As Soon as this Pub Closes: Beer and the Election
Friday, 19 July 2024 22:14

As Soon as this Pub Closes: Beer and the Election

Published in Eating & Drinking

Jeremy Corbyn is a lifelong abstainer from drink. Nevertheless, he has always shown interest in protecting pubs in his constituency, and so repaired with his campaign to the Bedford Tavern pub, in Seven Sisters Rd, North London, to watch Euro football games after canvassing. The pub was supporting his campaign.

Despite a welcome number of independent socialist and pro-Palestine candidates in the election, that is possibly the best story available related to beer and pubs. In the interests of balance, it should be noted that Liz Truss was the only candidate not to attend a 200-strong hustings in her constituency, because she was watching football in the pub.

Tsk tsk, CAMRA!

However, in the wider election campaign beer and pubs have featured in a big way.

Back in May, Rishi Sunak launched his campaign at the Vale of Glamorgan brewery in South Wales. As with much else in the Tory campaign, it was unclear what purpose this served. Sunak is not a drinker and South Wales is solidly Labour. Unfortunately in addition, and not for the first time, CAMRA allowed itself to be drawn into what was essentially a Sunak stunt. Engaging with politicians on beer and pubs is essential. Being part of their election campaign is not.

By contrast Keir Starmer is a beer drinker and referenced his local, the Good Beer Guide-listed Pineapple in Kentish Town during his own campaign. He also visited the nearby Three Locks microbrewery in Camden Town where he launched an initiative around help for small businesses which would certainly help small brewers.

Whether the policy will get past Rachel Reeves’s fiscal rules is another matter. It does however fit with CAMRA’s election platform. This called for a reduction in draught beer duty to help pubs compete with supermarket prices. The Tory Government made a very modest move in this direction. There is a call for a reduction in business rates for pubs, where they have a disproportionate impact on pubs business model.

The business rates policy was in both Labour and Tory manifestos. Labour also launched another policy (not in the manifesto) which would give local communities the right to buy pubs in their area which were shut and shuttered.

What about the workers?

This can all be seen as modestly positive, but as commentators noted it does nothing to address the very real issues of Global Big Beer and Giant PubCos. Indeed, Labour's business-friendly policies might well see them as allies, which for brewery workers, bar staff and drinkers they most certainly are not.

This leads to a focus on what were perhaps the key issues around beer and pubs in the campaign. Perhaps inevitably Nigel Farage and Brewdog featured. One of the Reform Party activists who Channel 4 have exposed as making racist, misogynistic and homophobic remarks has claimed that it was all just ‘chaps down the pub’ stuff. Not any pub I frequent, it isn’t!

Of course there is a history of the culture of middle and working-class Toryism. This culture focused on the pub, betting on sport, racism and sexism. It thrived when pubs consisted of mainly white men at the bar.

It was the kind of culture that the leaders of the first Labour Government in 1924, religious and often non drinkers deplored as something that would not help achieve social progress. They were right – but still needed the votes.

Times have changed. Pubs are struggling and most will only work if they are the hub of a local community attracting a wide cross-section of people, some of whom may not drink at all, but who come for sociable reasons, food or events.

Strangely this actually describes what many Wetherspoons are like, officially Nigel Farage’s favourite drinking spot. Tim Martin may be rather right-wing these days, but he has enough commercial sense to know that if pubs only appeal to the Clacton Reformers, they are on their way out.

In fact Martin made an election statement noting that he was not backing any party but had never been a Tory. Rather he was a Brexit supporter and aside from Boris Johnson and Farage he had also backed Labour Leave.

Brewdog’s descent continues

Tribune ran the story of an Asian worker at Brewdog Waterloo who was sacked after complaining about the presence of a large number of fans of the fascist Stephen Yaxley Lennon in the bar.

The occasion was Yaxley Lennon’s last outing into central London where he gathered far too many racists and fascists in Parliament Square.

On this occasion numbers of his fan club gathered in Brewdog Waterloo before heading to Parliament Square. Reports suggest that the police had informed Brewdog and asked them to stay open. This is quite usual for fascist gatherings. The police want them to be in one place where they can be watched.

What happened next however was not normal. A responsible employer would have informed staff due to work that day and suggested that any who would find it problematic could swap for another time. Brewdog, which refuses to recognise Unite Hospitality despite it having hundreds of members, did not act responsibly.

When an Asian worker complained and said they felt intimidated, the response of Brewdog was to proceed with discipline. Given there is no union, this is to put it mildly unlikely to have been a robust and fair process.

Brewdog is meant to be heading for an IPO-a public listing. How much more reputational damage can it sustain in its present format without some very significant change taking place?

Its AGM took place in Aberdeen on 29th June. Ahead of this, Unite raised a collective grievance on issues around workplace culture and pay to the new CEO, James Arrow. It was backed by Brewdog workers from 11 locations. Arrow has so far only responded with a general statement to all Brewdog employees.

Meanwhile in the world of global big beer, the battle for market share continues. Carlsberg Marstons has put in a bid for the soft drinks producer Britvic. So far it has been resisted. If Carlsberg are successful, it could raise their share of the UK market considerably, to 26%.

All this raises the key question of what is to be done. How about this:

1. An incoming Labour Government needs to be kept to its promises on help for small businesses and pubs, and lobbied on lower beer duty in pubs. It’s work that CAMRA and SIBA could do.

2. The impetus created by Unite on unionising bar workers needs to be supported and developed.

3. Independently owned and run pubs need the support of pubgoers, drinkers or not, and it is to be hoped that the incoming Government will stick to its word on this issue and help them to survive and thrive.

4. There needs to be a renewed focus on restraining the activities of global big beer on pub and brewery ownership. This might start to develop from action on points 1-3.

Culture Wars in Beer
Friday, 19 July 2024 22:14

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.

‘London Murky’, Mrs. T., and the politics of the haze craze
Friday, 19 July 2024 22:14

‘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!