeed on occasion I have done all three myself.

Friday, 9 February 2018

Stick to the knitting

CAMRA have now published the detailed proposals arising from their Revitalisation Project, which not surprisingly have prompted a lot of debate and discussion.

It’s worth reflecting on how we have arrived at this situation. For much of its lifetime, CAMRA was the only game in town when it came to “beer enthusiasm” in the UK. However, more recently, this has been challenged by a new wave of brewers, often influenced by the American craft beer movement. They have introduced a much greater amount of innovation in beer, and often done it by presenting their products in the keg format not approved by CAMRA. This has met with widespread success, especially amongst younger drinkers. And, very often, the narrative, most notably that of BrewDog, has been one of kicking against the established real ale culture.

There has been a growing amount of interesting, high-quality beer being brewed entirely outside the orbit of CAMRA, and in the process making the organisation look old-fashioned and stick-in-the-mud. So surely it should be looking at widening its scope to encompass all good beer and beer enthusiasts, rather than sticking within a narrow, pedantically-defined box. And thus was born the impetus for the Revitalisation project.

Now, I am certainly no cask zealot who doesn’t think any other kind of beer is worth drinking. I’m entirely relaxed about drinking non-real beers, and do from time to time, although in general I tend to visit pubs where cask is well-kept so there’s no need to. CAMRA has often been ill-served by the narrow dogmatism that bleats on about “chemical fizz” and “sealed dustbins”. It has always been much too reluctant to recognise merit in beers that fall outside its remit. But that isn’t the same as “promoting” or “embracing” them. On the other hand, I fail to summon up much enthusiasm for the new wave of “craft keg” beers, and to be honest my interest is more likely to be piqued by spotting obscure old brands of keg mild on the bar of trad pubs.

The basic underlying principle of CAMRA is that, for draught ales in the British tradition, cask-conditioning, when done properly, is the best way of presenting them. I’m entirely happy with that. But, in a sense, you don’t even need to sign up to that view to believe it’s a tradition worth holding on to. I have always seen CAMRA as essentially a preservationist organisation, stemming from the same wellspring of sentiment as steam railways and restoring historic buildings. It is about championing a unique aspect of British heritage – cask beer, the breweries that produce it and the pubs and other licensed premises that sell it. What it isn’t is a modern movement supporting “all good beer”, however defined, and to want to turn it into that would be for it to become something of a markedly different character. As one blog commenter very perceptively said:

CAMRA is a people-powered cultural heritage organisation in all but name. Traditional drinking culture is what links real ale, real cider/perry, historic pub interiors and community pubs. Embrace it! By all means show craft more respect (the same respect shown to Belgian beers and quality German and Czech lagers, for instance), but don’t water down the central purpose of CAMRA.
That doesn’t mean you need to be against other forms of beer, just as the steam enthusiast doesn’t refuse to travel on electric trains, or the champion of Victorian architecture doesn’t do his best to avoid modern buildings. But they’re not something you want to pursue as a leisure interest. As I’ve said in the past, you can’t expect everyone to be interested in everything.

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with wanting to be a modern, all-encompassing beer enthusiast, just that that’s not what CAMRA’s fundamentally about. And trying to fit both into the same big tent is likely to be fraught with problems and pull in different directions.

It’s not really as if modern keg beer needs campaigning for anyway – it seems to be doing perfectly well for itself as a purely commercial product. What exactly would CAMRA bring to the party that is any different? And, while it’s sometimes said that real ale has been “saved”, that’s a very complacent and blinkered viewpoint. The absolute amount of real ale sold now is far less than it was when CAMRA was formed. The only places where real ale can exist - pubs and clubs - continue to close at an alarming rate. And there are plenty of “real ale deserts”, often in places where, thirty or forty years ago, many of the pubs sold real ale. So there’s still plenty of work to be done without diluting the message. Arguably the biggest threat to real ale’s future is complacency.

We haven’t had sight of the precise wording of the motions yet. But my feeling is that I will be strongly inclined to vote against the main thrust of the revitalisation project. If you care about the protection of our beer, brewing and pub heritage, I would urge you to do likewise. CAMRA, in my view, should draw in its horns a bit and stick to the knitting of its core principles. I’m a Life Member, and to resign would just be an exercise in cutting off my nose to spite my face. But, if the resolutions are passed, I will need to question whether it is still an organisation that deserves a substantial chunk of my leisure time.

The whole process has already proved divisive, with a lot of fur and insults flying on CAMRA’s Discourse forum. Nobody knows what the outcome is going to be, and I can’t see the likes of YouGov carrying out opinion polls of CAMRA members to give us any idea. But there must be a risk that what was put forward, with good intentions, with the aim of saving CAMRA, could end up killing it, or at least permanently diminishing its influence and credibility. For example, Ian Thurman on his thewickingman blog has questioned whether it might expose CAMRA to hostile media scrutiny if it seems equivocal about its purpose.

It is a high-risk strategy on the part of CAMRA’s leadership. It’s not difficult to imagine the scenario where the Special Resolutions are passed by the necessary majority of the membership as a whole, but defeated in the hall by the physical attendees at the AGM, which would create a lot of bad blood. And, given that normal policy motions are simply approved by a straight majority of AGM attendees, it’s possible that “traditionalists” may seek to chip away at the revitalisation changes through future AGM motions. It could lead to more explicit “culture wars” in beer.

If the resolutions fail to win the necessary majority, or are even defeated outright, then there will a lot of egg on faces and serious soul-searching to be done. Will it be a case of “one more heave”, or trying to sneak changes in through the back door, or will there need to a fundamental shift to a more back-to-basics approach?

(The graphic, which seemed highly appropriate, was borrowed from Kirst Walker’s Lady Sinks the Booze blog.)

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Swings and roundabouts

The British Beer & Pub Association have published their latest Quarterly Beer Barometer statistics, bringing the series up to the end of 2017. These show an overall rise in annual beer sales of 0.7%, only the second positive figure since 2004, which must be good news for the brewing industry.

However, unsurprisingly, the total figure is made up of a 3.6% rise in off-trade sales, partially offset by a 2.4% fall in the on-trade. On-trade sales have never shown an annual rise over the entire twenty-year period covered by the figures, and now only account for 47% of the total, so that particular tipping point is long gone. Total on-trade sales are now 33% below the 2007 figure.

So it’s hardly surprising that we continue to see a steady drip drip drip of pub closures, as I recently reported in Stockport.

Sunday, 4 February 2018

A cold, dry January

“I think we’ve seen the worst of the pub closures,” said the Pollyannas. “Things seem to have stabilised now.” But how wrong could they be?

On top of Winters and the Queens in Cheadle, which I have already reported, January saw three more pub closures in Stockport – the Victoria in Offerton (pictured), the Florist on Shaw Heath and the Jolly Sailor in Davenport. It’s believed there may be a chance the Victoria may reopen, but the others are all, I would guess, gone for good.

It’s usually the case with pub closures that you think “well, I’m not entirely surprised there”, and indeed it must be said that the Florist had had the “smell of death” around it for quite a while. But the fact that once-thriving pubs have closed underlines just how much the overall level of custom has declined, and how on a knife-edge much of the pub trade is today. And, as I said last year, drinking in many of the pubs that remain too often feels like sitting in a morgue.

It seems that nowadays any pub is fair game, unless it has become a destination food house or is located in a town centre or suburban hub. This is especially true if they occupy a site that is potentially lucrative for redevelopment, as the Jolly Sailor does. The traditional multi-purpose pub, with a mixture of local and outside trade, that once was a mainstay of the pub scene, has become an endangered species. And the idea that being the only pub for half a mile around in a residential area guarantees survival is even less true than it ever was.

But, never mind, no doubt a new micropub has opened up not too far away, where you can perch on an uncomfortable stool and drink a pint of cask ale from a brewery you’ve never heard of. So long as it’s not on a Monday or Tuesday, and not before 4 pm. So things aren’t too bad, then.