Keith Flett continues his selfless quest at beer festivals to identify the economics of producing craft beer in a competitive, capitalist market - and what tastes nice.
Further to my earlier thoughts on craft beer I travelled to Manchester in early October to attend the Independent Manchester Beer Convention (IndyManBeerCon). This event, held in an old swimming baths a short distance from the centre of Manchester, has become one of the key events of what might (or might not) be called a craft beer movement.
It takes place over 4 days and contains (currently almost exclusively keg) beers from well-known and up and coming ‘craft’ breweries in three large spaces. It is not particularly cheap. While the entry price is modest (and tickets highly sought after) this year a beer token cost in the region of £2.25 for which you could buy a third of a pint of beer. That was irrespective of strengths which ranged from 3%ers to above 10%. Even so on the two days I attended there was a mixed crowd there both gender and age wise.
IndyMan is not just about the beer though- interesting as it is. There are also beer tastings and discussions about the industry. A relevant debate on the Thursday evening was about Craft Beer where it is now and where it is going. The panel included Paul Jones, an owner of the Manchester based Cloudwater Brewery, Ian Garrett from CAMRA, Sue Hayward from the Welsh brewery Waen which has just closed its brewery in favour of 'cuckoo' brewing at other sites, Jenn Merrick the brewer at Beavertown in Tottenham, the beer writer Matt Curtis and Claudia Asch from the IndyMan organising team.
I didn’t quite last for the entire debate (I had to visit the toilet- this does happen at beer festivals) but it must be said that a good deal of the discussion was quite familiar to me. Not just the beer bit but also questions about what makes businesses tick and what doesn’t. As a trade union officer in the private sector I often have these discussions with employers.
I wasn’t taking either minutes or notes so my discussion of what was said is firstly only a summary (not in order) and secondly unreliable. Not however hopefully so unreliable as to attribute to someone something they didn’t say.
While I wouldn’t be quite so evangelistic about craft beer as Matt Curtis, preferring to see the world in neither black or white but shades of grey, he did make a very good point that in the US even the most depressing of bars usually offered a good range of craft beer. That is far from the case here. But is beer drinking so different in the US that this could not reasonably be expected to happen here?
Paul Jones noted that Cloudwater had never styled itself as a ‘craft’ brewer focusing instead on brewing ‘modern’ beer- styles that appeal to changing tastes in the beer world.
Jenn Merrick, previously the brewer at Dark Star, one of the UK’s most well-known producers of cask beers such as Hophead, took a broader view. Beavertown produce mainly keg beer but she felt that they were very much in the same marketplace as the large scale producers of cask beer. Further she didn’t think cask was particularly on its way out (Sue Hayward argued that the future was keg) and that there was a possibility that new developments in cask could put current trends towards keg in the shade. Interestingly she also noted that the largest selling beer in Fuller’s pubs was often a Beavertown brew- probably Gamma Ray which is unpasteurised but sold under light gas pressure.
Ian Garrett added an important corrective by underlining that the vast majority of beer currently drunk in the UK is in cask and this can’t simply be ignored. The point was made during discussion that larger and better capitalised ‘craft’ brewers were one thing but many smaller, microbreweries found difficulty in getting on bar tops in a very competitive market. Sue Hayward felt that many smaller brewers struggled to get by, but this is often the case with small businesses in general. They are squeezed out by larger competitors.
In the case of beer we have been here before. It was in large part what led to the formation of CAMRA in 1971. A Company like Grand Metropolitan which had no history in brewing managed to acquire both Trumans and Watneys breweries, merge them and in due course destroy them. No doubt the thirst of shareholders for value was satisfied. Drinker's thirsts were not.
An attempt at a Craft Brewers Alliance a couple of years back- with some of the larger brewers at its core- has not been taken forward. Perhaps not least because one of the brewers, Camden, sold to mega-giant ABInBev. The reality is that without a sustained campaigning effort to keep and protect breweries that produce good beer- however defined- rather than good profits with an industrial product tasting vaguely like beer as the commodity concerned- the pressure for takeovers and closures will remain.
The elephant in the room was of course the now completed takeover/merger of SABMIller by ABInBev to create mega giant brewing concern operating in 70 countries across the world. SABMiller is quoted on the London Stock Exchange and it was the largest ever takeover deal there.
The Editor of the Good Beer Guide, Roger Protz, is certainly right that the big picture in beer is the battle between ABInBev and much smaller breweries whose concern is making excellent beer not huge profits (welcome as the latter obviously are).
Views on the matter of craft beer are as numerous as those who drink it. CAMRA has decided to delay the decision of its Revitalisation Project because there is so much to consider.
As someone who stays resolutely on the drinking side of the bar, I have a simple test though. If a beer tastes good (looking good is another matter) then I’m not too bothered how it's dispensed or what it’s called. This should be about enjoyment.
Keith Flett is convenor of the socialist history seminar at the Institute of Historical Research and has been a member of CAMRA since 1975.