Keith Flett

Keith Flett

Keith Flett is convenor of the socialist history seminar at the Institute of Historical Research and has been a member of CAMRA since 1975.

Wetherspoons and an alternative to the neoliberal capitalism of big pub chains
Thursday, 01 February 2024 12:01

Wetherspoons and an alternative to the neoliberal capitalism of big pub chains

Published in Eating & Drinking

Tim Martin, the public face of Wetherspoons, was given a knighthood in the NewYear Honours list. Officially this was for his services to the hospitality industry. Reports however suggested that hard right Tory Minister Kim Badenoch was keen for Martin to get a gong for his pro-Brexit activities. Martin has indeed been a very vocal supporter of Brexit and appeared on public platforms with Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson to promote it.

What’s more, he flooded his pubs with pro-Brexit information on beermats and in the Wetherspoons News magazine. It might be noted, however, that unlike Johnson and Farage, Martin does not have a racist perspective on immigration. After all, he needs people to work in his 800 pubs!

There is nothing to suggest that most drinkers in Wetherspoons paid any attention to Martin’s Brexit views and indeed such interventions have a long history in British brewing and pubs. The brewers who also historically owned most pubs were known as the Beerage because of their links to the Tory Party. Before the rise of Labour, which was equivocal on drink, the Tories’ main opponents were the Liberals, who were temperance supporters.

Even when I first started drinking beer in the 1970s it was obvious that entering most pubs and drinking a pint of beer would mean a few of your pennies heading towards the Tory Party. This did not make me – or I suspect most others – decide to vote Tory, in fact quite the reverse.

This is an important point because perhaps uniquely amongst pub and brewery owners, Martin is the focus of opprobrium. Some of this is entirely justified. In an industry that is weak on union organisation, Wetherspoons does not recognise a union.

Part of the criticism of Martin however is because of his pro-Brexit views, usually from hardline supporters of a neoliberal EU. Indeed, there is an app called Never Spoons which allows users to find an alternative to Wetherspoons in their local area.

This assumes that other pubs and pub chains are better than Wetherspoons when it comes to political outlook and staff conditions. There are individual bars that do an excellent job, but the pub chains owned by global brewers such as Carlsberg, Marstons and Heineken are not noted for their progressive views and politics.

Global brewers don’t tend to have a specific view on British politics. They simply want Governments of whatever political flavour to promote conditions that help them make profit. Others such as Greene King and Fullers, although both now owned outside of the UK, have until recently supported the Tory Party.

Once we can get over what might be called Wetherspoons exceptionalism, we can begin to look at why the Tim Martin has been successful and what those of us who prefer different models of running pubs might want to do about it.

Media reaction to Martin’s Knighthood was surprisingly positive in some surprising quarters. The Guardian’s economics correspondent praised not Martin but the pubs, as did several letter writers to the paper.

Wetherspoons started out in North London in the late 1970s. Andrew Marler opened a pub in Muswell Hill, notable in particular for selling real ales from regional brewers rarely seen in the capital.

Tim Martin was then a young lawyer living in the area and fed up with the poor state of pubs in the area. It was one thing I had in common with Sir Tim, as I was then also living in Muswell Hill and found myself drinking in Marler’s Bar. Marler faded from the picture and Martin started what became the Wetherspoons pub chain initially by opening lots of pubs in North London, before it became clear that the model would work nationally

It may be surprising in 2024 but the left in North London 40-plus years ago regarded Wetherspoons as unequivocal good news. Martin’s pubs did not host political meetings, although Paul Foot once spoke on his book Red Shelley at the Rochester Castle in Stoke Newington – still a Wetherspoons pub and an entry in the 2024 Good Beer Guide.

The reason why left-wingers frequented Wetherspoons was because while it sold alcohol, it also had coffee, all day food, no television or music blaring out and clean toilets. One might think this was standard for a pub – but it wasn’t then, or now. This combination meant that Martin’s pubs attracted a far wider mix of customers based on gender, ethnicity and age than many of their competitors.

Of course one can idealise this. Wetherspoons now has around 800 pubs and some will inevitably have groups of loud and lairy men making them rather less than welcoming to all.

Nevertheless, the Wetherspoons model was sufficiently different to be a success. As it currently stands it is a model, not in most cases of great pubs, but reasonable ones where you know what you will find. As an American journalist touring the UK noted, they will always be open, the heating will be on in winter, tables will be clean and the lack of TV and music means you can engage in
conversation, about the joys of Brexit or anything else.

This is our point of departure into an alternative or post-Wetherspoons world of pubs without Sir Tim Martin. In his recent book on the history of Working Men’s Clubs, Pete Brown finds himself in the White Swan pub, Highbury Corner, North London. It’s a Wetherspoons, and Brown writes that in many ways it could be a club, as he sits observing customers enjoying an afternoon beer or coffee and chat about life. He’s there because upstairs is the HQ of the Club and Institute Union, the body that runs Working Men’s Clubs.

Brown remarks that Wetherspoons has some similarities to a club. He’s thinking not of the Victorian men-only period but more recent decades, when the clubs have been open to all and provided cheap beer, entertainment, company and warmth to working-class people. Some pubs used to do that too but they continue to close, and great as the beer in many craft bars may be, this is not what they aim to provide.

Of course Wetherspoons doesn’t have games or entertainment, but when you look at some of the well known community-run pubs such as the Bevy in Brighton, or the Antwerp Arms in Tottenham, it can be seen how the Sir Tim Martin model, removed from a commercial pub chain focus and developed as similar to a modern club but with a pub status, could be a way beyond the big pub chains.

It could also be a way of reinvigorating community life where decades of neoliberalism have stripped the soul out of so many places.

Cask Ale, Private Equity and Class Politics
Sunday, 15 October 2023 09:52

Cask Ale, Private Equity and Class Politics

Published in Eating & Drinking

Cask Ale Week, backed by Cask Marque, is an annual promotion of cask ale which runs in early Autumn each year. Its aim is to get the message across that cask ale is enjoyable to drink to an audience wider than its current clientele.

The market for cask ale is in decline and has been so for a while. That is the headline figure but it masks significant regional variation as well as differences in age, gender and ethnicity. The promotion of cask beer is to be welcomed and Cask Ale Week has some impact in doing so. In 2022 it reached millions of people who were encouraged to try a glass of real ale.

Culture wars in the pub!

It is however far from unproblematic – in fact a culture war was provoked by Cask Ale Week 2023. This focused on publicity about the event on the hard right social media site GBNews. Generally, appearing on the outlet is not good news or publicity. A short publicity feature for Cask Ale Week was filmed with the station which coincided with national publicity over the suspension of several of its personalities for making misogynistic comments. Poor judgement!

Not all publicity is good. As Jessica Mason (@drinksmavern) reported, Cask Marque said they were approached by GBNews. Well, I’m approached by them for various reasons from time to time and the response is always NO. They are seeking ‘normal’ content to balance out the range of far rightists, conspiracy theorists and general wackos that are their stock in trade.

We can accept certainly that if the pub is the hub of the community as it should be, we may find people who watch GBNews drinking cask ale in it. Provided they are not actually an organised fascist group or displaying racist behaviour, I can live with that. However if the aim is to promote cask beer to a wider and younger audience this is precisely the wrong place to be.

There is a wider issue than the furore over the GBNews clip, which is that Cask Ale Week tends to be associated with Bigger and Big Beer rather than the many smaller independent producers of cask, who could certainly do with publicity and promotion at the moment.

Cask Ale Week for example ran a promotion with Greene King on Insta. It’s a matter of balance: both GK and Marstons Carlsberg produce large amounts of cask beer and both at the moment seem to have a view that there might be better profits elsewhere. If they withdraw from cask it will become significantly less available and the gap won’t be filled by smaller independents. This is the reality of a capitalist market economy, and on the plus side both Greene King and Marstons are unionised employers, something mostly sadly lacking in the smaller independent sector of breweries.

It does however suggest that in future Cask Ale Week needs to think carefully, not just about promoting cask beer to a wider audience but also about promoting a wider range of modern cask beer beyond the Big Beer producers. Perhaps instead of large, nationally focused promotions with big producers, a focus on cask beer at the grassroots would be a better place to start?

A good guide to good beers and good pubs

The end of September also saw the publication of the 51st edition of the Campaign for Real Ale’s Good Beer Guide. A weighty volume, it provides a guide to the best real ale around the UK. Its biggest plus point is that the entries are chosen by local volunteer members based on agreed and published criteria. They have visited the pubs listed, usually several times, and checked the quality of the beer and the general facilities and ambience of the pub.

Of course it’s not perfect, because individual and local CAMRA branch prejudices will inevitably exist. It is however a good guide to pubs written by pub users based in their local communities and there is no financial payment for entries. Despite CAMRA agreeing that KeyKeg beers are real ale, the Guide remains a little light on listing craft beer pubs – but that is improving, and in any case the core focus is on cask beer mostly served by handpump.

Cask Ale Week and similar promotions might be served by linking up with CAMRA and using the promotional clout to highlight pubs serving great beer in local communities. It’s a message that hopefully resonates with the times and one also that might attract a more youthful audience – a long way from the core viewers of GB News.

One conclusion drawn from Cask Ale Week promoting the campaign on GBNews and indeed refusing to apologise for doing so, is that those who drink real are right-wing. I’ve been drinking real beer since the early 1970s and remain a socialist. Stereotypes are never helpful, CAMRA has generally progressive policies on key issues such as diversity and its recent publication of David Jesudason’s guide to Desi pubs underlines the point.

The key point is that whatever their individual politics drinkers of cask beer tend to be against Big Beer- global beer companies producing bland beer where profit is more important than quality.

The invasion of private equity

2023 has seen the rise of private equity ownership in beer. Breal has taken control of Black Sheep, Brew By Numbers and Brick breweries. In recent weeks the private equity group that bought St. Peters Brewery in Suffolk in 2021 has also swallowed up Curious and Wild Breweries.

The aim of private equity is always to maximise profit – whether in beer or something else is incidental. It’s here that CAMRA members can stand up for good beer at the grassroots and campaign to make sure that the beer and pub scene does not return to the 1970s, when I started drinking. At that time just six breweries dominated. That has been changed by grassroots action and it can be again.

From Protest to Policy: CAMRA, the Tories and the Great British Beer Festival
Saturday, 05 August 2023 18:16

From Protest to Policy: CAMRA, the Tories and the Great British Beer Festival

Published in Eating & Drinking

The Campaign for Real Ale’s Great British Beer Festival took place at Olympia from 1st to the 5th August. It’s back to full strength after the pandemic period, showcasing hundreds of draught beers and welcoming thousands of visitors. Despite the name it’s not a flag-waving event. Its focus is on British real beer – cask and keykeg. However there are also bars with draught beers from the USA and Europe. The range of beers is vast from traditional bitters to IPAs, stouts and sours.

It usually gets media publicity which features large men with beards drinking pints of beer. I paid a visit this year as usual and was pleased to note that the attendance was considerably more diverse in terms of age, ethnicity and gender than it used to be. In part that is a tribute to the work of CAMRA in consciously promoting good beer across a much wider range of people.

There was controversy however when Prime Minister Rishi Sunak pitched up at the trade session on Tuesday afternoon. This is open to brewers, publicans and those involved in the drink trade.

Traditionally brewers and the drink trade have been Tories. The Beerage reflected historically the political influence brewers had in the Tory Party, and these days the CEOs of big brewing names like Marstons and Greene King have donated money to the Tories. Moreover, while CAMRA has perhaps a socially liberal image dating back to its 1970s origins as a protest group, the Liberals were the party of temperance. Labour was and perhaps still is divided on the issue

The Tory Party in 2023 is not great in terms of the knowledge of its own history. So while Rishi Sunak may have thought the drinks trade is sympathetic, personally he is a teetotaller who reportedly doesn’t like the taste of alcohol-free beer either. His appearance at the GBBF was not however to promote beer but to talk about the new alcohol duty rates that came in on the 1st August. It is reportedly the biggest shake-up in duty since the nineteenth century.

In respect of beer there is a lower tax rate on draught beer sold in pubs. The idea is to encourage people to drink socially rather than at home with beer from the supermarket. Beer which has 3.4% alcohol or lower now has lower tax. The Government says that this is to encourage people to drink lower strength beers on health grounds. There are indeed some excellent beers at this strength, a table beer from Kernel the Bermondsey craft brewer for example. In addition beers above 8.5% will face a higher duty rate which will mean some imperial stouts and double IPAs will cost more.

Sunak claimed all this as a Brexit benefit. Technically this may be correct. Outside the EU Britain is freer to change duty on things like wine and whisky. The changes do this by putting the prices up. The benefit here is not to the drinker but to the Exchequer. So as with most things the Government does the changes to benefit its mates, the largest regional brewers who still support the Tories in some cases, while others lose out.

Sunak was jeered and heckled on Tuesday at the GBBF again – by brewers and publicans, not members of the public. The issue discussed on social media and in bars was whether CAMRA was right to invite Sunak at all. He is after all the leader of a deeply unpopular Government and his appearance at Olympia to claim that the duty prices would mean a cheaper pint was a lie.

It wasn’t really a good look for CAMRA. It’s a mature social movement and theory on the subject underlines that over time activists get diverted from protests and lobbies into the structures of Government where they can push for minor changes and policy tweaks.

It’s a move from protest to policy, but it should be underlined that the work of CAMRA has seen important safeguards and improvements for drinkers over the years. It’s a model consumer campaign, democratically run by drinkers, where policy is decided at annual members’ conference (there are around 180,000 members) not by producers. Particularly in the time of a cost of living crisis, it’s a model that could and should work elsewhere.

CAMRA social media promoted Sunak’s visit and it didn’t go down well. It’s true that away from the media glare CAMRA activists, some brewers and representatives from SIBA (the small independent brewers society) did lobby Sunak on key issues like energy prices and the cost of living and the need to take action to help pubs.

During the week CAMRA took to TwitterX to argue that more was needed from Sunak. Even so the decision to invite Sunak left a sour taste in the mouths of many drinkers and reminded that like many social movements revitalisation at the grassroots is essential to avoid the campaign becoming too entangled in the work of a Tory Government.

Why not join CAMRA, and help develop its politically progressive campaigns? See here - it costs from £30.50 a year. There are lots of benefits and discounts but the real value is being part of a collective consumer campaign for better beer.

Desi Pubs
Monday, 03 July 2023 08:26

Desi Pubs

Published in Eating & Drinking

Keith Flett reviews Desi Pubs, a guide to British-Indian Pubs, Cuisine and Culture, by David Jesudason, CAMRA Books, 2023

CAMRA has recently published a new book on Desi Pubs, which explains what the term means and lists some of the best examples around the country.

There have been some excellent books recently about the wider culture of beer and community. One example is Pete Brown’s Clubland, which looks at the history and evolution of working men’s clubs.

Jesudason’s book is one of the most important to appear on beer and culture in recent times. It looks at how ethnic minorities, faced with racism, have developed a distinctive pub model that appeals in 2023 to a genuinely multicultural audience.

At one level the book might be seen as an intervention in a political debate, perhaps even a culture war. Earlier in 2023 there was a furore about a pub in Grays, Essex that displayed a collection of golliwogs. Eventually the police investigated complaints of racism, despite the reported disapproval of the Home Secretary. Big Beer acted where the authorities hesitated, and the likes of Heineken and ABInBev refused to supply the pub. It shut.

The pub had been listed in the Good Beer Guide and won a local CAMRA Award. CAMRA itself has exemplary policies on racism and discrimination and ones that it actively pursues. The pub has since been deleted from the Good Beer Guide. Even so the impression was that were some people who put a good pint of beer above the ugly realities of racism at the bar.

Desi Pubs is an answer to that and a highly political one. Jesudason is clear that the definition of a Desi pub is fairly loose. It refers to the creation of a pub run by someone of Indian origin, based not on what might be found in India now, but what it might have been when their parents and grandparents were living there.

The key feature of the Desi pubs is the provision of high-end Indian food such as might be found in an expensive restaurant, in a pub environment, with beer and at pub prices. Their origins can be traced back to the West Midlands in the 1960s. A colour bar operated in many pubs and people of colour were either refused service or made to feel distinctly unwelcome.

Hence the setting up of Desi pubs were those of Indian origin could go and socialise safely and enjoyably was a political act and was seen and promoted as such. The book has an interview with Avatar Singh Jouhl, a leader of the Indian Workers Association, who sadly died in 2022. He details the history of racism and the fight against it of which Desi pubs were a part.

A thriving community pub

The book however makes clear that things are changing. In a visit to one Desi Pub in New Southgate, North London, Jesudason finds a Desi pub where the clientele is split between Arsenal and Spurs fans. The windows are blacked out but inside there is a thriving community pub, where people from middle and working-class backgrounds, and different ethnic origins, happily get along – as happens in many good pubs.

There is a history here, however. Historically the view was that pubs sold beer and restaurants sold food. The idea that the two should mix and that the clientele should also be mixed did not go down well with some authorities in the 1960s and 70s. Hence some Desi Pubs started out as private members’ clubs.

Jesudason does not shy away from the reality that both institutional and direct racism still exists, and this can be reflected in some who find their way into Desi Pubs. His point is that this is in a process of change and one for the better.

Neither does the book avoid some of the issues that might come to the reader’s mind. The Campaign for Real Ale is after all about good beer – so do Desi Pubs sell it? Here the picture is mixed. Indian food is often matched with lager, but Jesudason argues that a cask pale ale is at least as good a match. He points to the fact that some Desi pubs, for example the Gladstone at Borough in London, sells both cask and craft beer.

He also looks at the question of whether women are welcome in Desi Pubs. Again, historically it might have been the case of men at the bar but the Gladstone for example has a woman landlady. The wider point is that CAMRA is not just about good beer but also the pub as the hub of local communities. Desi Pubs are certainly much more like that than many chain-owned pubs which served the products of Big Beer companies.

The majority of the book provides a guide and reviews to some of the best Desi Pubs around the country. It is a reasonable bet that many people will be unaware of the mix of great Indian food and decent beer that they sell. A thriving pub culture that has been hidden very largely from history and the current day.

The reality, however, is that craft beer in particular remains hideously white. There are now a few Indian and Black-owned breweries and their beer does make its way into some Desi Pubs. However, many craft beer pubs and events have very far from the mixed crowd to be found in the pubs that Jesudason describes.

An alternative but also popular development is the small chain of Bundobust restaurants and bars which are to be found in Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham, and a craft brewery and bar in Manchester. The food is vegetarian Indian and the beer is top notch. It is not the Desi Pub model but it equally moves beyond traditional markets for both the beer and food.

There are also a number of craft beer bottle shops owned and run by families of Asian origin, which display a keen interest in the latest trends. In short, the times they are a changin’ – and David Jesudason’s book is a very important contribution to the chronicling of that process.

Racism, beer - and action!
Thursday, 27 April 2023 18:16

Racism, beer - and action!

Published in Eating & Drinking

We need to keep talking about racism and beer, and then act.

The White Hart pub in Grays has been in the news. I’ve never been to it but the police are investigating. The pub has a display of golliwogs which rate from insensitive to offensive for many (the pub apparently doesn’t think so) but it has also has faced complaints of discriminatory service. Both gollliwogs and discrimination are potentially illegal. It’s not a new issue either. A quick Google will show that the matter was raised in 2018.

The pub has been in the Campaign For Real Ale’s Good Beer Guide and has been a local CAMRA branches pub of the year through that five year period. CAMRA has rightly said that the pub will no longer feature in the GBG and pointed to long-standing policy that any form of discrimination is not acceptable.

I’ve been a member of CAMRA since 1975 and any organisation of any size has a broad range of people and views. No doubt there are racists but that is far from the nature of CAMRA. Even so in my view Britain is an institutionally racist country and the present Government is doing its best to stoke a range of discriminatory behaviours. Unfortunately Labour which should be standing out clearly against it is doing anything but- at least at the top level.

I’ve been a lifelong anti-racist and anti-fascist not just in principle but in practice, out challenging the National Front, the BNP, the EDL and whatever form fascists take. However understanding and challenging racism in everyday situations requires deeper thought. For example English cricket remains under a cloud of racist practice and matters are far from being sorted. I’ve been going to cricket games since the 1960s. Did I know that there were racists in attendance? Yes, but I balanced it out by also knowing there were lots of people who were not racists as well. Now I feel uneasy about going to cricket matches not least because I feel perhaps more should have been done down the years to challenge the racists who are still very much there.

Desi pubs

When it comes to beer progress is being made. There are ethnic minority brewers making good beer and the rise of Desi pubs is a really positive development. The Desi pub, on which CAMRA are about to publish a guide, is a pub with decent beer that focuses on Indian food. Perhaps the benchmark is Bundobust a restaurant with outlets in Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool and shortly Birmingham. It sells vegetarian Indian food together with craft and cask beer. Indeed it now has its own brewery in Manchester as well.

Yet the progress is too slow and not enough. There may be occasional exceptions but most craft beer events and bars do not look anything like the population of Britain. Diversity is not a strong point. I was at the taproom of one of the trendiest craft breweries recently. It was an excellent space, the beer was good and it was busy. There was not one non-white face. This in the main is not an echo of the Grays pub. There is no racist attempt not to serve people or discriminate. Rather the message has gone out that this is not something that appeals to some sections of the community. Yet if as CAMRA rightly says and campaigns on 'The pub is the hub', that is not satisfactory or right.

Of course I don’t face racist discrimination in pubs. An abiding concern over the years has been pubs that welcome and serve racists. Indeed in Tottenham the local labour movement has taken action in recent years to make sure that a group of racists and fascists who claim to be Spurs fans (and are mostly barred from games) don’t get to colonise local bars.

This leaves the question, what is to be done? On the White Hart CAMRA did act quickly and publicly. CAMRA also needs to act and be seen to act across its sphere of influence. It needs first of all to do all it can to be sure that there are not other pubs which CAMRA branches are championing which discriminate. Hopefully there are not but that effort needs to be made and to be seen to be made. CAMRA is not responsible for racism in beer or pubs but it can and it must show why it can never be acceptable.

Of course big pub companies and Big Beer companies are the dominant part of brewing and drinking culture. A few like Greene King in Bury St. Edmunds have been open about the links of their founders and are paying reparations. In Bristol a pub named after the slave trader Edward Colston changed its name. Arguments about pub names which may be linked to racism continue. Pub locals sometimes argue that such links cannot be proved. One suspects however that a person of colour thinking about entering such a pub gets the point clearly enough. One also suspects that the locals know they do too.

Mostly pub chains and brewers have decent policies on racism and discrimination. Given that particularly in the pub sector trade union recognition is often lacking the ability to make and pursue complaints may well be limited. So getting unions recognised is important here Further how much effort is really being made to ensure the Pub is the Hub slogan is something that is actually promoted and publicised in practice.?

Collective action is important but individuals can help too. Racist talk and ‘banter’ in pubs and bars can be challenged, either directly or by raising it with the manager. Likewise when buying beer, focusing on breweries that not only have ethical policies but clear practices that back this up can help.

Feeling uneasy, at best, is nothing to those who find themselves on the front line of racist discrimination and attacks. That is why what is reportedly happening at The White Hart and a local CAMRA branches apparent lack of concern about it matters. It’s also what CAMRA itself has done about it is that is important. It is a campaigning organisation prepared not just to have policy against discrimination but to take action when it finds it taking place. At its annual conference after Easter CAMRA agreed an updated policy on equality, diversity and inclusion in beer, pubs and brewing. That deserves our active support.

Taking back control of beer
Tuesday, 10 January 2023 17:10

Taking back control of beer

Published in Eating & Drinking

Keith Flett proposes some ways of taking back control of brewing and pubs, beyond the reach of ‘Big Beer’ in brewing and pubs. Image above: the former Bevendean Hotel, now The Bevy

Wild Beer the Somerset craft beer went into administration several weeks before Christmas. It now appears that the potential buyer has withdrawn, so the Administrators have shut the brewery and laid off 20 workers including the head brewer. Wild Beer brewed great beer and it’s a real loss if the brewery and beers can’t ultimately be rescued. There are however wider lessons and issues here.

Global big brewers are increasingly controlling the brewing, distribution and sale of beer and that means they are also looking at ways of monetising independent craft beer. The trend towards monopoly means global big beer brands dominate the market and even when it comes to craft you are likely to encounter Camden Pale (owned by ABInBev) and Beavertown Neck Oil (owned by Heineken).

In the last few months among a string of closures of small breweries due to the cost-of-living crisis Marstons-Carlsberg has shut Jennings brewery in Cockermouth and sold its Bedford brewery to Estrella. Meanwhile Ashai have announced the closure of Dark Star at its Sussex site with brewing moved to Meantime in Greenwich.

Are there ways round this?

Wild Beer pursued one of the better-known ones – that is crowdfunding. It raised £1.8m from small investors in 2017 on a plan to build a new brewery on the Bath and West Showground and increase brewing capacity. It didn’t happen. Wild harnessed the enthusiasm of beer drinkers to fund and promote good beer that was independent of the clutches of Big Beer. Most of those who invested will have done so on a goodwill basis without a great expectation of seeing anything in return. As it turned out none of the investors will get anything. Wild Beer subsequently claimed that the crowdfunding was used to buy additional brewing equipment and the sum raised fell far short of the £9million a new brewery would have cost.

The Scottish brewer Brewdog has run a number of crowdfunding exercises under its Equity for Punks scheme. Those who buy shares get cheaper Brewdog beer and might find the value of their shares delivering some profit if and when Brewdog finally launches as a public company. That is far from certain since a private equity investor already owns a chunk of the company and would get first call. As the Financial Times occasionally warns, while such schemes appear radical in reality, if you want to invest money it’s much better done on the highly regulated Stock Exchange. You still might not make money but at least there are rules which can explain why.

It should also be said that a number of other breweries such as Redemption in Tottenham have successfully run well-organised crowdfunding schemes. As a way round or out of the clutches of Big Beer however such schemes can clearly have their problems, and still rest firmly on some notion of market economics.

Drinking rather than brewing

It’s possible to start from the other end of the equation – the drinking rather than the brewing end. In England legislation exists to allow pubs to be declared Assets of Community Value. This will protect pubs under threat of closure or change of use for a period while efforts are made to find a buyer – often a community-led scheme. In some cases this can mean a few wealthy individuals but in others it can be a genuine widely based community scheme where people subscribe, rather like crowdfunding but with far more direct control.

In a market economy, while this may remove the pub from the direct clutches of big beer and big pub companies, matters are rarely quite so simple. Keeping the beer and lager and serving it at the right temperature requires equipment which needs to be regularly maintained. Perhaps needless to say global brewers like Heineken will do this providing that a pub sells their drinks and only their drinks. This applies particularly to keg beer served under pressure. Cask or real ale is a little less restricted not least because under the Beer Orders pubs have a legal right to sell a guest ale, often from a small local brewery.

The dilemma about how to run a successful brewery or pub but keep out of the clutches of Big Beer comes down to two very different solutions – either a big national one or a small and very local one. There are examples of both around the world. For example, Budvar Budweiser brewed in the Czech Republic (related to but not to be confused with the US version) is a State-owned brewery that has time and funding to invest in producing quality beer.

During the First World War the Government ran a limited exercise in Carlisle where all pubs were nationalised and served by one State brewery. The primary aim was to control drinking amongst armaments workers, but it also meant that beer quality and pricing as well standards in pubs was both regulated and improved.

The Carlisle scheme lasted until the early 1970s when it was privatised by a Tory Government. However, after 1945 Labour planned a similar scheme to address the requirements for pubs and beer in the New Towns then being built. Clearly there were no existing breweries or pubs serving them. The scheme did become law but was reversed by a Tory Government in the early 1950s. Brewers and publicans had vociferously opposed the idea of state control.

In practice while the beer and pubs would no doubt have been of a good, well-regulated standard, it’s likely that in practice it would have emulated the monopolies that some brewers developed – for example Watneys in East Anglia, in the 1960s.

The alternative is to start from the bottom up. To develop a network of independent community-owned pubs rooted in their local areas but welcoming to all. Particularly in the current moment, this goes against market trends. However, there are successful examples – The Bevy in Brighton is the only community pub in the country based in a housing estate, for example. To be successful pubs like this really do need to be the hub of the local community. They need to be serving drink and food of course, but also offering meeting spaces, regular events, warmth and just somewhere to hang out away from work or home.

There may be a further way forward based on legislation focused on pubs being the hub of the local community. There is an historical example, the 1830 Beer Houses Act. Coming after a period of high beer prices and political turmoil, the Act relaxed licensing regulations allowing thousands of small new pubs – what we would call micro-pubs – to open. Under the Act a ratepayer could apply for a licence to brew and sell beer. By 1841 over 40,000 beer houses had opened, each run independently on a small scale.

Of course such a move would require a statutory framework – both a requirement that pubs serve a community beyond just selling alcohol, and safeguards to protect existing pub businesses that might or might not already be following a similar model.

The price of beer - an issue of class?
Tuesday, 23 August 2022 11:33

The price of beer - an issue of class?

Published in Eating & Drinking

The price of beer is in the news again. The impact of COVID, energy costs and the war in Ukraine are pushing prices up.

The general points are around increases in the cost of raw materials, production (i.e canning,) energy and the impact of Brexit.

If the price of beer goes up, does it matter? After all no one has to drink it, and many don’t. But the reality is that the price of beer forms part of the Retail Price Index so it is an important economic measure. I suspect – though this is notoriously difficult to prove – that the price of beer has outstripped wage increases over a lengthy period. A recent ONS study showed beer prices easily outstripping wage growth to 2020 before the Covid period. One outcome is the success of Wetherspoons, where you can find a pint of cask beer for as little as £1.39 a pint in some places.

Historically beer was considered part of the normal diet for many workers involved in heavy industrial or agricultural labour and was one focus for the ‘standard of living’ debate about whether living standards fell or rose as industrialisation proceeded after 1800. Indeed water was not generally safe to drink until at least the mid-nineteenth century, and many drank what is now called table beer instead. This was low in alcohol.

More specifically, thanks to a Malt Tax first introduced to fund the country’s wars in the early eighteenth century, the price of brewer-produced beer was considered to be high by the first decades of the nineteenth century. It also made the cost of traditional home brewing prohibitive.

E. P. Thompson in The Making of the English Working Class reports a letter from a magistrate in 1816 arguing that the Malt Tax would lead to revolution. In fact numbers of unregulated and unlicensed premises circumvented the law. Reality intervened with the 1830 Beershops Act, which made the opening of premises specifically to sell beer much easier and much less costly.

Historically the price and quality of beer (the two were related) was determined by Assizes of Ale. These were more commonly used to determine the cost of bread but beer was also covered. An Act of 1604 stipulated innkeepers must sell a quart of good quality beer or ale for a penny and if they failed to do so could be fined twenty shillings for each offence. This Act was not repealed until 1828 but the use of Assizes of Ale was limited in practice to local areas where consumer pressure caused them to be held – Lincoln being one well-known case.

While we can see that historically beer price and quality was regarded as important enough to regulate at least at the level of policy if less often in practice, how to apply this in 2022 suggests both challenges and innovation.

There is no consistent price for beer across the UK, which in itself suggests that cost varies in reaction to local economies and wage conditions. However big breweries and pub companies do exert considerable influence on price. Heineken which owns both breweries and pubs in the UK saw profits rise by 20.6% in the last year and it has decided to raise its beer prices by 8.9%. It’s not energy company territory but the trend of contempt remains clear – massive profits and price hikes.

No doubt other global beer companies such as ABInBev which owns, for example, Stella Artois, have similar plans. Controlling the activities of such corporate monsters and policing their ethical and environmental activities on a global scale is currently done to some extent by shareholders – for example pension schemes were trade unions have trustee appointments than national Governments.

Another way to address the question, again perhaps not as unlikely as might be thought, is for the Government to nationalise in the UK a major brewery and pub company. This was done during the First World War in Carlisle. A state-owned brewery was created together with a pub estate. The benefits were clear – the beer produced was of a good quality and sold at reasonable prices, and the pubs were welcoming places to be in, selling food as well as drink and promoting games.

After 1945 the Labour Government planned to do the same for the new towns then being created. A state-owned brewery would supply beer to state-owned pubs in these new developments. This became law but was frustrated when the Tories returned to Office in 1951.

From the standpoint of 2022 the downsides to this plan are perhaps more obvious than they were 70 years ago. What was planned was in effect what Big Beer managed to create with its own push to monopoly in the 1960s. In East Anglia for example it was hard to find a pub not owned by Watneys. If you didn’t like their keg beer, there was no alternative.

There are other ways of looking at the issue. Firstly by Government regulation rather than control (an updated Assize of Ale model). Secondly, by local community control from below.

The Government already has a significant influence on beer prices and profits through taxation. The impact on global big beer companies would be limited to how much tax they decide to pay in the UK, but mechanisms to provide more effective control should be possible. Another way to achieve something similar is to make sure that all pubs have the right to sell a guest beer from a local brewer. This right exists in the 1980 Beer Orders, but has been eroded by changes in the industry.

Local brewers should have lower costs than Big Beer in some areas, but pricing is always a complex issue in a market economy. They may be able to sell more cheaply than Heineken or ABI but simply undercutting on price is not a complete solution. There are already price undercutters out there with at best doubtful business models, from a worker’s point of view. What is needed is an excellent product at a competitive price.

That is very much Assize of Ale territory. It relies on local brewers perhaps with their own taprooms, working with local pubs and local communities to produce beer to local tastes at an affordable price but one that also provides enough profit to pay staff well and invest. In the current environment that will be no easy task but it remains an important one for the future of good beer, pubs and communities

Expect the controversy to continue! Though Assizes of Ale, Government assistance to brewers and price regulation would all help.

Culture Wars in Beer
Sunday, 13 February 2022 10:46

Culture Wars in Beer

Published in Eating & Drinking

Keith Flett wades into the culture war around Brewdog, its toxic workplace culture and Equality, Diversity and Inclusivity issues in the world of craft beer. Image above by Matt Buckland

In late January BBC Scotland broadcast a programme on Brewdog, which is available on iPlayer. The programme had three elements. It looked at Brewdog’s marketing and PR efforts, some of which have worked very well, others rather less so. It also looked at Brewdog’s business model. There wasn’t much that was specifically new here. The point was that the details will have reached a far wider audience than the ‘beer bubble’ that already knows about them.

The third and most important part of the programme focused on a number of testimonies from former and current Brewdog workers about the toxic workplace culture at the brewer and bar chain. They echoed but much more directly the points made by Punks With Purpose last year. PWP is a group of people who have worked for Brewdog who decided to put in the public domain their experiences in the hope of forcing change.

At the time Watt initially reacted to Punks With Purpose by saying these were malcontents who were sacked for misconduct or theft and had a grievance against the company. That didn’t go down too well so he changed tack and announced a major exercise to review the culture of Brewdog and suggest changes, carried out by a third party. That reported recently and Watt apologised and promised to address issues.

On the BBC Scotland programme the same pattern repeated itself. At first James Watt denied all the issues raised and claimed again they were made by ill-intentioned malcontents. Legal action was threatened. It got a lot of media coverage but little of it was good for Brewdog.

So again Watt has changed tack. He now agreed some of the staffing issues mentioned in the BBC programme might have had substance, apologised and promised to address issues. After the BBC’s disclosure programme, however, the stories and allegations about a toxic workplace culture at the Scottish brewer have continued.

Janine Molineux, who worked for Brewdog briefly as an accountant in 2017 and 2018, was according to Brewdog sacked for performance reasons. However she has said that James Watt bullied her in a sales meeting and the sacking came a day after she told Watt her father had cancer. She also says that she was warned never to catch the eye of Watt. Separately Watt himself has commented further on a point in the BBC programme that he stared at employees. He claims that he was not staring but deep in thought!

Punks with Purpose have now linked with a third party to launch a portal where Brewdog workers from across its global locations can anonymously share issues. While there has been a fair bit of media coverage, on the Equity for Punks forum – the site for the numerous Brewdog shareholders – reaction has ranged from critical to abusive. Many argue that Brewdog make good beer (a matter of opinion, but in my view the imperial stouts are often excellent) and therefore ‘so what’ about the workplace culture?

The reality is however that for many Brewdog represents craft beer in the UK. It’s certainly the biggest craft brewer, employing several hundred people. It continues however to be non-unionised despite the reality that Unite the Union has members amongst its workers.

If craft beer is meant to be modern and progressive, Brewdog are failing the test. Further, as the beer writer Matthew Curtis has argued, Brewdog are very far from alone in the sector in having a poor workplace culture. The silence from other brewers, either about the Brewdog issues or in solidarity with Punks With Purpose, has been notable.

So beyond pressing for union organisation, which is certainly key, what is to be done?

The Campaign for Real Ale has issued a survey on Inclusivity, Diversity and Equality in Beer. It seeks to discover the views and experiences of people involved with CAMRA activities in any capacity about those issues. It won’t change the world and no one is forced to pay any attention let alone answer it, but it’s a step towards much-needed change.

It has found a lot of support but it has also sparked off a wider craft beer culture war beyond Brewdog. The Daily Mail published a piece on it which was rather obsessed with beer and beards. In short it was stereotyping the beer drinker as someone with a beard and a beergut and implicitly questioning why others needed to be involved.

The beer writer Pete Brown deconstructed the beneath the line comments in the Mail piece on his blog. They are usual Mail fare (not that the Guardian is so different). I don’t comment in such forums. What I have to say always appears under my own name and is open to challenge. I suspect however there is a certain layer of commenters who pop up all over the place. Anyway the comments were of course complaining that the survey was ‘woke’ a precursor to revolution etc. It isn’t. It’s a survey. If you didn’t like it, you could ignore it.

Another beer writer Melissa Cole also wrote a piece in the Telegraph looking at the history of women in beer, and their current and future roles. A challenging piece for some Telegraph readers no doubt and the below-the-line mob were off again. Women don’t drink beer and as for the CAMRA survey, well…..

It’s something of a craft beer culture war but it’s best to remember that like those that come from No.10 these things are made up to distract. Inclusivity, Diversity and Equality in beer are important and if more progress is not made in each area beer and pubs won’t have a great future.

It’s also best to remember that stereotypes are just that. I joined CAMRA in 1975, I have a beard and I’m a marxist.  I could recount a few discussions with senior CAMRA people I’ve had about that down the years, but perhaps best for the memoirs. Suffice to say however that CAMRA is not a revolutionary party. It is though trying to do the right thing in beer, when far too many are not.

When one looks at the reactions on Brewdog’s Equity for Punk site or to the CAMRA survey it’s clear that there is a way to go to meet the idea that beer is for everyone. As with Boris Johnson and statues, culture wars are a distraction from other issues in beer, such as the continued rise of global Big Beer with brewery takeovers and mergers. That doesn’t mean though that beer culture wars can be ignored by the left. They have to be engaged with and our side needs to win for inclusivity, diversity and equality.

How to drink beer ethically
Saturday, 20 November 2021 11:11

How to drink beer ethically

Published in Eating & Drinking

It is a difficult period in craft beer, globally. With many of the well-known craft brewers now quite sizeable and moving into a second decade of operations, the focus has moved beyond the novelty and then the excellence of the beer brewed. Though these remain important issues, the new question is whether as business operations they match up to their claims that the beer they brew is modern and inclusive.

It has become clear that some craft beer operations don’t currently pass that test across a range of criteria. There have been a series of significant complaints from former employees of the brewers about their workplace culture, where bullying and harassment were often a feature. Big name craft brewers like Brewdog and Mikkeller have found themselves in the media spotlight.

So what is to be done?  When should anyone concerned about drinking ethically steer clear of a brewer?

This isn’t about boycotts. It’s more about developing and popularising a campaign around what is good beer in 2021 and getting people to focus on that rather than some of the perhaps better known, but less desirable alternatives.

When the Tories’ Budget plans were announced in late October, to mark changes to beer duty both Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak appeared at the Fourpure brewery in Bermondsey wielding empty kegs and pulling pints. The irony was that the changes didn’t actually apply to Fourpure. While its origins are firmly in craft beer these days, it’s owned by Australian beer company Lion which in turn is owned by Kirin in Japan. So in fact it’s not craft beer, but big beer.

The well-known beer writer Matthew Curtis had recently published an important volume on Modern British Beer (CAMRA). It looks at examples of some of the best of recent beer from around the UK, with the aim of getting those unfamiliar with some or all of them to try a glass and see what the changes in beer over the last 10 years or so mean for beer.

By way of introduction Curtis lays down five criteria by which he feels such beer should be judged. I’ve taken his criteria and provided a take on how people might look to drink ethically.

Focused on ingredients, their agriculture and provenance

Big Beer never does this but for many craft beers you can discover what hops have been used and what malt. Hops are often from the USA or New Zealand but Britain grows hops and is producing more, including new varieties of traditional hops such as East Kent Goldings and Fuggles. Ultimately the idea of moving hops around the world when they can be grown locally in the UK seems unsustainable.

Invested in the sustainability and the preservation of the environment

Curtis points out that production of beer and particularly Big Beer is not environmentally sustainable. Large amounts of water are used in the brewing process, carbon dioxide is used in production and in serving, and chemicals are used for cleaning. Brewing in 2021 relies on agribusiness for its raw materials of hops and malt and on modern industrial production techniques to make the beer.

One obvious way round some of this is to focus on cask beer, which requires no gas to serve it. Another is to use local hops and malt to avoid transporting the raw materials of brewing across large distances.

Curtis gives some examples of brewers that have sought to reduce their environmental impact. Brewdog, for example, has planted a significant number of trees in Scotland to reduce carbon impact. Some of this might be seen as greenwashing, but the number of breweries doing anything of note on the matter remains far too small.

Focused on regionality and is driven by and supportive of its local communities

Matthew Curtis makes the point that sameness – the same beer, the same style, available everywhere is the hallmark of Big Beer. Perhaps there is nothing much not to like about it, but then there isn’t that much to like about it either in many cases.

Modern beer aims to be different but it is work in progress. Curtis rightly points to a preponderance of murky, heavily hopped 5-6% pale ales and IPAs. Such beers may taste different depending on the hops used, water and exact recipe, but probably not that different. Rather modern beer should be about a range of beer styles with no limit on what might be tried. Hence mixed fermentation beers are more common, as is barrel ageing, and saison farmhouse type beers. What is brewed and what is drunk should depend not on decisions made in the boardrooms of big beer but what local communities like to drink. The problem that the ethical drinker faces is where to find such beers with the majority of pubs and bars either owned by Big Beer or supplied by it.

Inclusive and equitability minded

While this is perhaps the most obvious point in drinking ethically, in practice it’s one of the hardest to achieve. Modern beer has built an image of itself as progressive, against discrimination and for equality. The reality is often very different.

Craft beer, as a visit to any bar, taproom or event will underline, is predominantly about middle-aged, middle-class, white blokes. This is not surprising as the beer is usually far from the cheapest around, and so attracts those with disposable incomes and ample leisure time. Whereas those who actually work in the largely non-unionised and not well-paid bars that sell modern beer, or the breweries that produce it, are often not from that demographic.

There are of course more women becoming involved now, ready to challenge inequality and sexism, and the beginnings of an LGBTQ and minority ethnic presence too. Still, there is currently a yawning gap between what modern beer thinks it is and says it is and what it actually is. Change is needed!


This point may seem obvious but its more complicated than it seems. A beer or a bar may tick a number of the modern beer boxes discussed above, but the bottom line is, is the beer good to drink?

It is clear from all these points that there is much campaigning work to do, and trade union organisation in brewers and bars would make a significant difference in some areas. But individual drinkers can also make positive choices about what to drink and where. Collectively and individually beer can be changed for the better.

Matthew Curtis’s book is one of the first to take a wider look at what beer should be in the 2020s for those determined to avoid the clutches of Big Beer and promote sustainable and ethical alternatives. We shouldn’t expect Big Beer to ignore the challenge. As elsewhere in cultural experiences, there is a continuous attempt to incorporate those who seek to challenge the capitalist status quo of a market economy, eg by directly buying up independent, co-operatively run breweries.

Ultimately the beer you drink is more enjoyable and more ethical if it’s a small part of building a sustainable, locally based cultural alternative to mega breweries and pub chains – if it’s about people not profit.

Brewdog: what is to be done?
Friday, 18 June 2021 11:30

Brewdog: what is to be done?

Published in Eating & Drinking

Keith Flett contributes to the debates around Brewdog

If you drink craft beer you are probably aware of the crisis that has hit Scottish brewer Brewdog after a group of ex-employees, Punks With Purpose, published a statement detailing experiences of harassment and discrimination while they were working for the company.

Some media commentary noted that there are always disgruntled ex-employees, but ignored the reality that the statement has attracted the support of hundreds of people, most of whom still work in the beer industry.

Brewdog in the UK is certainly the best-known craft beer brand. Its beers are in supermarkets and its main brand Punk IPA is on the bar in Wetherspoons. There are regular publicity stunts – some worthwhile around climate change or helping the NHS during the pandemic, others less appropriate. Engagements with politicians are also common, not only with Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, but also Keir Starmer, who has also done publicity appearances in Brewdog bars.

Brewdog is seen as the progressive modern face of beer, something different from the traditional and conservative brewing trade. The Punks with Purpose statement underlines that the reality is very different.

There is a good deal of commentary already by beer writers like Matthew Curtis and Melissa Cole which is well worth seeking out. Cole in particular underlines that she has seen numerous apologies from Brewdog in the past which have made no obvious difference to what actually happens.

Brewdog in the form of co-founder James Watt has apologised, and indeed it is still issuing apologies as more people sign the Punks statement. The first reaction was to argue that of course some former employees didn’t get on with Brewdog but that many had a great experience. Watt asked existing employees to sign a statement agreeing that it was a good place to work. That approach didn’t last long before Watt issued his first apology, which agreed the complainants had a point and matters would be looked at.

The next apology reported that Blythe Jack had been appointed the new chair of Brewdog. Reports made something of her gender – and indeed female chairs of Companies are still far fewer than would be merited if that was the criteria for appointment. However she is in fact a senior figure in Brewdog’s private equity investor TSG, and one suspects her appointment is as much to do with protecting their investment after last week’s furore. She has in fact been on the board of Brewdog for some years without any obvious changes to culture being made. There is some speculation that she might in fact be preparing Brewdog for a launch on the Stock Exchange.

More interesting perhaps is the appointment of Ren Navarro, a diversity consultant who has worked widely in the hospitality area in North America. A glance at her social media indicates that she does indeed ‘walk the walk’ on issues of discrimination. How welcome that will be to quite everyone at senior levels in Brewdog remains to be seen.

Partnerships with trade unions

My experience as a union officer in private sector companies much bigger than Brewdog is that while people who work in the diversity area are invariably well intentioned and want to make positive changes, they often do better when they are in partnership with recognised unions.

Senior figures in companies have many issues to pursue and may need persuading that diversity is up there with the most important. If they see that not only their own specialist team but the unions who represent their workers are on board, that is often a key motivator to make progress.

The latest James Watt apology underlines that there will be an independent survey of Brewdog workers, and complaints will be listened to. One might think that given the culture that has prevailed it would indeed be a brave employee who spoke out on issues in the survey unless they had already secured a job elsewhere.Watt also announced that there would be an ‘employee forum’, which any trade union activist will recognise as a device used by employers to frustrate attempts at union recognition.

So what is to be done?

There have been suggestions of a consumer boycott. Brewdog is a global beer company now (albeit not a big player) and its secure market position in the UK suggests this would not worry Watt too much. It would also be very difficult to organise.

The yawning gap between Brewdog’s image and reality could however be narrowed by recognition of a trade union. Both Unite and London IWW have members at the brewer. A union can provide a genuinely independent framework for employees to raise issues and get them resolved without, in most cases, the need for external publicity. It is of course mundane, but it means in this case Brewdog can get on with brewing beers and workers can get concerns heard without worrying that they are placing their entire employment future on the line.

Those who use Brewdog bars can play a role, not by boycotting them but by talking to staff about unions and why being a member is important.

Given that Brewdog likes to place itself at the cutting edge of beer, a more radical agenda could be considered. Watt could move towards making both brewery and bars into a more co-operatively run and owned enterprise. Not the anti-union device of employee shareholders but more on the basis of giving recognised employee union representatives a key role in decision making

It would be radical but that is how Brewdog has always liked to position itself in the world of beer – except when it comes to its own workforce that is. It’s notable that despite Watt’s love of eye-catching publicity, he hasn’t ventured into this area.

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