During the 1970s and 80s, the “Big Six” national brewers were very much the pantomime villains of CAMRA, closing traditional breweries, axing familiar brands, restricting choice, pushing up prices and exercising local monopolies. Surely drinkers would be much better off if they were got rid of and broken up. However, in the post-Beer Orders world, where precisely that has happened, it’s questionable whether things, overall, are any better.
It was interesting at the recent Great Manchester Beer Debate to hear the participants, mostly notably veteran CAMRA warhorse Roger Protz, speaking with some nostalgia of the days of the Big Six and the tied house system. Most notably, the brewers were able to exercise some control over the quality of the end-product in their pubs, because it would reflect badly on their brand image if customers received poor beer.
They also had much more control over the pricing of their product rather than simply being at the mercy of powerful wholesale customers. And, as brewers, they had a direct interest in keeping pubs as pubs to sell their product which non-brewing pub companies lack. It should also never be forgotten that, without the tied house system, real ale might well have completely disappeared in this country.
There’s not going to be any return to the old days, but I remain convinced that a greater role for the tied house system would lead to a healthier beer and pub industry and a better deal for drinkers. Many Punch Taverns tenants have been protesting about the proposed takeover by Heineken, on the grounds that it will restrict choice, but to my mind it will give their pubs a more secure long-term future.
It’s a fact of life that in any business, big, powerful companies will be at an advantage over small, fragmented ones, although this commercial reality continues to come as a surprise to some people. A large number of small breweries, often existing hand-to-mouth, are not in a strong position against a small number of dominant purchasers of beer. Enterprise Inns’ decision to unilaterally reduce the price paid to small brewers under their “Beerflex” scheme is undoubtedly hard-nosed, but SIBA is left in a position where they can either take it or leave it. Big retailers have been doing the same to small suppliers for decades – it’s the way the world works.