July/August 2018

The Great Craft Sell-Out

It’s a fact of life that most successful start-up breweries will end up being bought by bigger competitors

THE PAST few years have seen a growing trend of successful craft breweries founded in the modern era being acquired by the major international brewers. We have seen such well-known brands as Goose Island, Lagunitas and Ballast Point being taken over in the US, plus Meantime and Camden in this country. As “Opening Times” went to press, there were reports that Heineken was planning to buy a stake in craft favourites Beavertown.

This has resulted in widespread disappointment, even a sense of betrayal, amongst craft beer fans. Selling out to “the man” is, for many, hard to forgive. On the other hand, if the owners are offered well over the book value for their company, they can’t really be blamed for seizing the chance of a comfortable retirement. It also contains an element of railing against fate. It may be regrettable, but it’s simply a fact of business life that the most likely outcome for a successful start-up is to be taken over by a larger competitor. Very few go on to spread their wings and fly independently in the way that BrewDog has done.

There’s a strange reluctance to recognize any merit in beers produced by the major breweries. In the 70s and 80s, CAMRA was very critical of the market dominance of the then “Big Six”, but it always accepted that they did produce some excellent real ales. Yet many craft fans are unwilling to touch anything in which the big boys have had a hand. But surely it’s entirely possible for a big company to produce a good beer, just as a small company can make a poor one. This comes across as an exercise in cutting off your nose to spite your face.

This wave of takeovers is significantly different from those that occurred in the British brewing industry in the 60s, 70s and 80s. Then, the prime objective was to get hold of smaller competi­tors’ tied estates and distribution networks. Promises may have been made about maintaining production at original sites, and keeping brands going, but they were rarely worth the paper they were written on.

The more recent ones, however, are about acquiring beer brands, not outlets, and so there is much more of an incentive to maintain the brand equity. Inevitably, in many cases, it will end up being eroded over the years by changes in recipe and production methods, but if they’re not careful the buyers end up destroying the value of their own purchase. It’s also hard to see the takeover of a start-up only a few years old as quite as much of a loss as that of a business that has been established for several generations and become part of its local community.

Every small business start-up has a life-cycle, and there will come a time when the owner wants to move on. Most micro-breweries eventually just shut up shop because the owner has become too old, or unwell, or has lost interest, or isn’t making a worthwhile profit. If you look at the micros from the first couple of decades of CAMRA, few are still in existence in any form. Companies like the remaining family brewers, who have been in existence for a hundred years or more, are very much the exception, not the rule.

Brewing remains an industry where, compared with many others, the barriers to entry are very low, as shown by the fact that over 1,500 new breweries have been set up in this country in the present century. The loss of some favourites may be regretted, but we are likely in the future to see the cycle of cool new start-up turning into corporate acquisition repeated over and over again.

May/June 2018

You Could Be Next

It is short-sighted in the extreme for anyone involved in the pub trade to welcome minimum alcohol pricing

ON 1 MAY, Scotland became the first country in the world to introduce a system of Minimum Alcohol Pricing, with the rate initially set at 50p per unit (10 ml) of pure alcohol. The claimed justification for this is that it is a way of reducing problem drinking but, given that it is estimated that it will affect 70% of all alcohol sold in the off-trade, it is an extremely blunt instrument. It is in effect punishing ordinary people of limited means for the problems of a minority. A couple could easily be made £200 a year worse off without even exceeding the very low official consumption guidelines. Recent figures from the Office of National Statistics have shown that the UK is the fourth most expensive country in Europe for alcohol, so it’s not exactly cheap in the first place.

It also comes across as a fundamentally patronising and √©litist measure, implying that it is fine for the well-heeled to continue swigging single malts, claret and craft ales, but that the irresponsible proles are not to be trusted with an abundance of Carling, Glen’s Vodka and Lambrini. As the famous Victorian liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill said, “Every increase of cost is a prohibition to those whose means do not come up to the augmented price.”

It’s questionable to what extent it will affect the consumption patterns of problem drinkers anyway, and some may end up sacrificing other areas of expenditure. As the old Russian saying goes “Daddy, now that vodka is more expensive, will you drink less? No, my son, you will eat less.” It is also likely to lead to a whole raft of undesirable consequences, such as cross-border smuggling, bootleg brewing and distilling, and a switch to illegal drugs. Not so long ago, a Sheffield student had her eyesight permanently damaged by drinking counterfeit vodka, while five Lithuanian men were killed in Boston, Lincolnshire, by an explosion at an illegal vodka distillery. Minimum pricing could lead to more such tragedies.

Some in the licensed trade have welcomed the move as a way of redressing the price imbalance with the off-trade. However, it isn’t going to give anyone a single extra penny to spend in pubs, and it is hard to see how increasing the price of a can of lager from 60p to 90p is going to encourage anyone to spend £3.50 or more for a pint in the pub. It could even damage the pub trade by constraining household budgets and leaving people with less discretionary spending money.

It’s also an unedifying spectacle to see one part of the alcohol industry lining up alongside the anti-drink lobby in a misguided attempt to gain some short-term advantage over another section. As Winston Churchill said “An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping that it will eat him last.” Surely all producers, retailers and consumers of alcoholic drinks should be united in opposing the neo-Prohibitionists rather than squabbling amongst themselves.

At a level of 50p per unit, it’s unlikely to affect any drinks sold in the on-trade, although it could hit some of the stronger guest ales sold in Wetherspoon’s after applying the 50p CAMRA discount vouchers. But the pub trade should bear in mind that the study by the University of Sheffield used to support the policy actually concludes that the most “beneficial” results would come from setting differential minimum prices for on- and off-trades, with that for pubs and bars more than twice as high. Any advantage gained from minimum pricing could turn out to be short-lived, as the spotlight turns to on-trade pricing. So, if you’re remotely inclined to support this measure, don’t forget that you could be next on the list.

March/April 2018

A Matter of Taste

Asking for tasters of beer is an affectation that is of little real value to the customer

THIRTY years ago, when most pubs just offered a fixed beer range, the idea of asking for a taster would have been greeted with derision. More recently, though, as ever-changing guest beers have increasingly become the norm, it has become much more common. If you’re confronted with an array of ten beers you’ve never heard of before, it’s not unreasonable to ask for a sample before committing yourself to spending what now can often be approaching a couple of quid just for a half.

However, the range of flavours encompassed by the great majority of beers is fairly limited and predictable, so you’re unlikely to end up with something that really frightens the horses. If it doesn’t suit your palate, then just don’t buy it again. It’s also doubtful whether a small sample really gives a fair impression of what a beer is like. It’s said that you don’t fully appreciate a beer until you reach the bottom of the glass.

It’s also something likely to incur the wrath of both bar staff and other customers if you do it when they’re three deep at the bar. You can imagine the cartoon of “The man who asked for a taster in Wetherspoon’s at 10.30 on Friday night”. And it does seem to appeal to a certain type of person who specialises in making a nuisance of himself. With sufficient chutzpah, it can easily be exploited to get a significant quantity of beer for free.

It’s sometimes argued that offering tasters is a good way of encouraging people to try cask beer. But surely it just adds a layer of mystique to the subject, and the best way of promoting cask must be to keep it in good condition and offer beers that people actually want to drink and are likely to make repeat purchases. And nobody should be asking for tasters to check whether the beer’s in good condition. You have a reasonable expectation in any pub of not getting a duff pint and, if you do, the remedy is to take it back and ask for it to be changed.

Yes, if a beer has an unusual or challenging flavour, then offering tasters makes sense. But, for the great majority of beers, it’s just an affectation on a par with putting little jam jars of beer alongside the pumps to indicate the colour. And you never see people ask for tasters of lager, do you?


Good Money After Bad

In spending vast sums on refurbishments, are pub operators chasing their own tail?

THE ECONOMY’S growing steadily, unemployment is at a ten-year low, and pub operators seem to have plenty of money to invest. Scarcely a day goes by without reading of some pub or other reopening after a £250,000 refurbishment. One local pub reputedly had a cool £1 million spent on doing it up. But, looking at the industry as a whole, you have to wonder what benefit it produces. Is it actually generating new business overall, or is it just dragging the same customers around the stock of pubs in a giant game of musical chairs?

I would have thought all that even the tattiest pubs need is a deep clean, new wallpaper, upholstery and carpets, perhaps a bit of new loose furniture and, if appropriate, some new kitchen equipment. The vast majority of refurbishments, when they involve any structural alterations, end up leaving pubs worse, not better. Maybe customers are attracted by novelty, but that soon wears off. The best pubs, in my experience, are those that haven’t been knocked around for decades, and benefit from continuity and familiarity. But maybe, if you’ve already thoroughly wrecked a pub once, you’re fatally committed to wrecking it again every five years. It’s like a drug where you have to keep on increasing the dose to get the same effect.

January/February 2018

Nobody Else Has Complained

Returning defective beer to the bar can all too easily become a minefield

CASK BEER is a natural, living product and, as such, with the best will in the world, it’s inevitable that occasionally you’ll be served with a sub-standard pint. What matters is not that it’s happened in the first place, but that the pub deals with the issue swiftly, politely and without quibble. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work out that way, and an ill-mannered and unhelpful response can easily put a dampener on an enjoyable evening. Indeed, the whole business of returning beer to the bar can be something of a minefield.

The first thing is to be specific as to exactly what it is you’re complaining about. If the beer is obviously cloudy or vinegary, then you should have a cast-iron case, although opinions will vary on what degree of haziness is acceptable. However, there are other faults that are not so clear-cut, for example being served far too warm, lacking in condition, having a noticeable off-flavour, or simply being generally tired and end-of-barrel-ish. If you’re in a pub where you’re a regular and are known to the licensee and bar staff, such a complaint might be taken seriously, but in a strange pub you could well feel that you are chancing your arm.

It’s also important to be clear about your objective when making a complaint. Obviously the best solution is to be given an acceptable replacement, either the same beer which has been pulled through, or a new cask tapped, or a suitable alternative. Failing that, the aim should be to be given a refund, which you may well prefer if it’s the only cask beer on sale and you don’t fancy a Carling as a replacement. Or, in some cases, just venting your spleen will leave you with a sense of moral satisfaction.

The last two outcomes, though, imply that you’ll be bringing your visit to an end. If you’re in the middle of a pub crawl, or there’s an alternative pub nearby, that might be entirely acceptable. But in other situations, for example having a meal or social evening with a group, you might not want to do that, and thus be reluctant to create a fuss. You’ll just quietly leave the sub-standard pint, and put up with Guinness or Diet Coke for the rest of the proceedings. And, even if you gain a moral victory, creating a confrontational situation may end up leaving a sour taste in the mouth and spoiling your evening.

In general, attitudes to changing sub-standard beer have improved over the years. The days of “everyone else is drinking it” or “real ale’s meant to look like soup/taste like vinegar” are largely a thing of the past. One of the worst responses I recall was “but you’ve drunk some of it!” Well, if I hadn’t drunk any, how would I know it was foul? But that kind of quibbling hasn’t entirely disappeared. Given the amount of goodwill at risk, compared with the gross profit on a pint, it’s hard to see why pubs continue to argue the toss about changing beer if customers present a reasonable case.

Some will point out that, if you stick to mass-market lagers and smooth beers, you won’t have any of this problem with variability. However, the point about cask beer is that, when it’s good, it reaches heights that keg never can, and the occasional duff pint is a price worth paying for that. If you stick to pubs in the Good Beer Guide, or ones with a decent reputation locally, you’re unlikely to have much problem. And keg beers, especially small-batch “craft” ones, are by no means immune from faults either.