Keith Flett outlines how market capitalism undermined the principle of a fair price for a pint of beer.
The price of a pint of beer, or perhaps as accurately the price of a half or third of a pint of beer, has been the source of considerable controversy in recent months.
A pub guide found that the most expensive pint of beer in the UK was no longer in London but Surrey and was over £4. That is indeed a fair sum of money if you are on a low income. A survey by the trade British Beer and Pub Association found the average price of a pint of beer is now just over £3 across the UK. Lager, typically on keg rather than cask, is more like £3.50 a pint.
If you like beer in this price context you might prefer, for example, the four for £6 offers on cans of Brewdog’s punk IPA that can be found in nearly all supermarkets.
There is a wider argument about the cost of beer and the impact of this on pubs then but I want to focus here specifically on the price issue, and how it also relates to the style and quality of beer.
The controversy arose particularly because someone had spotted a double ipa from the Manchester brewery Cloudwater on sale at the Rake in Borough Market for £13.40 a pint. Of course since the beer was 8-9% ABV you’d be drinking it in thirds or halves anyway but at £6.70 a half the price was still well above the ‘going rate’ for such a beer in London pubs, which would usually be around £4-4.50 a half.
I understand that the price neither deterred customers or put them off drinking the particular beer which quickly sold out – as Cloudwater beers invariably do. But it made the pub trade paper the Morning Advertiser and sparked a huge social media controversy.
Just how awkward the matter is to judge can be seen by a subsequent non-controversy over a 3.6% beer brewed by the US brewery Jester King and the London brewery Kernel, that was selling in a Hackney pub for £13 a pint. How much, one might say? Except of course the beer had been matured in barrels for a lengthy period and then specially flown in from the US. It was probably one of the only UK outlets. In this case the cost of production and the importation justified the price.
The main impact on the price of a pint is Government taxation. Some will be able to remember the days when the Chancellor’s decision to raise duty on beer in the annual Budget led to news headlines that beer would increase by 1p or 2p a pint. It was invariably more once that increase had worked its way through various middlemen, but the underlying point was that there was a fairly clear idea of how much a pint of beer cost and hence how much changing the tax would change it.
The Campaign for Real Ale still campaigns for a reduction on beer duty as much as health campaigners and temperance advocates push for minimum alcohol pricing. Certainly the tax on beer in the UK is amongst the highest in Europe, and it seems unlikely therefore that Brexit will have a helpful impact on it for beer drinkers
Yet the world is now more complex than the notion of the average cost of the average pint.
Most of this in one way or another amounts to regulation of the market – or lack of it – and as we shall it leads back to eighteenth century debates about a moral economy, one of whose key features was the concept of a ‘fair price’ for consumers and producers.
The debate about the price of a pint revolves around what is reasonable for drinkers to pay particularly in the age of the 1% public sector pay cap. But it also raises issues about how much profit, if any, pubs and pub companies should be making and how much a brewery should expect in terms of a financial return for the beer it brews.
This equation around price, profit and also supply and quality of the raw materials like malt and hops, was central to the work of the Assize of Ale.
The Assize, a local Court, met to fix the price of beer and its quality. Aletasters were used to visit each brewery, often small brewers, or before the nineteenth century, brewsters, and check beer before it was sold to customers.
The Assize would go into some detail about the appropriate price for a pint, depending on the cost of supply of essential ingredients such as malt and the type of beer being produced. A high quality stronger beer would be allowed to be sold at a higher price than a lower strength standard beer. Also taken into account was the view that the Brewster or Brewer should be allowed to make enough profit to allow their business to continue and to be able to live on, but no more.
How was this enforced? If Aletasters found an issue with quality or price then this was reported to the Assize and the offending brewer or Brewster was brought before the Court and fined. It might be argued that some regarded the fine as a necessary part of doing business the way they wanted to, particularly as surviving records in some areas indicate a level of frequent offenders.
The system broke down as market capitalism started to intrude on purely local brewing, with some more successful brewers supplying a numbers of pubs and the role of middlemen, or forestallers and regraters as they were sometimes termed, also becoming of increasing importance.
Yet the Assize, for the many issues that existed with it and how it functioned, did represent in principle the ideas that there should be a fair price to be paid for beer by the drinker and a fair profit, but no more, to be achieved by the brewer. For the many, not the few, as the slogan has it!
Keith Flett is convenor of the socialist history seminar at the Institute of Historical Research and has been a member of CAMRA since 1975.