Sunday, 10 January 2021

A few thoughts and some beer-related stories

We’re back in strange and rather uncertain times again, something that seemed unlikely back in late summer, but as a work colleague of mine delights in saying, “We are, where we are.” I agree and there’s no point, especially at the moment, in trying to explain or to apportion blame for the situation we find ourselves in.

I’ve been away from the blog for a week now, due to a rather pressing family matter that I’ve had to deal with. I won’t elaborate further, at present, but it wasn’t an event that was totally unexpected. All will be revealed in due course, but for the time being I just want to take a step back and reflect on some of the things that have been going on during my absence, especially those affecting the world of beer and brewing.                                                 

The obvious place to start, is the petty and spiteful ban on pubs selling alcohol to takeaway. For many establishments this represented something of a lifeline, and the loss of this trade now, must seem as yet another kick in the teeth. The reason being is that groups might congregate outdoors, in order to consume this takeaway beer, thereby mixing with others and breaking the ultra-strict lockdown rules.

How utterly absurd! Has no-one in government given a thought to how cold it is outside? It’s certainly not relaxing in a beer garden type of weather. Have they also not thought that if people really wished to meet up and consume alcohol in this fashion, they could pick up a few tinnies or the odd bottle or two from their local supermarket?

This kind of muddle-headed thinking and inconsistency is not helping the fight against the virus, and neither is it encouraging people to adhere to the guidelines. We’ve witnessed exactly the same sudden changes in policy when it comes to schools – the main source, in my view, of the increased number of infections.

Let’s move on to another story, and one that is a particularly sad one. It concerns Cardiff based brewer, SA Brain, who are/were the largest independent brewer in Wales. The company has been particularly hard hit by Covid-19, and had already leased its 156, mainly wet-led pubs, to national brewer, Marston’s. Now it looks like Marston’s will be supplying beer to the Brain’s tied estate once pubs are eventually allowed to reopen. This has raised a large question mark over the future of Brain’s own brewery; a state-of-the-art facility that only commenced production in 2019. 

Veteran blogger and CAMRA activist Tandleman, has written an extensive and informative article about the problems that Brain’s are facing, and you can read it in full by clicking the link above. I posted my own comments on TM’s post and apart from the obvious condolences over what is happening in Welsh brewing, I picked up on a point made by the author, that I want to elaborate on further.

TM highlighted the hypocrisy of a significant number of so-called “beer lovers” who bleat on about struggling railway arch and man in a shed brewers, whilst ignoring the plight of the remaining family-owned brewers. Many of the latter have a long an impressive history, along with an equally fine reputation, but such firms are being squeezed from both sides.

They find it increasingly hard to compete in a market dominated by large national and multi-national brewing concerns but are also coming under pressure from many of the much more recently established brewers – the proverbial “man in a shed brewers” mentioned above.

In a bid to even things up, the government are looking at scaling back the rules governing Progressive Beer Duty; a sliding scale of duty rated based on barrelage. These regulations were originally brought in to assist the small breweries survive in a market where the “big boys” held most of the cards.

As is often the case with well-intended legislation (some might call it interference), it was some of the long-established family-owned brewers who started feeling the pinch. Unable to compete with the discounts offered by the national and multi-national chains and finding themselves undercut by many of the micros (due to lower duty costs), many family-owned concerns found themselves caught between a rock and a hard place. Talk about the law of unintended consequences!

The government’s response has been to order a review into the whole system regarding beer duty, with a view to levelling things up. This has unleashed a sh*t storm of epic proportions, particularly amongst supporters and lovers of micro-breweries.

I’ve come across this myself, and have fallen foul of some of the younger, and more radical members of the local CAMRA branch. A small, but significant number of these more fanatical members have been calling for a boycott of established family brewers such as Adnams, Badger, Harvey’s and Timothy Taylor's, because of their support for a levelling up of beer duty.

A couple have even described Sussex’s oldest and finest brewery as “Evil Harveys,” making snide and childish remarks every time the brewery name crops up on the WhatsApp Beer Socials group.  Although I’m no longer a CAMRA member, I have pointed out that CAMRA exists to promote and encourage ALL brewers of Real Ale, regardless of size, quality or provenance, so such behaviour is counterproductive.

I’ve also reminded the individuals concerned that, back in 2019, they were willing enough to participate in a tour of Harvey’s, drink the copious amounts of free beer provided, and partake of the excellent buffet that the brewery laid on for us. Now they describe the brewery as “evil,” talk about hypocrisy.

This type of behaviour really annoys me and deserves calling out, but I know I am not alone in noticing an increasing snobbery creeping into CAMRA circles. Well respected brewers who kept the flag flying for cask ale during the dark days of the 1970’s, are now being shunned and even disparaged in favour of the newer concerns, with their hop-led and heavily citrus-infused “more exciting” ranges of beers.

Pulling these two thread together, I want to end with a story concerning another family-owned brewery, that was once held in the highest regard by CAMRA. The brewery concerned is Yorkshire firm, Timothy Taylor’s, and the news is that due to the ongoing COVID-19 restrictions, which have resulted in all UK pubs being forced to close, the company has ceased producing cask beer until further notice.

This news is hardly surprising as cask ale and pubs are inexorably intertwined, but it’s not all bad as the Keighley-based brewery will continue to brew bottled beer to support the retail side of the business, which includes their own online shop. The majority of the brewery’s workforce will be furloughed during this period, with only key members of the team working part-time to keep the business active.

So, here we have a medium sized brewery that’s doing what it takes to keep itself afloat during these unprecedented times. Would you describe them as “evil?” I know I wouldn’t.


Sheffield Hatter said...

Unintended consequences, indeed. No doubt the argument about changes in the beer duty incentives to small brewers will rumble on, but you are quite right to call out the childish behaviour of some on the pro-micro side. "Evil Harveys", for crying out loud.

retiredmartin said...

"We must protect the small, independent brewers" they cry. Much less concerned about pubs.

RedNev said...

It's hardly surprising that a business - any business - will argue for a tax system that suits them. It is naive in the extreme to expect anything different from capitalist companies - that's not a criticism, but a fact of life: they are not set up to be altruistic, but to make profits.

It can happen that some CAMRA activists completely lose sight of the main aims of the organisation. For example, in September 2019 I wrote on my own blog about an article in 'Ale Cry', the magazine of the CAMRA Central Lancs Branch, which was scathing about the tokens given by Wetherspoons to CAMRA members. The writer, who was the mag's editor, went on to say about Wetherspoon's prices: "Real ale on sale at £2.09 a pint is frankly ridiculous".

"Why?" I wrote, "Wetherspoons are making a profit, so if they can afford to sell beer at such a price, why shouldn't they?" I wrote to the editor, but he didn't afford me the courtesy of a reply. He has clearly forgotten that the primary focus of CAMRA is on behalf of beer drinkers who benefit from Wetherspoons prices and, if they're CAMRA members, tokens.

I suspect that comfortably-salaried, middle class real ale drinkers have no problems with higher prices, but for many drinkers, including some CAMRA members, standard pub prices can be a problem. These people are not represented by CAMRA activists such as the 'Ale Cry' editor.

I remain a CAMRA member - in fact I'm the branch press officer - but that doesn't stop me observing and commenting on failings by those are supposed to represent the ordinary drinker, but who manage to get their priorities completely skewed.

Tandleman said...

Thanks for the mention Paul. It was my intention to follow the aspect you highlight on my blog and I will likely do so still.

There is though plenty more hypocrisy yet to mention. I'm glad that you noticed my point.

An as Martin says. Pubs. That is always key.

Paul Bailey said...

Sheffield Hatter, the debate about beer duty incentives to small brewers, has been dragging on for some time, and I don't pretend to have looked at it in depth.

It does seem strange that small brewers should be given preferential rates of duty, based solely on size/output, so I appreciate why medium sized breweries are feeling the pinch. A level playing field would make perfect sense - now where have we heard that before?

Peter, I added the link, back to our blog, as I forgot to include it first time around. Going back to "Evil Harvey's," these self-appointed guardians of the "man in a shed" are probably blissfully unaware of the support and assistance given by Harvey's, over the year to local micros. I know which beer I'm missing right now, and it's not an over-hopped, hazy looking, citrus-flavoured milkshake!