Good beer versus Big Beer
Friday, 23 February 2018 00:20

Good beer versus Big Beer

Published in Eating & Drinking

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?

Drinkers, beer and business: the battle for craft beer
Friday, 23 February 2018 00:20

Drinkers, beer and business: the battle for craft beer

Published in Eating & Drinking

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?