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.

Recognise the union and bring in the punks! The future of Brewdog
Friday, 24 May 2024 10:45

Recognise the union and bring in the punks! The future of Brewdog

Published in Eating & Drinking

Is there a way forward for Brewdog? James Watt has stood down as CEO of Brewdog after seventeen years. He has become ‘captain’ and a non-executive Director. His replacement James Arrow was previously at Carphone Warehouse.

Brewdog started very small scale in 2007 with Watt and Martin Dickie, who had previously had a hand in creating Thornbridge’s Jaipur IPA. The Company managed to persuade Tesco to stock their beers and there followed a range of groundbreaking cask beers, including the flagship Punk IPA. There was nothing else like them in the UK market.

Over time Brewdog opened bars and became associated with a wider public as the leading craft beer brand. In 2024 if you go in any supermarket you’ll find Brewdog beers on sale.

Along with the beer James Watt was also known for publicity stunts. I was there when Brewdog’s first London bar which was in Camden opened in 2011. It was marked by Watt riding around Camden in a tank.

It was Brewdog and the original excellence of its beers that built the interest and market for craft beer in Britain. If you look at craft beer in 2024 you'll find many who one way or another came into the industry via Brewdog. The experience was quite frequently far from positive employment-wise but the impact was and is undeniable.

Following the departure of James Watt as Brewdog CEO, there was some interesting commentary on what this means for Brewdog The beer writer Pete Brown in the trade paper The Morning Advertiser rightly underlined how groundbreaking the original Brewdog beers were(on cask and in bottle). He went on to argue that James Watt became a sort of punk figurehead to promote the brand, but that the era of Brewdog has now passed.

James Beeson in The Grocer, another trade journal, pondered whether trying to manage the transition from a garage brewer to a multinational one was part of the reason for the numerous issues that followed Watt around. In short Watt may have been an inspired marketing man, but a people manager he was not. This is far from uncommon across the industry.

Beeson noted that despite increasing revenue, Brewdog is not profitable. This is perhaps not surprising – achieving such a status takes time. But time appears to be short. TSG, the US private equity group which owns over 20% of Brewdog, is due to cash in by August 2024. That could mean either a float on the Stock Exchange (IPO) or a sale to another brewer or private equity group.

Recognise the union!

We shall wait and see on that but there is one step the new CEO James Arrow can take right now to set Brewdog on a better path, and that is to recognise a trade union, in this case Unite which already has membership at the brewer.

Workers join trade unions to protect and advance their conditions and so employers have reasons to recognise them – and many large beer companies do. They can make sure there is an agreed and orderly way of dealing with issues so they don’t distract from the business (which is what has happened at Brewdog) and they can also considerably reduce the amount of money required to employ legions of HR managers

Whether it is possible to reform Brewdog by overhauling its employee relations is a moot point. What has not been discussed, mainly because coverage has been confined to the trade, is whether things could have been done differently, and perhaps could be in future.

One model is for ownership to be on a co-operative basis, a mutual relationship between brewer, workers and drinkers. That is probably not something that could be done at the moment on a global scale, but interestingly Brewdog did originally have an similar idea. Its Equity for Punks scheme allowed people to buy 'shares' in the brewer which gave them a 'dividend' of reduced beer prices.

It was not a share ownership scheme as the Financial Times pointed out, and neither was it really a Co-operative where people had a genuine say in the business. In future though that could be done and it was the kind of idea promoted by Labour Governments in the 1970s, albeit perhaps not entirely satisfactorily.

Bring in the punks!

Another way forward would be for a future Labour Government to recreate something like the Carlisle State Brewery scheme which started during World War One and ran until the early 1970s. The Government owned the only brewery in Carlisle (having shut the others) and all the pubs in the area. The commitment was to produce good quality beer at reasonable prices in decent pubs.

There was in part a temperance focus to the scheme which might also feature in the 2020s. A nationalised Brewdog brewery and its pubs could actually do a lot to fulfil the original dream of Dickie and Watt. Great beer in good pubs would set the standard for others.

Of course it shouldn't just be left with the state taking control in top-down fashion. There would need to be a structure that created something like the original punk ethos, one where brewers, employees and their union and drinkers all had both a stake and a say.

That could in time develop a model which would be a working alternative to the global big beer that currently dominates the market. The market can't be abolished in the short term, but an intervention of this kind could promote better beer, better pubs and better conditions for employees.

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.

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.

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!

Delicious

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.

Beyond Dry January and alcohol: the key role of the pub
Saturday, 09 January 2021 14:14

Beyond Dry January and alcohol: the key role of the pub

Published in Eating & Drinking

Keith Flett celebrates the key social role of the pub

As we enter the New Year the Dry January campaign is once again active. It is a registered charity and it aims to persuade people to abstain from alcohol for a month, after a supposed festive season of excess.

While no doubt Boris Johnson and Co. did manage some seasonal excess, that was far from the reality of Christmas 2020 for many.

Dry January, although it never says so, has a particular place historically in wider campaigns to cut down on drinking. In calling for people not to drink at all, albeit only for a month, it is at the extreme end of what used to be called the temperance movement. That is those who were teetotalers. Others were happy enough for people to drink beer and focused their concern on consumption of spirits. Hence the slogan ‘strong drink is raging’.

In the Carlisle State Pub Scheme from 1916, which was partly inspired by temperance motivations, while the strength of the beers sold in Carlisle pubs was reduced – and the quality improved – consumption of spirits required special treatment. Large glasses were used and water to dilute the spirit accompanied the drink.

Dry January is however about promoting alternatives to all alcoholic drinks and it is correct in saying that there is an increasing demand for this.

Writing in The Guardian, veteran beer expert Roger Protz noted correctly that while low or no alcohol beer used to be hardly drinkable, it has improved a lot. He cited Adnams Ghost Ship which is a 4.5% pale ale but also has a low alcohol version that sells well. There are also specialist low/no alcohol brewers such as Big Drop. Meanwhile Kernel Brewery in South London has done much to promote very hoppy Table Beers, usually at around 3% alcohol.

That wouldn’t satisfy Dry January, but it is very popular with those who like a beer but don’t want to become intoxicated.

One of the key motivators of temperance supporters (accepting that it can have a positive side, which I’ve written on before) is that people only drink to get drunk and behave in a socially irresponsible way.

That seems to be very much in the mind of all four UK Governments as they have closed hospitality without any significant evidence that (for example) pubs, which have had strict controls in 2020, are a particular source of COVID infections.

There is an alternative campaign, run entirely on a voluntary basis and loosely linked with the Campaign for Real Ale amongst others.

Try January (@tryanuary on Twitter) is about continuing to try new beers and new styles. It’s mostly done virtually at the moment, by ordering beer for delivery – many craft brewers now have significant online shops – or from off licences.

Consumption of the beer is then often discussed and 'shared' on social media and sometimes via zoom meetings.

It still offers some sense of the social benefits that the pub provides, and indeed CAMRA branches have run online ‘pub’ meetings.

It also means keeping breweries going by buying beer they can’t sell in pubs, keeping people in work and where pubs are doing takeaway, keeping them going too. Rather different from the idea of Dry January!

It also suggests a wider agenda about the pub, community and social relations that both myself and Phil Mellows have previously touched on.

During one of the brief non-lockdown periods in 2020 I looked through some issues of the weekly socialist paper The Clarion, published in the early 1900s. The paper has been fully digitised and is available online, although paywalled except in academic locations such as the British Library, where access is free.

Clarion image

The Clarion promoted socialist fellowship and culture, perhaps notably with cycling. It straddled an audience that used pubs and those who didn’t, and carried some reports of temperance hotels and pubs. These were attempts to emulate the social atmosphere of the pub, but with non-alcoholic drinks such as ginger beer, dandelion and burdock and Vimto. The view was, even from those who were well disposed towards temperance, that these were that these were austere and unfriendly places.

This reminds us that the role of the pub is very far from just being about drink. This was the point of Labour’s 2019 ‘pub is the hub’ policy.

The reality that pubs and bars were shut more often than they were allowed to be open in 2020 rests on an official assumption of what happens in pubs. One can find numerous statements on the matter, written fairly obviously by people that rarely visit a pub.

The caricature is that pubs are places where people gather to drink as much as possible, shout loudly at one other, crowd together and generally engage in behaviour that encourages the spread of infection.

No doubt examples can be found – just as very occasionally a Tory MP can say something sensible.

In general, however, pubs are socially controlled environments and that is one of the key reasons for the legal and licensing framework in which they sit. Pubs are licenced by law, and the landlord or manager must also hold a personal licence. For people to be drunk (or for that matter asleep) on licensed premises is an offence.

In addition pubs, when open in 2020, were COVID-19 safe environments in a way that very few other places were.

On occasion this was recognised. The Welsh Labour Government did keep pubs open a little while longer than some, because it was recognised that it was safer for people to mix there than in unregulated private homes. They were also places where people, especially those who lived on their own, could meet and enjoy the company of others in a social way.

Fundamentally it is as much the social context of the pub and drinking that temperance promoters dislike as the drink itself. Here we can make a useful distinction from those, primarily in the medical profession, who voice concerns about drink because they have to deal with those who over -ndulge and the impact on their health.

This takes us back to the Carlisle State Pub scheme which ran until a Tory Government privatised the operation in 1971.

The pubs offered a decent quality of beer, food and quite often leisure facilities such as games. This combination welcomed all sections of the community, and proved to be both very popular and very profitable. So much so that before long, temperance campaigners who had pressed for the move during World War One were demanding its end.

In times like these the social role of the pub, safely managed, should be valued and promoted.

Big Beer and Big Capital - What is to be done?
Saturday, 31 August 2019 13:01

Big Beer and Big Capital - What is to be done?

Published in Eating & Drinking

Keith Flett discusses the challenge of Big Beer and Big Capital in 2019/20. What is to be done to resist and oppose them?

Beer writer Roger Protz has noted the strategy of Big Beer:

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….

The question of what the strategy of Big Beer and Big Capital is for the 2020s has come into sharp focus in recent months. Firstly, by Japanese brewer Kirin’s takeover of the Huddersfield craft brewer Magic Rock. Secondly, by the sell out of Fuller’s brewery (and with it Dark Star) to Asahi and finally (so far) by Greene King’s sale of its brewery and pub to a Hong Kong-based property company.

I agree with Protz that one of the aims of Big Beer is to control the market, and produce mass market beers which will claim to be ‘craft’ but will be of lower quality and more bland than ‘genuine’ products. That process will usually take time. It is the outcome of a series of decisions that capitalist businesses make about cost savings and efficiencies in order to retain or boost profit levels.

It would be a mistake, however, simply to expect a re-run of the 1960s. In that period regional and smaller brewers, often those which had failed to invest or keep pace with changing markets for various reasons (but not always) were swallowed up and closed. Their beers, or at least their best-selling beers, were produced elsewhere in much larger breweries. At the same time the Big Six, Watneys, Whitbreads and the like sought to monopolise not just beer production but beer sales. They did that by growing pub estates and making sure only their products could be obtained in wide geographic areas – Watneys in East Anglia for example.

Richard Boston, who wrote on beer for the Guardian during this period, noted the case of a drinker who had left an East Anglian pub, fed up with the quality of Watneys beers, only to find that every other pub in the area also sold Watneys – and only Watneys.

I don’t think the 2020s will look quite like that. For a start Big Beer is now definitively global. It still has some interest in shutting down a brewery it buys and brewing the beer elsewhere. Where would that be? To an extent it can be contract-brewed and at the moment that can be in the rest of Europe as much as the UK – it’s unclear what impact Brexit will have on that.

It may not have a big interest in owning pubs, unless of course as with the Greene King sale the new owner is actually a property company. What it does have an interest in is making it financially attractive for pubs to carry its products, and not those of genuine independents.

Moreover, unlike the 1960s it’s not really about reducing beer ranges and promoting a few big brands. These already exist. The problem is that the profit to be made out of them by Big Beer is not as high as it was, while the profit out of the (much smaller) craft beer market is higher.

The Big Beer combination could therefore be to reduce the cost of making craft beers they acquire (and in doing so make an inferior product) and to seek to make them as widely available as they can.

That means of course not just pubs but supermarkets, restaurants, cafes. The shape of the beer market looks a bit different in that respect to the 1960s.

A preliminary summary might be that the broad trends that Big Beer pursued in the 1960s remain, but that the context of the 2020s is somewhat different.

What is missing in the above is the input of an independent campaigning voice for beer drinkers. CAMRA arose out of the impact of Big Beer in the 1960s. It is still around – but can it, or others grapple with Big Beer 2020s style?

Roger Protz has suggested on social media a summit of CAMRA, SIBA and others to determine proposals to be put to Government – once there is one that is actually concerned with day-to-day Government.

But what should be proposed? As ever it is much easier to oppose than argue for a positive and realistic way forward.

One idea might be to return to the model of the State-owned brewery in Carlisle that was started during World War One and lasted until the 1970s. Its aim was to set a benchmark for good beer, family-friendly pubs and of course moderate drinking habits amongst munitions workers and others.

I have no issue with reasserting that idea but in a world where global beer and capital operate it can’t be the entire answer.

Another is to strengthen legislation (which currently operates in England) to allow community bids a first crack at buying a pub under threat of closure. That would make property-focused takeovers like that for Greene King less attractive.

More is still required. Perhaps it’s time to designate a range of regional brewers as producing something unique to the UK and put strict regulations around anyone trying to interfere with it. Much for example as the EU has done (remember them) with Stilton cheese.

Finally, if not State or municipal ownership, perhaps local or national authorities could take a golden share in some leading breweries, meaning they could not be sold without a reviewing process.

Some possible ideas for the manifestos which are no doubt being hastily drafted at the moment? Because it all depends, of course, on who gains power in any forthcoming general election.

Beer for the many in 2019
Wednesday, 30 January 2019 09:59

Beer for the many in 2019

Published in Eating & Drinking

Keith Flett surveys the beery landscape of 2019, and considers what a Labour Government could do about Big Beer

You don’t need a crystal ball to know that beer in 2019 will follow trends already evident in 2018. In craft beer there is a perpetual search for new styles or takes on old styles that will prove popular. For example in 2018 we saw a proliferation of Brut IPAs. 2019 will certainly see something different.

But beer and beer drinking are much more than style wars amongst craft brewers.

We might identify a couple of areas which may influence the broader area of pubs, beer and drinking in 2019. The first is Big Beer and the potential impact of Brexit (or not) and a possible recession. The second is a potential Labour Government and what it might do, or at least plan to do, in this area in its first 100 days in office.

Following ABInBev’s acquisition of Camden Town brewery in 2015, the news that Heineken was to take a significant stake in Beavertown in Tottenham was probably the most controversial brewing news of 2018. The funding is designed to get the long talked-about new brewery ‘Beaverworld’ built. Its location is in Enfield, not far from where ABI built a new brewery for Camden. The concern of course was – and is – that over a period Heineken will simply take total control as they did at the US brewer Lagunitas.

To any Marxist it is hardly news that capitalism is about consolidation in a quest for profit and ultimately, if left unregulated, monopoly. Also in 2018 Japanese brewer KIrin bought Fourpure in South London, while Carlsberg continued to develop its reshaping of London Fields Brewery

For those who like their beer local, community-based and small-scale Big Beer is anathema. I might broadly be in that category, but it is not one that is easy to sustain within the framework of market capitalism. Alternative structures of ownership, around co-operative production might work better.

The drinker might in any case query whether this actually makes any significant difference to the beer they end up drinking at the bar, or acquire from a supermarket or craft beer bottle shop.

The answer I think is problematic for the left. Some beer pundits claim that beer produced by Camden’s new ABI brewery or indeed by Beavertown’s outsourced operation in the Low Countries (the current brewery being at capacity) is as good as anything they’ve done before. With Big Beer comes quality control (hence a more consistent product) but also cost control (hence sometimes a weaker beer). Big Beer can and does compete on price to force competitors out of the market. Again however this can mean that decent beers such as Camden Pale Ale or Beavertown Neck Oil start to appear in bars where previously the choice was much less inspiring. And the aim of most craft brewers is to get better quality beers into the hands of the public.

Whether Big Beer plans further UK activity in the craft beer area in 2019 we shall see, but it’s worth keeping in mind that the companies in question operate on a world scale and may feel they have made sufficient headway in the UK for now.

More likely perhaps is the acquisition of small-ish craft brewers by larger or regional brewers. Again it is a familiar process of industrial concentration of ownership. The end of 2018 saw York Brewery rescued from administration by Black Sheep brewery for example, itself some years ago a spin-out from Theakstons Brewery, which it stands next door to it in Masham, North Yorkshire.

A new Labour Government

Should an incoming Labour Government aim to do anything about all of this?

In the first period of a new Labour Government there will be other priorities and in any case state intervention in a situation which has seen a huge expansion of breweries and beers in the last 10 years needs to be thought through carefully.

It was tax changes introduced by Labour that promoted the boom in the first place, and perhaps a first step would be an Inquiry, a device beloved of Labour Governments in the 1960s and 1970s, to assess what issues prevent it from developing further. How much for example the activities of Big Beer on pricing and supply are anti-competitive, balanced against the reality that the price of a pint of beer is already expensive for many people on low incomes.

Combined with that might be a look at the whole structure of the industry and whether alternative methods of ownership might work both in terms of breweries and of pubs. Here we could expect to hear a considerable amount of moaning and groaning from the Beerage – breweries who support and donate money to the Tory Party

There has been a long-running lobby, primarily by the larger regional breweries, who are now the core of the Beerage, to change tax rules on the amount of beer produced. Their argument is that the tax breaks given to smaller breweries impact unfavourably on them and that the cut-off point where standard tax is paid should be raised so that they also can benefit from it.

It is a complex issue not least because while socialists are unsympathetic to the politics of the Beerage, the regional brewers support a considerable number of unionised jobs, and a pub infrastructure in the areas they operate in.

This takes us into the wider area of pubs and how beer gets into the hands of the drinker. A future Labour Government might well look at cut-price beer in supermarkets (minimum alcohol pricing may impact this but is designed to address different issues) and controlling the market. One senses that taking on Tesco and Sainsbury’s might be an even tougher battle than the Beerage.

Beer for the many not the few will require not just inquiries and legislation but popular campaigning too.

A drinking culture for the many, not the few: the importance of beer and pubs
Saturday, 01 September 2018 09:33

A drinking culture for the many, not the few: the importance of beer and pubs

Published in Eating & Drinking

Keith Flett offers some ideas on how a socialist Labour government could improve our drinking culture.

In the stimulating essay on Culture for the Many, not the Few: Notes towards a Socialist Culture Policy, the authors state this:

In our social cultures of eating and drinking, we face the terrible effects of profit-seeking capitalist corporations, loading our food and drink with sugar, salt and fats, causing immense and increasing mental and physical health problems.

It is certainly true that the power exerted by 'Big Food' and the problems caused by the monopolistic behaviour of the big supermarket chains are a real cause for concern. The ‘food deserts’ that exist in many towns and cities are one of the key reasons why many lower income, working class people have such poor diets today.

These poor diets are often made worse by pressures from corporate capital, supermarkets and discount chains on people to consume too much alcohol. This leads to problems of physical and mental health, homelessness and crime, including violence in and out of the home, and money worries.

Corporate capital thus has a double-sided influence on our eating and drinking cultures – it is a massively powerful engine of production, enabling and enhancing the development of our social natures through the culture of eating and drinking, but it also insidiously tends to privatise, corrupt and destroy some of the pleasures and benefits of that culture, because of the drive to make profits for the few rather than meet the needs of the many.

This article aims to begin to explore these issues specifically in relation to beer-drinking and pubs, and to suggest ways that a socialist Labour government could improve this particular cultural activity.

The pub as the hub

The pub is a central part of British cultural life, certainly for the many, but not necessarily fully inclusive even in 2018. Not everyone drinks alcohol, for a range of reasons from personal preference, to cultural and religious belief. In addition pubs have been seen and actually were male centred environments – think of the Working Men’s Club – and people under 18 were not always particularly welcome.

On the other side there is what is known as the ‘tavern drinking’ school of social history. This is a subset of scholarship relating to the work of EP Thompson – who himself was certainly not adverse to visiting the pub. It sees the pub as a cultural institution of the left, very much in opposition to dominant and mainstream cultural formations.

One need only look at radical working-class history in the first half of the nineteenth century to see that from the Luddites to the Chartists, the pub was a central meeting place. This was perhaps particularly so after the 1830 Beerhouse Act, which led to a considerable increase in pubs, perhaps a little like the micro-pubs of today.

KF community pubs camra campaign

The idea of the ‘pub as the hub’ of local community activity has long been one promoted by the Campaign for Real Ale. CAMRA was founded in 1971 to combat moves by the big corporate brewers to replace traditional cask ales with bland, artificially carbonated keg beer. To its credit, it has been one of the most successful consumer campaigns of recent decades, and has also been active in trying to stop pub closures. Recent legislation in England, supported by CAMRA, allowing pubs under threat to be classified as Assets of Community Value (ACV) has helped. This would surely be one area which a Labour Government could look to strengthen through legislation.

The wider and biggest issues that such a Government would have to grapple with however are arguably twofold:

1] How to make pubs genuine centres of community activity rather than places where people down as much alcohol as possible to their own detriment, but to the profit of the drinks industry

2] How to make sure that the drink provided, beer particularly, is of a good quality and sensible price.

These two aims are surely complementary. Traditionally, pubs have supported a variety of social activities ranging from pub games through support for local music, theatre and other performing arts, to support for local football clubs and beer festivals. A pub which recognises its important role in the local community and offers well-kept beer at a fair price is far more likely to have a bright future and avoid becoming a casualty of the current wave of pub closures.

We also need to acknowledge that temperance has had and still does have a place in the labour movement. After all Jeremy Corbyn himself is certainly not a drinker. Indeed from Keir Hardie onwards, Labour leaders have generally not been enthusiasts for alcohol, the exception being Hugh Gaitskell and Harold Wilson who drank brandy – and the tonic wine Wincarnis, according to Private Eye!

There is a need to find a way between the hardliners of Alcohol Concern, who would probably ban all drink if they could, and the drinks industry that simply wants to make greater profits out of selling as much of it as possible, regardless of the health, wealth and happiness of consumers.

KF carlisle

Possibly the best available model is the Carlisle State Management scheme. It was introduced in 1916 both in Carlisle and in an area of Enfield with a view to controlling the drink consumption of munitions workers. It coincided with other measures to reduce pub opening hours generally and to cut the strength of beer. It took a good while to move away from the impact of both of these.

However there was a positive side to the Carlisle scheme. Good quality beer was produced at reasonable prices and before the 1970-74 Tory Government sold the brewery and pubs to Theakstons, as part of their ideological drive for privatisation, Carlisle beer was revered by drinkers. The pubs themselves were also models of community use. Food was always available, while a close eye was kept on the consumption of spirits. Initially ‘treating’, the buying of rounds of drinks, was also forbidden.

How would this translate into the modern day? A Labour Government could acquire a brewery and its associated pubs and use both to try and set a standard in terms of quality and price. Alternatively a State brewery could be set up, again with the idea of providing a template of best practice like Carlisle.

Of course the impact on the wider drinks and pub trade would be limited, so a Corbyn Government would also need to look at other measures. Controlling multinational drinks companies like ABInBev and Heineken is beyond any UK Government, and would demand international action, just as regulating and controlling media companies like Google and Facebook demands international action by democratic socialist governments. However, it should still be possible to put a national regulatory framework in place that would shift matters a bit towards drinkers and brewery workers.

A modern version of the Assize of Ale could be linked in to local licensing committees. They might also be charged with checking and regulating both prices and quality of beer sold, perhaps in association with activist groups like CAMRA.

Alcohol duty could be constructed in such a way as to both regulate the profits made by brewers, and to make sure that fair prices were charged. Regulating the market in this way would not be easy, and again the Government could set the tone and benchmark with its own version of the Carlisle scheme.

A safe and comfortable environment for all

The key remains the promotion of the pub as safe and enjoyable environment for all, whether drinkers or not. This might usefully include consideration of how to reflect their traditional role in providing space for multi-generational engagement, avoiding the social problems associated with the ‘vertical drinking establishments’ introduced in the 1980s, which are a cynical move to boost takings and ensure pubs are exclusively attractive to younger people. There are tensions here which are well known. The common good, not profit, was the motivation of the Carlisle State Management scheme, but in the modern market-dominated environment pubs that don’t make a profit close, even when they’re clearly serving the common good.

KF fox and hounds

Again a Labour Government can address this and effectively downgrade the centrality of profit, by reducing business rates for pubs, and where pubs are leased from breweries or pub companies, cap the amount of rent charged. They can also act to prevent ties which mean that wholesale drinks have to be bought at higher than market prices, which then reflected in higher prices to drinkers – which also exploit the publican.

Finally, in all of this, Labour would need to be prepared to push back the complaints of the ‘Beerage’, that unholy collusion between brewers and right-wing politicians which emerged in the 19th century, as many of the larger regional brewers and brewing groups are supporters of the Tory Party. Don’t expect any of the above to get a good reception in the Daily Mail! Which is surely all the more reason to seize the opportunity to explore the counter-hegemonic cultural possibilities offered by social institutions such as pubs.

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