Keith Flett calls for a 'cultural campaign' to defend good beer against Big Beer.
In the introduction to the 2018 Good Beer Guide, veteran editor Roger Protz sent out an important message about the threat of Big Beer (aka monopoly capitalism) to cask and craft beer alike.
Protz’s concern was that we are at a point similar to that in the 1960s, when a few multinational brewing concerns were able to change the face of UK beer and not for the better.
As he noted it’s not just the question of buying up brewers, or promoting ‘craft’ brands as if they were genuinely independent. There is also the question of Big Beer buying up the raw materials that go to make your pint, half pint or third in the first place.
The Financial Times has noted that 2018 has already seen a marked rise in mergers and acquisitions in the ‘beverage’ sector which certainly includes beer. The comment was in relation to coffee investment vehicle JAB buying Dr Pepper (Schweppes and 7 Up), but the trend towards consolidation and monopoly is clear.
In the UK Coors in early 2018 announced the takeover of Aspylls Cider again to broaden the product offering they have.
Craft beer has been the subject of considerable attention from global brewers in recent times. It started with the acquisition of Camden Town Brewery by ABInBev. ABI is a worldwide brewing operation including brands such as South African breweries and Budweiser which has around 30% of world beer production. Carlsberg then bought London Fields Brewery, which was one of the first of the new London craft breweries but had had a chequered recent history. After that Heineken announced it was taking a stake in Brixton Brewery.
Capital tends towards monopoly, as Lenin reminded us, but there is also a more specific cause for the interest that global leisure industry giants are beginning to have in UK brewing.
We have been here before, and it is also here that Protz’s warning about revisiting the 1960s rings true. In the late 1950s, large brewing concerns saw sales stagnating and concluded that the only way to guard against this was to buy up the competition, and increase their market share that way.
Capitalism is of course an irrational system and in fact beer sales boomed anyway (probably helped by young people having more disposable income as wartime austerity was left behind). This period however created the big brewing giants of the era Watney Mann, Bass Charrington, Ind Coope and so on. Only Trumans remained a large scale independent but by the early 1970s that was swept up with Watneys into Grand Metropolitan.
With rationalisation of ownership came rationalisation of beer as cask was abandoned in favour of easy to produce high margin industrial keg beer (nothing like the craft keg of 2018). As Protz has commented ‘CAMRA was first founded (in 1971) to challenge the handful of national brewers that had phased out good cask beer in order to promote fizzy keg beer, the quality of which would be laughed to scorn today’
The trend towards monopoly continued with well-known regional brewers from Davenports in Birmingham, to Boddingtons in Manchester and Morrells in Oxford disappearing.
Now a very similar crisis to that of the late 1950s has appeared.
The likes of ABI, Heineken and Carlsberg amongst others have seen a decline in interest in their core mass market products. At the same time they have noticed a rise in sales of ‘craft’ beer products. They have developed two strategies to deal with this. The first is to create their own ‘craft’ brands which are not obviously associated with them. Blue Moon anyone? In the UK the Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA) launched an initiative in 2017 to mark clearly beer that genuinely was brewed by an independent brewer.
As Protz underlined, the ability of big beer to buy up the production of particular hop varieties for a particular year (for example) restricts the brewing ability of those who do not have the funds to do that (which is most breweries). It goes wider than that. ABI have a stake in the App Ratebeer that is widely used to rank the popularity of craft beers and breweries worldwide. There is no evidence that ABI seek to influence that - at least not at the moment - though it seems unlikely that they have invested in it for altruistic reasons.
Protz has argued that:
First Big Beer buys up a swathe of independent breweries. Now it’s attempting to control the natural ingredients used to make beer. The power of these global behemoths is frightening and has to be vigorously resisted..
Big Beer is on the march, and we risk losing our wealth of choice to merely the illusion of it. Not only are consumers being misled, but these global brewers are changing the very character of the beers they buy and driving genuine independents out of business….
Protz of course is a veteran of the Campaign for Real Ale, which is aiming to reach a conclusion to its re-vitalisation debate this Spring. The world of beer is often marked by an apparent division by old time CAMRA activists obsessed with cask beer (even if not great quality) and opposed to all ‘evil keg’. By contrast younger craft drinkers are often portrayed as not bothering about the cask-keg division but simply seeking out good tasty beer.
As Protz makes clear, if Big Beer triumphs again then both groups lose out. It follows that there should be a common interest in campaigning against the activities and influence of Big Beer. Is this kind of cultural campaign something which the big unions, like Unite, could perhaps take up? After all, it is one of the most popular cultural activities for working people. And perhaps such a campaign could also include food, because the same processes of monopoly capitalism are occurring in the production, distribution and retail of food, and again the impact is felt most keenly by the working class, especially the poor.
Perhaps there is an alternative rallying cry in 2018 than cask v. keg or revitalised CAMRA v. old CAMRA? Namely, united we stand, those who enjoy drinking good quality tasty beer in any format, against a Big Beer that aims to create a modern version of the Watney’s Red Revolution of the late 1960s?
Keith Flett is convenor of the socialist history seminar at the Institute of Historical Research and has been a member of CAMRA since 1975.