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.

Marx, Engels and beer
Saturday, 21 April 2018 19:04

Marx, Engels and beer

Published in Marx200

Keith Flett considers the various references to the role beer played in the lives of Marx and Engels.

There have been many and varied attempts over the years to paint Karl Marx in particular as a disreputable character whose ideas on capitalism should therefore not be taken seriously.

In that context the story that he was more or less permanently drunk has a fairly minor place. One would not need a great deal of knowledge of Marx’s life to grasp that, certainly once he came to London, he rarely had sufficient money to fund a lifestyle of drinking.

Jenny Marx noted of Engels that when he retired to London in the 1870s that he was keen on beer, particularly the Viennese variety. How easy it was to obtain such a style in London at the time is less clear, but the authoritative beer writers Boak and Bailey suggest that Vienna lager was available in the Capital in the 1860s and 1870s and indeed was regarded as a premium ‘craft’ drink.

The episode which feeds the Marx as a drunk caricature is the well-known pub crawl up Tottenham Court Rd in central London that ended with them being pursued by police. There are not that many pubs on the road today but there were considerably more 150 years ago.

It is to be found in a memoir of Marx written by the German socialist Liebknecht in 1896 around 40 years after the event itself.

His account begins

One evening, Edgar Bauer, acquainted with Marx from their Berlin time and then not yet his personal enemy […], had come to town from his hermitage in Highgate for the purpose of “making a beer trip.” The problem was to “take something” in every saloon between Oxford Street and Hampstead Road – making the something a very difficult task, even by confining yourself to a minimum, considering the enormous number of saloons in that part of the city. But we went to work undaunted and managed to reach the end of Tottenham Court Road without accident.

In due course the drinking party Marx included got involved in a political discussion in the back room of a pub. Liebknecht recalls

The brows of our hosts began to cloud […]; and when Edgar Bauer brought up still heavier guns and began to allude to the English cant, then a low “damned foreigners!” issued from the company, soon followed by louder repetitions. Threatening words were spoken, the brains began to be heated, fists were brandished in the air and – we were sensible enough to choose the better part of valour and managed to effect, not wholly without difficulty, a passably dignified retreat.

Now we had enough of our “beer trip” for the time being, and in order to cool our heated blood, we started on a double quick march, until Edgar Bauer stumbled over some paving stones. “Hurrah, an idea!” And in memory of mad student pranks he picked up a stone, and Clash! Clatter! a gas lantern went flying into splinters. Nonsense is contagious – Marx and I did not stay behind, and we broke four or five street lamps – it was, perhaps, 2 o'clock in the morning and the streets were deserted in consequence. But the noise nevertheless attracted the attention of a policeman who with quick resolution gave the signal to his colleagues on the same beat. And immediately countersignals were given. The position became critical.

Happily we took in the situation at a glance; and happily we knew the locality. We raced ahead, three or four policemen some distance behind us. Marx showed an activity that I should not have attributed to him. And after the wild chase had lasted some minutes, we succeeded in turning into a side street and there running through an alley – a back yard between two streets – whence we came behind the policemen who lost the trail. Now we were safe. They did not have our description and we arrived at our homes without further adventures.

It is an entertaining story but not one can find repeated, meaning it was almost certainly an exceptional occasion.

Engels in his younger days was hardly exempt either from occasional beer influenced activities. He wrote on 1st September 1838:

Excuse me for writing so badly, I have three bottles of beer under my belt, hurrah, and I cannot write much more because this must go to the post at once. It is already striking half-past three and letters must be there by four o'clock. Good gracious, thunder and lightning’ you can see that I've got some beer inside me. [... ]

However there is a more serious and political side to Marx’s views on beer both in terms of practical political campaigning and in respect of theory.

Marx wrote in support of an 1855 demonstration organised by the Chartists in Hyde Park in what had become known as the ‘Beer Bill’:

The first measure of Religious coercion was the Beer Bill, which shut down all places of public entertainment on Sundays, except between 6 and 10 p. m. This bill was smuggled through the House at the end of a sparsely attended sitting, after the pietists had bought the support of the big public-house owners of London by guaranteeing them that the license system would continue, that is, that big capital would retain its monopoly.

Marx was here defending the right of working people to enjoy a beer on the one official day of the week they didn’t work, against what he terms ‘religious coercion’. Marx associated a Chartist leaflet for the protest which made the point that the aristocracy who of course enjoyed their drinks elsewhere than pubs could continue as normal.

Marx also defended the right of working people to enjoy beer in a more theoretical context, In Capital Volume One, chapter 24 he noted the tendency of capitalists to force down the wages of workers. He quotes an eighteenth-century author who complained that workers indulged in such things as drink:

“But if our poor” (technical term for labourers) “will live luxuriously ... then labour must, of course, be dear ... When it is considered what luxuries the manufacturing populace consume, such as brandy, gin, tea, sugar, foreign fruit, strong beer, printed linens, snuff, tobacco, &C.”

In terms of 2018 it is perhaps interesting to speculate whether Marx would have been a member of the Campaign for Real Ale. He was clearly interested in defending the right of ordinary people to drink beer and was keen on drinking beer himself, at least on occasion. He would certainly have been much less keen, and more critical than CAMRA sometimes is, of the activities of brewers and he would have the theory to back the point up.

One can see Marx, a lifelong activist, being in CAMRA, enjoying his beer, but organising to keep its focus firmly on pubs and beer while maintaining criticism of what is known as ‘big beer’, the worldwide beer companies such as ABInBev.

Good beer versus Big Beer
Tuesday, 13 February 2018 16:05

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?

The Bolsheviks and alcohol: policy and practice
Thursday, 04 January 2018 10:43

The Bolsheviks and alcohol: policy and practice

Published in Eating & Drinking

Keith Flett offers a brief survey of Bolshevik policy and practice towards alcohol consumption.

Drink and the left has been an issue since the labour movement was born or made in the 1820s and 1830s. The left, trade unions and political groups often met in pubs for want of other venues, and Marx and Engels themselves were famous imbibers. Yet inebriated workers and the culture of the pub and beer was something promoted rather by the Tories, who after all represented brewery owners, the Beerage. People who had a drink or two were not the easiest to organise or to get out on demonstrations.

Temperance was a feature of the labour movement again more or less from the beginning although we need to be careful about usage. Abstinence from drink did not usually mean beer and wine but spirits. It's in this context that we can consider what the attitude of the Bolsheviks was to drink, and what impact the 1917 revolution had on the question in Russia. The Bolsheviks were after all part of a European labour movement familiar with the politics of drink. Before 1917 Keir Hardie, the first leader of the Labour Party was a confirmed non-drinker while the revolutionary Labour MP Victory Grayson, by contrast, certainly was not.

This makes the question of what the Bolsheviks did on drink after they took State power in Russia in late 1917 of particular interest, as they were the only left party of any hue that had the opportunity to put into practice policies on alcohol during this period.

There was certainly from the early 1920s a distinctive Bolshevik practice on drink that differed by degree from the United States, but perhaps rather less so than the policy of the First World War Government in Britain.

While Prohibition in the US was driven by temperance groups, and by local ballots in both Russia and Britain after 1914, restrictions on drink were determined by concerns for a healthy workforce and that if drinking did occur, then what was drunk should be of good quality and in an appropriate, controlled environment.

In Russia the Tsarist regime banned alcohol at the start of World War One in 1914. In Britain drinking was not banned, but pub opening hours significantly curtailed and the alcoholic strength of beer lowered. In both cases these measures did have a real impact.

When the Bolsheviks took power in late 1917, the issue of drink was not central. Even so in December 1917 the Petrograd Soviet appointed G. Blagonravov Special Commissar to combat drunkenness.

The concern of the Bolshevik Government was widespread, small scale and home distilling of spirits. This meant the unregulated development of capitalist enterprise as well as large scale drunkenness. It led to the denunciation of ‘home brew fascism’ and police efforts particularly in rural areas to uncover, prosecute and jail at least those who were brewing commercially and on occasion anyone at all, even those brewing just for home consumption.

By 1923 well over half of the prison population of Moscow were home brewers. This was hardly a sustainable position particularly because at the same time the Bolsheviks were reducing police numbers, mainly for financial reasons.

Once the Civil War was won, the Bolsheviks could turn their thoughts to reconstruction and building a socialist society and it was at this point that the issue in particular of vodka production came under serious scrutiny. There was a division between those who argued that drinking and drunkenness led to an unhealthy and inefficient workforce, precisely what the infant USSR did not need, and those who saw the importance of State control of the drink trade and the money this could make for an infant socialist State with little source of finance.

Interestingly, the British Government towards the end of the First World War pursued a similar policy. In areas where munitions factories were sited, in particular Carlisle, it took over and shut breweries and used instead a State-owned brewery that sold beer to State-run pubs. The quality of the beer almost certainly improved as a result and the State ownership scheme in particular was keen to keep a very close eye on spirit consumption and to encourage eating with drinking.

This general attitude was also to be found in Communist Parties other than the Russian. The US CP published a magazine, Health and Hygiene, which while not supporting Prohibition, which it saw as simply promoting gangster control of the drink trade, certainly did not feel alcohol was something to be encouraged in the proletarian lifestyle.

The magazine also pronounced on diet:

(it) recommended a recognisably healthy diet of vegetables, fruits, cereals, dairy products, soups, meat and fish, but also recommended ‘miscellaneous’ foods, such as ‘ice cream, cake, pie, mayonnaise, olive oil, gelatin [sic], custards, puddings, jam, marmalade, nuts, candy in moderation and so forth.' Alongside these dietary suggestions, the same article recommended ‘a certain amount of exercise’ and a ‘sufficient amount of sleep. (Hatful of History blog)

By the mid-1920s the drink issue in Russia had reached a point where action had to be taken beyond simply attempting to punish home brewers.

Stalin argued in 1925 that socialism could not be built with white gloves on, and on this occasion, he was referring to support for State production of vodka. One result was that between 1924 and 1927, the number of annual arrests for drunkenness in Leningrad rose from 11,000 to 113,000. Full-strength vodka sales had resumed in 1925.

Distribution of State produced vodka appears to have been patchy in a country as vast as Russia recovering from a Civil War but the political point was clear. It could begin to undercut home brewers, particularly those who brewed for profit beyond personal consumption. It could also address the vital issue of grain supplies and direct them to the production of basic food rather than drink. The link between a healthy workforce, a basic diet and alcohol could not have been clearer.

For much more detail see Neil Weissman Prohibition and Alcohol Control in the USSR, the 1920s campaign against illegal spirits, Soviet Studies Vol 38/3 (1986)

The Bolsheviks and alcohol: policy and practice
Sunday, 10 December 2017 21:57

The Bolsheviks and alcohol: policy and practice

Published in 1917 Centenary

Keith Flett offers a brief survey of Bolshevik policy and practice towards alcohol consumption.

Drink and the left has been an issue since the labour movement was born or made in the 1820s and 1830s. The left, trade unions and political groups often met in pubs for want of other venues, and Marx and Engels themselves were famous imbibers. Yet inebriated workers and the culture of the pub and beer was something promoted rather by the Tories, who after all represented brewery owners, the Beerage. People who had a drink or two were not the easiest to organise or to get out on demonstrations.

Temperance was a feature of the labour movement again more or less from the beginning although we need to be careful about usage. Abstinence from drink did not usually mean beer and wine but spirits. It's in this context that we can consider what the attitude of the Bolsheviks was to drink, and what impact the 1917 revolution had on the question in Russia. The Bolsheviks were after all part of a European labour movement familiar with the politics of drink. Before 1917 Keir Hardie, the first leader of the Labour Party was a confirmed non-drinker while the revolutionary Labour MP Victory Grayson, by contrast, certainly was not.

This makes the question of what the Bolsheviks did on drink after they took State power in Russia in late 1917 of particular interest, as they were the only left party of any hue that had the opportunity to put into practice policies on alcohol during this period.

There was certainly from the early 1920s a distinctive Bolshevik practice on drink that differed by degree from the United States, but perhaps rather less so than the policy of the First World War Government in Britain.

While Prohibition in the US was driven by temperance groups, and by local ballots in both Russia and Britain after 1914, restrictions on drink were determined by concerns for a healthy workforce and that if drinking did occur, then what was drunk should be of good quality and in an appropriate, controlled environment.

In Russia the Tsarist regime banned alcohol at the start of World War One in 1914. In Britain drinking was not banned, but pub opening hours significantly curtailed and the alcoholic strength of beer lowered. In both cases these measures did have a real impact.

When the Bolsheviks took power in late 1917, the issue of drink was not central. Even so in December 1917 the Petrograd Soviet appointed G. Blagonravov Special Commissar to combat drunkenness.

The concern of the Bolshevik Government was widespread, small scale and home distilling of spirits. This meant the unregulated development of capitalist enterprise as well as large scale drunkenness. It led to the denunciation of ‘home brew fascism’ and police efforts particularly in rural areas to uncover, prosecute and jail at least those who were brewing commercially and on occasion anyone at all, even those brewing just for home consumption.

By 1923 well over half of the prison population of Moscow were home brewers. This was hardly a sustainable position particularly because at the same time the Bolsheviks were reducing police numbers, mainly for financial reasons.

Once the Civil War was won, the Bolsheviks could turn their thoughts to reconstruction and building a socialist society and it was at this point that the issue in particular of vodka production came under serious scrutiny. There was a division between those who argued that drinking and drunkenness led to an unhealthy and inefficient workforce, precisely what the infant USSR did not need, and those who saw the importance of State control of the drink trade and the money this could make for an infant socialist State with little source of finance.

Interestingly, the British Government towards the end of the First World War pursued a similar policy. In areas where munitions factories were sited, in particular Carlisle, it took over and shut breweries and used instead a State-owned brewery that sold beer to State-run pubs. The quality of the beer almost certainly improved as a result and the State ownership scheme in particular was keen to keep a very close eye on spirit consumption and to encourage eating with drinking.

This general attitude was also to be found in Communist Parties other than the Russian. The US CP published a magazine, Health and Hygiene, which while not supporting Prohibition, which it saw as simply promoting gangster control of the drink trade, certainly did not feel alcohol was something to be encouraged in the proletarian lifestyle.

The magazine also pronounced on diet:

(it) recommended a recognisably healthy diet of vegetables, fruits, cereals, dairy products, soups, meat and fish, but also recommended ‘miscellaneous’ foods, such as ‘ice cream, cake, pie, mayonnaise, olive oil, gelatin [sic], custards, puddings, jam, marmalade, nuts, candy in moderation and so forth.' Alongside these dietary suggestions, the same article recommended ‘a certain amount of exercise’ and a ‘sufficient amount of sleep. (Hatful of History blog)

By the mid-1920s the drink issue in Russia had reached a point where action had to be taken beyond simply attempting to punish home brewers.

Stalin argued in 1925 that socialism could not be built with white gloves on, and on this occasion, he was referring to support for State production of vodka. One result was that between 1924 and 1927, the number of annual arrests for drunkenness in Leningrad rose from 11,000 to 113,000. Full-strength vodka sales had resumed in 1925.

Distribution of State produced vodka appears to have been patchy in a country as vast as Russia recovering from a Civil War but the political point was clear. It could begin to undercut home brewers, particularly those who brewed for profit beyond personal consumption. It could also address the vital issue of grain supplies and direct them to the production of basic food rather than drink. The link between a healthy workforce, a basic diet and alcohol could not have been clearer.

For much more detail see Neil Weissman Prohibition and Alcohol Control in the USSR, the 1920s campaign against illegal spirits, Soviet Studies Vol 38/3 (1986)

The Moral Economy of the Price of a Pint: For the Many, not the Few?
Monday, 02 October 2017 18:39

The Moral Economy of the Price of a Pint: For the Many, not the Few?

Published in Eating & Drinking

Keith Flett outlines how market capitalism undermined the principle of a fair price for a pint of beer. 

The price of a pint of beer, or perhaps as accurately the price of a half or third of a pint of beer, has been the source of considerable controversy in recent months.

A pub guide found that the most expensive pint of beer in the UK was no longer in London but Surrey and was over £4. That is indeed a fair sum of money if you are on a low income. A survey by the trade British Beer and Pub Association found the average price of a pint of beer is now just over £3 across the UK. Lager, typically on keg rather than cask, is more like £3.50 a pint.

If you like beer in this price context you might prefer, for example, the four for £6 offers on cans of Brewdog’s punk IPA that can be found in nearly all supermarkets.

There is a wider argument about the cost of beer and the impact of this on pubs then but I want to focus here specifically on the price issue, and how it also relates to the style and quality of beer.

The controversy arose particularly because someone had spotted a double ipa from the Manchester brewery Cloudwater on sale at the Rake in Borough Market for £13.40 a pint. Of course since the beer was 8-9% ABV you’d be drinking it in thirds or halves anyway but at £6.70 a half the price was still well above the ‘going rate’ for such a beer in London pubs, which would usually be around £4-4.50 a half.

I understand that the price neither deterred customers or put them off drinking the particular beer which quickly sold out – as Cloudwater beers invariably do. But it made the pub trade paper the Morning Advertiser and sparked a huge social media controversy.

Just how awkward the matter is to judge can be seen by a subsequent non-controversy over a 3.6% beer brewed by the US brewery Jester King and the London brewery Kernel, that was selling in a Hackney pub for £13 a pint. How much, one might say? Except of course the beer had been matured in barrels for a lengthy period and then specially flown in from the US. It was probably one of the only UK outlets. In this case the cost of production and the importation justified the price.

The main impact on the price of a pint is Government taxation. Some will be able to remember the days when the Chancellor’s decision to raise duty on beer in the annual Budget led to news headlines that beer would increase by 1p or 2p a pint. It was invariably more once that increase had worked its way through various middlemen, but the underlying point was that there was a fairly clear idea of how much a pint of beer cost and hence how much changing the tax would change it.

The Campaign for Real Ale still campaigns for a reduction on beer duty as much as health campaigners and temperance advocates push for minimum alcohol pricing. Certainly the tax on beer in the UK is amongst the highest in Europe, and it seems unlikely therefore that Brexit will have a helpful impact on it for beer drinkers

Yet the world is now more complex than the notion of the average cost of the average pint.

Most of this in one way or another amounts to regulation of the market – or lack of it – and as we shall it leads back to eighteenth century debates about a moral economy, one of whose key features was the concept of a ‘fair price’ for consumers and producers.

The debate about the price of a pint revolves around what is reasonable for drinkers to pay particularly in the age of the 1% public sector pay cap. But it also raises issues about how much profit, if any, pubs and pub companies should be making and how much a brewery should expect in terms of a financial return for the beer it brews.

This equation around price, profit and also supply and quality of the raw materials like malt and hops, was central to the work of the Assize of Ale.

The Assize, a local Court, met to fix the price of beer and its quality. Aletasters were used to visit each brewery, often small brewers, or before the nineteenth century, brewsters, and check beer before it was sold to customers.

The Assize would go into some detail about the appropriate price for a pint, depending on the cost of supply of essential ingredients such as malt and the type of beer being produced. A high quality stronger beer would be allowed to be sold at a higher price than a lower strength standard beer. Also taken into account was the view that the Brewster or Brewer should be allowed to make enough profit to allow their business to continue and to be able to live on, but no more.

How was this enforced? If Aletasters found an issue with quality or price then this was reported to the Assize and the offending brewer or Brewster was brought before the Court and fined. It might be argued that some regarded the fine as a necessary part of doing business the way they wanted to, particularly as surviving records in some areas indicate a level of frequent offenders.

The system broke down as market capitalism started to intrude on purely local brewing, with some more successful brewers supplying a numbers of pubs and the role of middlemen, or forestallers and regraters as they were sometimes termed, also becoming of increasing importance.

Yet the Assize, for the many issues that existed with it and how it functioned, did represent in principle the ideas that there should be a fair price to be paid for beer by the drinker and a fair profit, but no more, to be achieved by the brewer. For the many, not the few, as the slogan has it!

‘London Murky’, Mrs. T., and the politics of the haze craze
Saturday, 29 July 2017 14:25

‘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!

Canvassing for Votes
Saturday, 27 May 2017 15:55

Beer and the General Election

Published in Eating & Drinking

Keith Flett gives us a judiciously balanced, impartial and fair article on why beer drinkers should vote Labour on June 8th.

The days are long past, one hopes, when candidates on election days paid for free drink for those who voted for them - not least because the secret ballot prevents oversight of how people vote.

That said, beer and elections have a long history. In the 1750s the cartoonist Hogarth did a series of election related paintings, the Humours, which underlined the corruption present in pre-reform elections. Drink played a major part. Even after the 1832 Reform Act elections took place over several days, and bribes with beer were commonplace.

The major British brewers, known as the Beerage, have been traditionally supporters of the Tory Party. The Liberals, by contrast, became the party of temperance particularly after Gladstone’s 1872 Licensing Act, when Liberals with beer interests largely departed for the Tories. In some places the now Liberal Democrats remain a party who take a dim view of alcohol, even if mostly falling short of expressing temperance sentiments.

Of course in the modern world matters are not so simple. Very large UK brewers are often part of international groups, who have no central interest in supporting particular political parties in a specific country. One thinks of the world brewing giant ABInBev whose recent record takeover of the South African owned brewer SA Miller, itself a global concern, took place on the London Stock Exchange. To this extent the concept of a Beerage matters less than it did.

Secondly, donations to political parties have to be declared in accounts, and while a hefty donation to the Tory Party may look fine when the Tories are in office, it is less helpful on the occasions when they are not.

Even so a list of business people who urged people to vote Tory in the 2015 General Election still reveals numbers of the usual suspects. These included:

Rooney Anand, CEO, Greene King

Ralph Findlay, CEO, Marstons

Andy Harrison, CEO Whitbread

Jonathan Neame CEO, Shepherd Neame

Michael Turner, Chairman, Fullers

Whitbread no longer brew beer, but clearly old habits die hard! Individual support does not imply that the brewers themselves donate money to the Tories of course, and while this does occur, the amounts appear to be relatively limited in recent times.

The wider issue is the link between a conservative working class culture, drink, pubs and, quite often, a liking for sporting events and betting on them. It suggested in Victorian times a way of life where there was little time for the trade union or left-wing meeting or protest, and one which accepts that the status quo is a reasonably congenial place in which to dwell.

The arrival of trade union organisation and some control over the length of the working day has provided for the possibility of beer, sport and politics all being pursued and again the old divisions are less significant.

In the Victorian  period into the early twentieth century however, organised labour and much of the left were strong supporters of at least a degree of temperance. There were attempts to divorce cultural pursuits such as the theatre and music hall from drink, and efforts to control the drink trade and particularly pubs. There was a strong campaign for municipally owned pubs and indeed in 1916 a State owned brewery was set up in Carlisle, a centre of arms manufacture, with tied pubs to control how much workers drank.

Elections in the twenty first century are not however about bribing people with beer, or about just advancing the interests of Tory brewers, so what is the relationship between beer and how people people will vote on June 8th?

Labour have promised action on pubs and in particular closures, if they are elected. UKIP have criticised this but spending all day in the pub, as many of their supporters do, does not mean you know about the politics and ownership of them.

The numbers of small and micro-brewers continues to grow apace, helped by a tax advantage for those who produce relatively small amounts of beer. This change was actually brought in by Labour, giving an interesting modern twist to the relationship between political parties and brewing.

However most recently medium sized regional brewers, but also including some of the larger ‘craft’ brewers who are now above the limit for the tax reduction, have pressed for a rebalancing of tax so that they also have some advantage against the multi-national brewing giants like ABInBev.

Meanwhile the Campaign for Real Ale has also produced an Election Manifesto which it is pushing candidates to sign up to. It’s important because it means that in the context of an election there is campaigning input not just from brewers but those who drink beer as well.

One issue that is perhaps of particular interest in the current election is what the political profile is of craft beer drinkers? The Manchester brewer Cloudwater did a poll on this recently and the assumption tends to be that most of those who identify as craft drinkers are of a leftwards political inclination. Again this is very broad, so I’d only define that as ‘not Tory’.

My view is that most craft beer drinkers who take a public position are not likely to be Tories (and the same possibly for craft brewers). Yet anyone can order a drink at a bar and so craft beer drinkers must in fact include Tories. And, by the way, why not?

Surely one of the key things about beer, and drinking it, is that it is a sociable activity where people can discuss life, the universe and everything in a friendly way.

That of course is not the same as defending and improving the pub, the ability of brewers to brew good beer and sell it at sensible prices and indeed ensuring that the employment conditions of those who work in the licensed trade include things like the real Living Wage. When it comes to beer these are ‘what side are you on?’ questions.

What does all that add up to on June 8th 2017? Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn doesn’t drink, perhaps just as well given his punishing schedule as leader. But he takes a keen interest in keeping community pubs open, very much in line with some socialist views going back to the late nineteenth century.

That aside your vote could go to the historic party of the Beerage, the Tories, the historic party of temperance, the LibDems, or to Labour which champions the interests of those who work in the industry and those who enjoy a beer on the drinking side of the bar too. 

So voting Labour makes sense for those who like beer, and let’s hope we can raise a glass of good beer to Jeremy Corbyn as PM in the early hours of June 9th.

The price of a pint, the Assize of Ale & the moral economy of beer
Wednesday, 03 May 2017 21:30

The price of a pint, the Assize of Ale & the moral economy of beer

Published in Eating & Drinking

Keith Flett continues his series with an article on the price of a pint in the capitalist marketplace.

The Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) pressed Chancellor Philip Hammond to cut duty on beer by 1p a pint in his March Budget in a further bid to keep the price of a pint down. Beer duty has been frozen for a while. Hammond, whose image is not exactly a man of the people, in fact reverted to the more usual device of raising beer prices by RPI inflation. If you’ve been for a beer recently in a pub you’ll probably have noticed that adding 10p a pint or so.

Mr Hammond aside there is a general recognition of the contribution to employment and the economy that beer and the selling of beer in pubs makes and the impact of undercutting in supermarkets of beer prices.

To illustrate that point, I can buy a can of Stone IPA, brewed in Berlin at 6.9% (they are a US brewery but a German base ensures the beer is fresh in Europe) in Marks and Spencers for £2.49. Were I to buy that in a pub it would cost up to double the price.

The price of beer has been a significant issue in the history of Britain. Until the beginning of the 1800s the cost of a pint of beer was set by law and governed by an Assize of Ale. The law took account of the price of raw materials such as malted barley and allowed different prices for beers of superior quality. It was enforced by ale tasters or ale conners who had the difficult task of tasting beer from brewers. They checked particularly for beer quality and price.

Brewers who transgressed were subject to fines and ultimately if probably rather rarely to physical punishment. The holding of Assizes of Ale was patchy but the principle was underwritten by the idea of what E.P. Thompson called a moral economy. Beer was a staple of the poor person’s diet in pre-industrial England along with bread, which was also subject to price control by an Assize. Water was not safe to drink and lower strength or table beer was the standard liquid consumption.

In the two hundred years or so since the rise of market capitalism and the decline of the Assize of Ale the price of a pint has continued to be a key issue. The State has occasionally intervened directly but more frequently consumer pressure was the important thing. Beer in the public bar, frequented by working people, was less expensive and working men’s clubs (women were allowed in at weekends as guests) also sold beer cheaply.

After World War One the Government did set up a State brewery in Carlisle with associated pubs that sold beer at a regulated price and strength. It was eventually sold to Theakstons. It was though a successful experiment that might be a template for a time when the untrammelled market does not rule all.

In 2017 however CAMRA’s move to slightly reduce the price of a pint of cask beer is part of a much wider debate about what a realistic price for beer should be. The point that the same version of a beer in keg or keykeg and cask can vary a good bit in price (in favour of the former) has reached the letters page of The Guardian.

The assumption is that because ‘craft’ keg beer is often a fair bit pricier than cask beer then brewers must be ripping drinkers off when it comes to keg prices. No doubt some are. It would hardly be a capitalist market place if this wasn’t happening to some extent.

Yet it is far from the real story about beer prices. Obviously for those on a limited income, pensioners, those in low paid jobs or unemployed a cheap pint is important. The alternative is to suggest that only the well to do should drink beer. This important point is far too easily overlooked. Wetherspoons can be criticised for squeezing brewers' profit margins to the bone but if it means someone with little money can afford a pint it is not wholly bad, at least for the drinker.

2017 started with a flurry of blog posts from well known ‘craft’ brewers about beer prices and in particular cask beer prices. Wetherspoons aside, there is a race to the bottom in some areas of the cask beer market. Poorly made beer is sold to pubs at discount rates to undercut competition. The pubs themselves may or, as frequently, may not pass the cheaper cost on to customers in terms of the price of a pint. It does make business life tough for those brewing good quality cask beer.

The well-regarded Manchester brewery Cloudwater announced that it was stopping production of cask beer and focusing instead on keg and can production. It is a relatively small brewery and it made business sense for them to do so. Some of the underlying reasons however led into the price of a pint debate. Making beer for casking or kegging involved the same amount of effort and the same cost of ingredients. The work required to put a beer into cask and despatch it is arguably a bit more than that needed to produce it in keg format and certainly in cans. Yet the expectation is that the cask version should be priced lower than the keg, even though the keg price is the one that accurately reflects the cost of production.

Other rather larger brewers such as Siren in Berkshire and Tiny Rebel in Newport - now a regional sized brewer - confirmed their commitment to cask however. There are several reasons for this. Firstly in many cases the market is for cask beer not keg craft beer. Think pints of relatively low strength bitter rather than a half or a third of a pint of a high strength hoppy beer. Secondly because as Siren underlined it depends how you do the accounting and what you want to achieve. They look at their profit/loss on brewing across all formats from cask to keg and bottle. The margins on cask are very tight but balance out across the whole production. They were clear why they do that too. For them cask beer reaches areas of the pub market that their keg isn’t going to. New drinkers are introduced to their beer, and if they like it, may then start to seek out the breweries other products.

In short the price of a pint is a matter of as much complexity as it was when the Assizes of Ale sat in judgement on such matters. An attempt to impose a moral economy of beer as opposed to a political economy where profit dominates all is surely in tune with the mood of the times. Profit should not dominate the quality of the beer produced and the price people have to pay for it, even if we accept that if brewers don’t make money they certainly won’t produce beer until we manage to move to a socialist economic order.

With the Assize of Ale if the quality and price of beer were not to the standard expected, remedial action followed. It was a way of controlling the market that took account of the market but didn’t allow brewers to take advantage of it or drinkers to suffer because of it. Putting people before profit when it comes to a staple like beer is as important to the daily lives of many as making sure companies pay their taxes.

Perhaps it is time to bring back the Assize of Ale?

The Pub
Monday, 12 December 2016 14:09

The Pub

Published in Eating & Drinking

Keith Flett samples some beer and ponders the pub.

Having written on the current state of beer and brewing, together with some historical context, it is perhaps time to take a brief stop to actually sample some beer. This can be done in numerous places but the traditional British venue is the pub.

The final weeks of the year are the busiest in the pub trade- January is somewhat quieter- and regular drinkers are confronted with the ‘Xmas drinker’, someone who is often not exactly sure what they what to drink and may be a little unfamiliar with the impact alcohol can have on their behaviour.

What exactly constitutes the traditional British pub can be debated- often in the pub- all night. One widely noted benchmark is George Orwell’s 1946 essay, the Moon Under Water, that appeared in the London Evening Standard. Orwell’s classic pub, often seen in current pub names, particularly from the PubCo J D Wetherspoon, was an amalgam of several hostelries around his Canonbury North London home. One of Orwell’s points arguably was that while it might be possible to define the ‘perfect’ pub- in his case a beer garden and friendly service featured-it was rather unlikely that you would actually find a single pub to match the criteria.
Since Orwell wrote 70 years ago it has become harder in some senses to find that perfect pub or pubs. The number of pubs in Britain has been in decline for decades.

The reasons are well known and quite varied. With changes in industry there is less call for the basic boozer where manual workers went to replace the liquid they had lost during the working day. There is less demand for the beers they enjoyed drinking too but that is for another post. Many others have been lost because owners and developers determined that while they might be profitable even more profit could be made by developing them as flats.

Then there is the impact of changing demographics and competition from the off trade, in particular supermarkets. If you are not well paid but like a drink, the chances are that is a good bit cheaper to buy beer- not just mass produced blandness but also ‘craft’ beer-in a large supermarket and drink it at home. Moreover, and it’s important to recognise the reality, non-drinking is also an important element amongst some sections of the population. Anyone who thinks that the large variety of those who follow aspects of the Muslim faith are all non-drinkers will be in for a surprise, but alcohol consumption is less below the average.

We might balance that against the important point that historically considerable sections of the UK population were absolutely against drinking (at least in theory) as religious supporters of temperance, so there is nothing really that new here. Indeed it is quite possible to find areas of high population with very few pubs because the owners of the land disapproved of drink. The area around London University in central London remains one such.

Enough however about problems with the pub! The reality is that there are still many thousands of pubs in the UK and while ownership, tenancy agreements and the actions of pub companies like Punch are often the cause of concern, numbers of them do continue to thrive. The traditional idea is that pub is the place where people from a variety of backgrounds can be found socialising together. Well, up to a point! At a craft beer house I frequent in Hackney for example you will often find a well-known local builder, someone who works in the financial heart of the City of London, a senior managers from the local Council and myself as a union official to adjudicate on issues of the day. It is somewhat idealised but the interesting point is that all these people are drawn to the pub because of their liking for good beer.

That does raise a point of quite particular current relevance. In his new book on the pub, the beer writer Pete Brown argues, in a sense after Orwell, that the main thing about the pub is its role at the centre of a community. A place where much human life and discourse takes place. Of course in 2016 there are other places where this takes place, sometimes in virtual arenas eg on-line, but the pub remains an important meeting place. Communities that lose their pub are often held to be less cohesive as a result.

Two things have come together to do something to halt the apparently perpetual decline of the pub. Firstly there is now a legal right for community campaigners, often backed by the Campaign for Real Ale, to apply to make an under threat pub an Asset of Community Value. This, where successful, provides a breathing space to see if funds can be raised to allow a pub to be bought by the community and continue in operation. Some recent well known examples where this has happened are the Chesham in Hackney and the Antwerp in Tottenham.

Secondly with the rise of craft beer however defined there has been a new interest in opening or re-opening pubs. There is a new generation of micro-pubs, in effect, beer shops, which are small and resolutely community focused. In addition pubs that have long been shut and left vacant or used for other purposes have started to re-open as pubs. A recent example is The Mermaid in Clapton E5. Previously known as the Cricketers from 1872 it closed in 2008 against a background of declining custom. It then became a restaurant. More recently it has re-opened as a pub selling craft beer. Of course the customers are different and the public bar has gone but there is a wider point.

The pub as an institution that sells alcohol as part of a community hub has survived for many hundreds of years by reflecting what people in the community want. Into that has intruded capital in terms of beer supply companies and pub companies. As elsewhere there is a tension and struggle between the two.

Craft beer and competition
Monday, 24 October 2016 15:00

Craft beer and competition

Published in Eating & Drinking

Keith Flett continues his selfless quest at beer festivals to identify the economics of producing craft beer in a competitive, capitalist market - and what tastes nice.

Further to my earlier thoughts on craft beer I travelled to Manchester in early October to attend the Independent Manchester Beer Convention (IndyManBeerCon). This event, held in an old swimming baths a short distance from the centre of Manchester, has become one of the key events of what might (or might not) be called a craft beer movement.

It takes place over 4 days and contains (currently almost exclusively keg) beers from well-known and up and coming ‘craft’ breweries in three large spaces. It is not particularly cheap. While the entry price is modest (and tickets highly sought after) this year a beer token cost in the region of £2.25 for which you could buy a third of a pint of beer. That was irrespective of strengths which ranged from 3%ers to above 10%. Even so on the two days I attended there was a mixed crowd there both gender and age wise.

IndyMan is not just about the beer though- interesting as it is. There are also beer tastings and discussions about the industry. A relevant debate on the Thursday evening was about Craft Beer where it is now and where it is going. The panel included Paul Jones, an owner of the Manchester based Cloudwater Brewery, Ian Garrett from CAMRA, Sue Hayward from the Welsh brewery Waen which has just closed its brewery in favour of 'cuckoo' brewing at other sites, Jenn Merrick the brewer at Beavertown in Tottenham, the beer writer Matt Curtis and Claudia Asch from the IndyMan organising team.

I didn’t quite last for the entire debate (I had to visit the toilet- this does happen at beer festivals) but it must be said that a good deal of the discussion was quite familiar to me. Not just the beer bit but also questions about what makes businesses tick and what doesn’t. As a trade union officer in the private sector I often have these discussions with employers.

I wasn’t taking either minutes or notes so my discussion of what was said is firstly only a summary (not in order) and secondly unreliable. Not however hopefully so unreliable as to attribute to someone something they didn’t say.

While I wouldn’t be quite so evangelistic about craft beer as Matt Curtis, preferring to see the world in neither black or white but shades of grey, he did make a very good point that in the US even the most depressing of bars usually offered a good range of craft beer. That is far from the case here. But is beer drinking so different in the US that this could not reasonably be expected to happen here?

Paul Jones noted that Cloudwater had never styled itself as a ‘craft’ brewer focusing instead on brewing ‘modern’ beer- styles that appeal to changing tastes in the beer world.
Jenn Merrick, previously the brewer at Dark Star, one of the UK’s most well-known producers of cask beers such as Hophead, took a broader view. Beavertown produce mainly keg beer but she felt that they were very much in the same marketplace as the large scale producers of cask beer. Further she didn’t think cask was particularly on its way out (Sue Hayward argued that the future was keg) and that there was a possibility that new developments in cask could put current trends towards keg in the shade. Interestingly she also noted that the largest selling beer in Fuller’s pubs was often a Beavertown brew- probably Gamma Ray which is unpasteurised but sold under light gas pressure.

Ian Garrett added an important corrective by underlining that the vast majority of beer currently drunk in the UK is in cask and this can’t simply be ignored. The point was made during discussion that larger and better capitalised ‘craft’ brewers were one thing but many smaller, microbreweries found difficulty in getting on bar tops in a very competitive market. Sue Hayward felt that many smaller brewers struggled to get by, but this is often the case with small businesses in general. They are squeezed out by larger competitors.

In the case of beer we have been here before. It was in large part what led to the formation of CAMRA in 1971. A Company like Grand Metropolitan which had no history in brewing managed to acquire both Trumans and Watneys breweries, merge them and in due course destroy them. No doubt the thirst of shareholders for value was satisfied. Drinker's thirsts were not.

An attempt at a Craft Brewers Alliance a couple of years back- with some of the larger brewers at its core- has not been taken forward. Perhaps not least because one of the brewers, Camden, sold to mega-giant ABInBev. The reality is that without a sustained campaigning effort to keep and protect breweries that produce good beer- however defined- rather than good profits with an industrial product tasting vaguely like beer as the commodity concerned- the pressure for takeovers and closures will remain.

The elephant in the room was of course the now completed takeover/merger of SABMIller by ABInBev to create mega giant brewing concern operating in 70 countries across the world. SABMiller is quoted on the London Stock Exchange and it was the largest ever takeover deal there.

The Editor of the Good Beer Guide, Roger Protz, is certainly right that the big picture in beer is the battle between ABInBev and much smaller breweries whose concern is making excellent beer not huge profits (welcome as the latter obviously are).

Views on the matter of craft beer are as numerous as those who drink it. CAMRA has decided to delay the decision of its Revitalisation Project because there is so much to consider.
As someone who stays resolutely on the drinking side of the bar, I have a simple test though. If a beer tastes good (looking good is another matter) then I’m not too bothered how it's dispensed or what it’s called. This should be about enjoyment.
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