Sunday, 15 October 2023 09:52

Cask Ale, Private Equity and Class Politics

Cask Ale, Private Equity and Class Politics

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.

Read 663 times Last modified on Wednesday, 18 October 2023 13:12
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.