Tuesday 15 June 2021

Never let you go

While it had been well signalled in advance, the news yesterday that the end of lockdown restrictions was being postponed by a further four weeks will have come as a bitter blow to the hospitality trade. Business leaders have warned that the delay will ruin the industry.

Few pubs, especially wet-led ones, are currently able to trade profitably, and many are hanging on by the skin of their teeth in the hope that things will eventually improve. Less than a quarter are confident of being able to survive three months. A delay to 19 July will mean losing over half the summer, by far the most lucrative season for most. They will also miss out on the entire Euro 2020 football tournament which, along with the World Cup, is the biggest moneyspinner in the trade.

Pubs are bleeding to death. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the government are conducting a deliberate vendetta against them. They certainly seem supremely indifferent to their fate. Yet at the same time, forced into a sanitised experience in pubs and unable to socialise there in large groups, many people will be choosing to go to house parties instead, where social distancing guidelines are well-nigh impossible to police.

I have criticised the snail-like pace of the unlocking roadmap, but at least it provided a clear timetable and hope of light at the end of the tunnel. If we had unlocked next Monday, a lot would have been forgiven and forgotten. But to kick the can down the road for a further four weeks will result in a huge erosion of trust. This will only have been compounded by the sight of large groups of world leaders socialising unmasked at the G7 summit on Cornwall. It clearly seems to be one rule for us and another for the little people.

The move has been condemned by numerous respected commentators and newspaper leading articles. I could offer a forest of links, but will just give you this unpaywalled one from David Paton of the University of Nottingham.

The delay to the reopening is a devastating blow to many businesses and sectors, such as the events industry, sports, music, theatre and hospitality. There ought to have been compelling evidence for any delay. But there is nothing in the data to justify it.
It’s quite an achievement to unite the Daily Telegraph, Theresa May and Sadiq Khan in opposition to your policy. Yet it will get through the House of Commons without difficulty because, as throughout the past fifteen months, Starmer will act as Johnson’s nodding dog. The official opposition have abdicated their responsibility. You don’t have to oppose the policy outright to scrutinise it properly and force the government to account for their decisions, and Labour have signally failed to do this.

Predictably, many from the scientific community had urged the government to delay the unlocking, and will no doubt now be feeling pleased with themselves. But, of course, they would say that, wouldn’t they? They have no skin in the game, and no responsibility for anything beyond their own narrow remit.

We could bandy statistics about all day, but it’s worth noting that the current level of hospitalisations is below the lowest of five scenarios produced by SAGE when the roadmap was originally announced on February 22. The average number of Covid deaths in England over the past two weeks was 7.7, or scarcely more than half of one percent of all deaths. There is plenty of evidence that vaccinations have broken the link between cases and hospitalisations. There is no realistic chance of the NHS being overwhelmed, which is what was put forward as the original justification for lockdowns, not keeping the population under the heel until Covid had virtually disappeared.

Johnson has stated that he is “confident” that the restrictions will end on July 19. Yet there has been a long trail of such broken promises before. And, as the next review date approaches, the joyless sociopaths of SAGE will no doubt be ramping up the pressure to persuade him to extend the lockdown even further. It is being seriously suggested that the partial lockdown is now likely to continue all through the winter, in which case we would have precious few pubs left at the end of it.

Last September, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis made the decision to unlock the state against the advice of the scientists, and the state has never looked back. Large swathes of the US are fully open again despite a considerably lower vaccination rate than the UK. Yesterday, Denmark cancelled all mask mandates, and today Israel has scrapped all Covid restrictions. If they can do it, why can’t we?

Many foreign commentators have expressed their surprise at the high level of restrictions that persist in the UK despite the highest level of vaccinations of any major European country. In reality, SAGE will never let go willingly, and eventually Johnson is going to have to face them down, or we will never be set free. As before, I’m not making any specific predictions, but suffice to say that I will be pleasantly surprised if I am actually able to order a pint at the bar on July 19.

Saturday 12 June 2021

Never glad confident morning again

The British craft beer movement has been marked not only by a commitment to brewing interesting and innovative beer, but by taking a principled stand against various “isms” in society. However, that image has been considerably tarnished this week when 61 former workers of craft standard-bearer BrewDog published an open letter accusing the firm of hypocrisy, exploitation, and toxicity. The full text can be viewed here. This paragraph is particularly telling.
BrewDog was, and is, built on a cult of personality. Since day one, you have sought to exploit publicity, both good and bad (and usually with the faces of James and Martin front and centre) to further your own business goals. Your mission might genuinely be to make other people as passionate about craft beer as you are (and in a sense you have succeeded - your fanbase certainly has some true zealots in its ranks), but the ambitions you impressed on your team have always seemed business-led. Growth, at all costs, has always been perceived as the number one focus for the company, and the fuel you have used to achieve it is controversy.
This is not an isolated incident either. Last week, Cloudwater brewer Charlotte Cook published this angry and passionate article in which she recounted similar experiences of workers at a number of other smaller but still well-known craft breweries, and stated "These companies are not run as businesses, but as theocracies."

However, perhaps these incidents are not aberrations that betray the spirit of craft, but something whose seeds are contained in the very nature of the project.

It is recognised that the founders of successful start-up businesses often tend to be single-minded, driven people with little regard for social niceties, who often trample roughshod over the concerns of others. Their behaviour is tolerated and excused as long as the money keeps flowing in.

In a non-beer field there was a prime example of this recently in the case of Ray Kelvin, the charismatic founder of fashionable clothing brand Ted Baker, who was ousted by the company after a catalogue of misdemeanours including the creepy forced hugging. Yet, as sales tanked without him at the helm, he was later brought back in some capacity, although not restored to the leadership of the company.

In beer we have seen the cult of the “rock star brewer”, although we don’t hear so much of that nowadays. This is very much putting the emphasis on personalities, and rock stars themselves are not noted for their sympathetic treatment of those around them.

This tendency can be compounded in organisations that lay claim to some higher moral purpose beyond merely that of making money. It is sometimes believed that charities, local government and the health service are friendly and unthreatening work environments compared with the cut and thrust of the private sector, but often they are the scene of even worse bullying and abuse, partly because the restraint of actually needing to make a profit is taken away. Any complaint is seen as undermining the noble objective. There have been many examples in non-profit organisations of a toxic atmosphere developing because individuals were afraid to challenge the dominant culture.

As companies mature, they grow out of a reliance on individual personalities, and become the impersonal corporate behemoths that are often seen as the embodiment of what craft is setting itself against. But, while the likes of Heineken may be widely derided, they have HR departments, employment policies and grievance procedures, and any abuse of this kind would probably be swiftly nipped in the bud and not allowed to fester.

Looking forward, it’s not hard to imagine that, as a response to these issues, companies create a different but just as stifling climate of fear in which a blanket of conformity is thrown over the whole organisation and people live in fear of saying the wrong thing. Perhaps it is time for craft brewing to concentrate on the beer and stop proclaiming that it is trying to change society. It needs to become less of a movement and more of just another market segment.

Sunday 6 June 2021

Smoked out

The Covid crisis has provided a golden opportunity for the Puritans and bansturbators of the public health lobby. Not content with just delivering patronising lectures to the general population about their behaviour, they have been able to actually ban people from doing a wide range of activities. The fact that pubs have either been completely closed or operating under severe restrictions for fifteen months must have gladdened their stony hearts.

However, as the Covid curbs start to be slowly and grudgingly eased, they will be looking at other ways of pursuing their joyless agenda. One obvious candidate is further limiting people’s ability to smoke outside pubs. Several local authorities tried to do this when pubs were given extra temporary pavement licences, but were told that during an emergency this would be unnecessarily divisive and further erode pubs’ ability to trade profitably.

Now, the Morning Advertiser reports that five local authorities have already included no-smoking conditions in pavement licences. And Oxfordshire is going one further and declaring an ambition to become the first smoke-free county in England. It does need to be pointed out that all these measures apply only to licensed public areas, and not to outside areas on the pubs’ own property, but the desired direction of travel is crystal clear.

After the smoking ban came in, many antismokers claimed that pubs could still cater for smokers as they could pop outside for a puff. This was always a pretty weak argument, but it is rendered completely void if they are unable to smoke anywhere near the pub.

While some people find environmental smoke unpleasant, there is no convincing evidence that it is harmful in an outdoor environment where it is rapidly dispersed. And there are many other things that people find objectionable, but aren’t banned, such as screaming children or fat sweaty blokes in T-shirts with brewery logos. In any case, pubs are quite at liberty to ban smoking in outdoor areas if they think it will benefit their business.

Although they are treated like pariahs, smokers are still more likely to visit pubs than non-smokers, possibly because they are by nature more convivial and less health-obsessed. But if they can’t smoke at all, they’re not going to be inclined to go in the first place. For landlocked pubs with no outside area apart from the street, this could a threat to their viability. And presumably licensees will be held responsible for enforcement in the area attached to their pub, just as they are with the indoor ban, as opposed to just leaving it to council jobsworths, which might positively invite mass non-compliance

The range of outdoor spaces where smokers are tolerated is steadily being diminished. It is a classic example of the technique, seen over the centuries, of “othering” despised and marginalised minorities. The targets may change, but the tactics don’t. And can we honestly believe this will never be applied to drinkers too?

Tuesday 1 June 2021

Categorising the Germans

Regular readers will be aware that I have a fondness for authentic German lagers. So I was pleased last September to see Paulaner Münchner Hell appear on the shelves of my local Tesco, priced at £2 for a 500ml bottle. Initially it was not included in any multibuy offers, which some customers might have found a deterrent, but it was later brought within the scope for their regular 3 for £5 offer on premium bottled lagers and ciders. £1.67 a bottle is a very good price, and it seems to sell pretty well.

I was interested to see last weekend that Morrisons had started stocking the similar Hofbräu Original, albeit at the steeper price of £2.50 and not included in any multibuys. I suspect many Morrisons customers will find that price distinctly steep, so it remains to be seen how much they will actually sell, although I and many others would not jib at paying it for German imports in independent off licences such as the Bottle Stop in Bramhall.

Personally, although both are good, I prefer the Hofbräu to the Paulaner, but a Twitter poll I ran last year found Paulaner to be the favourite amongst the six well-known Munich breweries. This was perhaps a slightly surprising result, as most of the smart money had been riding on Augustiner.

This raises the interesting question as to where supermarkets should place these beers on their shelves. I’ve discussed before how the beer aisle is divided into distinct sections such as premium bottled ales, mainstream canned lagers and craft beer, and many customers will only look at one or two areas and disregard the rest. Tesco have chosen to place the Paulaner alongside the 660ml bottles of Stella and San Miguel, and include it in the same offer, which makes logical sense according to its style.

Morrisons, on the other hand, have placed the Hofbräu together with the “world beers” such as Duvel and Sierra Nevada, where its relatively high price might not stand out so much. Possibly those browsing that section might appreciate its quality more, but on the other hand it could end up being overlooked if it is the only beer there in that general style.

It’s puzzling that German beers, despite their undoubted quality and their central role in the development of lager, never seem to have got the recognition in this country that they deserve. Our four biggest-selling lagers purport to have Canadian, Australian, Danish and Belgian origins, and the most fashionable one is Italian.

And it would be nice to see Jever Pilsener, which is very different from the Munich beers, appear in the mainstream supermarkets!