Keith Flett takes a look at how the battle against big business for good beer continues into the era of craft beer.
Late summer, after the Great British Beer Festival, is a good time to take stock in the UK of where the beer world is.
For most of British industrial history what campaigning there was about alcohol was done by those who thought people should drink less of it and sometimes none at all. The temperance movement was mainly focused on spirits and often saw beer as an acceptable alternative but in recent times matters have changed.
Temperance is not a word used by drink campaigners now and many who are active on alcohol abuse issues are ultimately after people not drinking at all. They tend to focus on health rather than moral impacts. There can be no doubt that excessive drinking is not good for the health but the debate about what this might mean continues.
Meanwhile, since the 1970s there has been a different, popular, movement campaigning primarily on beer. The Campaign for Real Ale was formed in the early 1970s and now has 180,000 members. It is easily the biggest consumer movement in Europe. Each year sees the Great British Beer Festival organised by CAMRA, currently held at Olympia. It is a massive event with attendance in the 50-60,000 people area.
There are controversies every year too and an important one in 2016- highlighted in the Financial Times- was how far the campaign is attracting the new young generation of drinkers attracted to craft beer. On the day after the GBBF concluded, on 14th August, the BBC’s Food Programme, broadcast an extended interview with Roger Protz of CAMRA. Protz is the Editor of CAMRA’s flagship annual Good Beer Guide which lists pubs around the UK which in the view of local CAMRA activists sell the best beer.
Protz, now in his late 70s, has been associated with campaigning around beer for decades but his background was on the political far left. He made the interesting and reasonable point that work to improve the quality of both drink and food has often come from those on the left.
Raymond Postgate, the founder of the Good Food Guide, had briefly been a Communist and the presenter of the Food Programme. Sheila Dillon noted that the original presenter of the programme, Derek Cooper, had seen himself very much in the campaigning style of Postgate, what the Guardian obituary of Cooper described as a ‘public stomach’.
Of course it would be absurd to claim that everyone who enjoys good food and drink is left-wing. Indeed traditionally these are often thought to be the preserve of the rich and right-wing, hence Nye Bevan’s well known ‘nothing is too good for the workers’ slogan.
But as Protz underlined, the idea that good drink and food is best produced not by huge companies with a focus on profit and the market, but by smaller producers who are genuinely interested in what they are doing, (though hopefully not the exclusion of making enough income to live on), is an important one.
At the end of the programme he focused on where those interested in seeing good beer in particular for the future should look to be campaigning now.
The battles of decades ago against giant brewers like Watneys and Whitbreads have been won. It is worth reflecting on that for a moment because there are not that many areas of British life where big capital has been forced to retreat by people power. Those companies refocused their business activities into the ‘leisure industry’. Whitbread is behind Costa Coffee and the Premier Inns hotel chain, for example.
But nothing, and particularly not the dynamic of capital, stands still. The beer battles of today are not about whether or not keg is a good method of dispensing, or if beer in cans is the best way to retail it. Rather they are about the new big battalions of beer. A merger between two already giant brewers, ABInBev and SABMiller is set, subject to Court approval it appears, to complete later this year.
So what, you might reasonably say? Surely they will just continue to produce and market the big beer brands they already have but do so with greater economies of scale - that makes profits.
They will of course, but they will also be doing something else. There is a move away from bland mass market beer towards what are termed ‘craft’ products (I’ll return to this in a later piece). The mega breweries are industrial, not craft affairs. They are missing out on the sales and profit that craft beer is generating
Fortunately for them a solution is at hand. They have the money to buy craft breweries and industrialise them. This process is quite new and not always straightforward. Often it appears to involve injections of capital to allow craft brewers to expand in ways they otherwise could not.
A number of US breweries that are known as craft beer producers in the UK are in fact owned or financially backed by very large multi-national leisure companies. For example, one of the best known, Ballast Point, founded 20 years ago, was taken over by Constellation Brands at the end of 2015. Recently, the founders of the brewery have cut relations with the new owners.
In the UK ABInBev have acquired Camden Town Brewery, while SAB Miller had owned Meantime though they have now sold it as part of the merger process. There is nothing automatic about multinational companies destroying the ethos and quality of craft beer companies they come to own. But the logic of profit and branding indicates a probable direction of travel.
Who will take on this battle against the new big brewers is as yet undetermined. CAMRA doesn’t tend to engage in the physical protests against brewery closures that were a hallmark of its early decades, preferring lobbying and pressure in Parliament. That brings results, for example on protecting pubs. But will it be up to protecting the new generation of UK micro and craft breweries against predators?
Keith Flett is convenor of the socialist history seminar at the Institute of Historical Research and has been a member of CAMRA since 1975.