‘London Murky’, Mrs. T., and the politics of the haze craze
Tuesday, 17 October 2017 18:49

‘London Murky’, Mrs. T., and the politics of the haze craze

Published in Eating & Drinking

Keith Flett gets the round in again, tracing the political impact of Mrs. T on bright fined beer with his usal wit and clarity (geddit?). 

It’s not often talked about but there is the issue of what Mrs Thatcher did to your glass of beer.

The ‘free choice’ capitalism where the market ruled, didn’t really do a great deal for the profitability of British industry, indeed it managed to destroy a fair bit of it. It did however open an era of choice in consumer goods, whether you wanted the choice or not.

You might think, for example, that what you want in a telephone, these days often a mobile, is one that works reliably, you can make calls on and access the internet and do so at a reasonable cost. In reality there are many, many phones to choose from, mostly not all that different from each other.

The same is true for beer.

Pre-Thatcher there were mainly regional brewers, with a few (by comparison with 2017, very few) smaller independents. They served a mainly tied pub estate. What they served in terms of beer were pints or half pints (definitely not thirds or two-thirds, though both are legal measures) of amber or brown beer.

That beer was, or should have been, fined and crystal clear. Whether it was in good condition - that is to say whether it tasted fresh and had some limited natural sparkle to it, and depending on whether you were north or south a big or a small foamy head - was another matter.

Very often, before the rise of the Campaign for Real Ale in the 1970s, cellar skills of landlords were not great, and nor was the condition of the beer. When I first started drinking around in the early 1970s - under age of course, quite possible in London then - a common drink was a ‘light and bitter’. That is to say, a half of cask ale and a bottle of brewery conditioned beer (not real ale) poured in to give the cask beer some life and often mask its less than great taste.

If you stuck with drinking pints from the handpump, clarity in your beer was important and the beer you drank was likely to be much the same in, week in, week out. Hence the expression you can hear in old films ‘a pint of the usual’.

The beer was of course ‘fined’ with fish bladders to ensure clarity. There are now alternatives, though many beers will still use this method unadvertised to those who may prefer not to ingest such things.

Hence the first thing you did when you got your pint was to look at it - and then sometimes sniff it - to check that it was clear. If it wasn’t it might well go back.

Of course there were barpersons across the country who would respond that since real ale was a living product, it was ‘meant to look like that’ and if there was also a twig sticking out of the murky liquid that just proved how natural it was. That last bit by the way, is, as far as I know apocryphal. I’ve never seen an actual pint with a twig in it.

It was the work of CAMRA to rescue living cask beer from old style, poorly served murk, and get across the point that the beer in the glass was meant to be clear.

Was it the case that if the beer was cloudy it tasted awful? Sometimes it was particularly if the haze was due to a yeast infection or some other off-note in the beer.  But not always. Sometimes cloudy beer tasted fine, if not in the most desirable condition. Most who drank pints like that though knew that it was like consuming liquid All-Bran – with very similar results.

Then along came Mrs Thatcher and market choice. Guest beers were allowed in pubs owned by large breweries – this the work of CAMRA – and in due course another exponent of the free market, albeit in a rather different format to the Iron Lady appeared. Gordon Brown as Chancellor changed duty on beer to make it much easier for small brewers to set up and turn a profit.

And many did, hundreds and hundreds of them. Ten years ago in London there were less than ten breweries. Now there are over one hundred.

This expansion of breweries coincided (perhaps it was a bit more than coincidence, the jury is still out) with a vast expansion of the types and ranges of beers brewed.

Perhaps not entirely surprisingly, not all of these beers were clear in the glass and nor were they meant to be.

To underline how far the process has gone with what some might call London Murky, at the end of July I was in a well-known craft beer pub in central Hackney drinking a half pint of a 5.9% beer on key. It was in fact a keykeg beer- another way of serving real ale, not in a cask but in a plastic container where gas is used to force the beer to the pump but does not come into contact with the beer, so it is not ‘fizzy’.

The beer was crystal clear. All concerned were not happy. It used to be unfiltered and murky and everyone thought it had tasted much better when it was served like that.

At CAMRA beer festivals you will still see signs saying that a beer is not ready, often because it has not ‘dropped bright’ that is, it’s not clear. These days this is often more to do with it not being in the best condition and needing a little more time. You may also see signs warning that a beer is a little hazy - that is it tastes fine, but check where the nearest toilet is, and also signs pointing out that beer is meant to be cloudy.

This is the world of beer that Mrs Thatcher ushered in. Is it a step forward? Again I’d say the jury is still out on that one, but what a great time to be interested in sampling beer!

Drinkers, beer and business: the battle for craft beer
Tuesday, 17 October 2017 18:49

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?