All Things in Balance

@gaedd: 'We can't build a great British brewing industry on cheap beer, so I'm shredding these.' [Wetherspoon's Vouchers]

The above heartfelt Tweet from brewer Eddie Gadd kicked off another round of debate on beer pricing, Wetherspoons, pub preservation and the purpose of the Campaign for Real Ale this week.

We can see where Mr Gadd is coming from, but we can also see Tandleman’s perspective:

@tandleman: "@gaedd Beer for the rich? Good slogan. Concerned about this sort of casual thoughtlessness."

But, after a decade or so thinking about all this stuff, we now feel quite capable of squaring the two: Spoons can be a problem, but it is also part of the balance.

We wrote a post about ‘healthy beer culture’ a couple of years ago and, in the meantime, it’s become something like a philosophy for us. A Britain with nothing but 3.5% cask ales would be miserable and monotonous, as would a world with nothing but Foster’s and Stella, as would a diet made-up only of keg IPAs.

A situation where every pint costs the equivalent of £5 would be exclusive; but if every pint cost less than £2 (barring sudden massive tax breaks) we’d have very little choice and probably very few really great breweries.

The reason we’re not very good at taking sides is because we don’t want any particular side to win. The ongoing tension is what keeps things vibrant.

The comparison that often comes up, and came up in the debate this week, was corner shops and supermarkets. Supermarkets (with which Wetherspoon pubs have much in common) are said by their opponents to suck life out of town centres and to make it impossible for small businesses to operate. But we find it hard to imagine that if our local Tesco shut everyone would suddenly start shopping at the local Deli or Farmers’ Market. They simply couldn’t afford to, even if they were so inclined.

Similarly, we find it hard to imagine that if every Wetherspoon pub shut down, it would do much to help non-chain pubs. Perhaps they’d feel a slight bump but many of those exiled Spoons drinkers would just give up on pubs altogether and drink at home.

In fact, lots of people, like us, probably do a bit of both: supermarket for bulk products and to fill up the fridge with affordable every-day beers; specialist suppliers for oddities, treats and things where (unfortunately, in some ways) we’ve learned to tell the difference. And a mix of trad pubs at £3.40+ a pint and Wetherspoons to make the money go further.

Wetherspoons sign: All Ales £1.69.

Wetherspoon pubs are now an essential part of the mix. (It could be any value-focused chain but they won that battle.) They make interesting beer (terms and conditions apply) and nights out accessible to people with less cash in their pockets and/or in towns where there’s otherwise not much going on. But they shouldn’t be allowed to completely dominate and need to be kept in check — perhaps the reason there isn’t much going on in some towns is partly because Spoons arrived? As it is, a balance seems to be found quite naturally in most places. Penzance, for example, has a busy, popular Spoons, but also plenty of busy, popular proper pubs too.

(We do think CAMRA’s relationship with Wetherspoon’s is ethically tricky: a consumer organisation sponsored by a retailer is clearly problematic. But that’s a separate issue.)

35 thoughts on “All Things in Balance”

  1. Spot on. I’ve always thought that at Spoons you’re paying for the beer and little else. At ‘proper’ pubs you’re paying for the whole experience.

  2. Well put – there’s room for both. Some people are prepared to pay a premium for better/rare/different products; others don’t have either the means or the inclination to do so. And most reading this blog will sometimes be happy to pay extra for something special that they wouldn’t do on a regular basis.

    And I don’t think the argument stands up that – in general – draught beer in British pubs is too cheap. If too much of the price goes to the government or the retailer rather than the brewer, that’s a different debate.

    Spoons also seem to have found their level in the market. The recent round of disposals suggests they’re not the irresistible force some feared a couple of years ago.

    1. “The recent round of disposals suggests they’re not the irresistible force some feared a couple of years ago.”

      ’Spoons has always churned its pubs, getting rid of the bottom end to buy more at the top end. Last time I checked, around a third of the pubs it has ever owned it has now sold.

      1. They’ve churned them a lot more in the past couple of years, though. In the past they only tended to sell obvious failures or ones where they had acquired a better venue nearby.

        1. It does look like they’ve stepped up the disposal programme recently. Tim Martin is on record as saying that they have gone too far in some towns by opening two sites, and many of those currently fall into that category.
          Saving a big chunk of property costs and working on an assumption that some customers will migrate from one branch to the other looks like good economics. What will be interesting will be to see who buys the sites, for example Brewhouse & Kitchen have bought two in the North West.
          For a trade purchaser, these sites are difficult to value. Usually when assessing an acquisition, you look at the existing numbers and project based on your plans for the site, but this is tricky with a Spoons; as B & B argue, a number of Spoons customers are likely to react to closure by simply visiting pubs much less often.

  3. I once used a CAMRA Wetherspoons token on a pint of Gadds Dogbolter. Seems a bit odd to complain about cheap beer whilst selling to ‘Spoons, voucher or no voucher.

    1. Yes, I sell to them wholesale once a year if I can. Their wholesale price is ok and I can’t survive on the free houses on their own – there’s a huge increase in breweries out there, and drinkers want to try them, so I need other customers too. But I don’t think that prevents me from complaining about the effects of big pub co promotional activities. I’m not advocating over-priced beer – I’m in East Kent, it’s a poor area.

      My point remains: the purchasing power of pub cos drives the wholesale price so low it affects the ability of brewers investing in quality. So when your beer is below £3.00 a pint, just reflect on why.

      I hope that Dogbolter was good, and I hope it was worth considerably more than you paid for it 😉

  4. I can only concur.

    As someone who drinks about a thousand pints of beer a year, most of which is cask and probably less than 5% of it in a ‘Spoons, I just think of the vouchers as the equivalent of “frequent flyer air miles”.

  5. I’ve been wondering for a while about the CAMRA discounts you can get in some independent bars, some of which are quite substantial – 15% in Mary & Archie, 25% in the Font (both Chorlton). The other night I had a pint at £4.20, which the CAMRA discount reduced to £3.15 – a much better deal for me, but where’s that money coming from? Do they get it back from the brewer, by imposing a 10% price cut, say (on the basis that 40% of their cask beer is sold at a cut price to CAMRA members)? Or does it just come ‘off the top’ – out of the bar’s margin – and if so is that sustainable?

    Cask beer discounts also have the weird effect of making craft keg even dearer – I followed up that £3.15 pint (5.5%) with a £3.30 half (7.2%). Another reason to push for recognition of RA-inna-KK!

    1. I suspect it mainly comes from setting the non-discount price a little higher than otherwise. (That’s how discounts are generally funded) So it’s the other drinkers who subsidise us CAMRA types. Brilliant!

  6. It might have been knocked off in 15 minutes but this is one of the best things you’ve written for ages. Sums up and rounds off this particular debate very well – definitively I’d say.

  7. What John said. I can see Eddie’s point, but I think when you say “They make interesting beer (terms and conditions apply) and nights out accessible to people with less cash in their pockets and/or in towns where there’s otherwise not much going on. ” that’s a great point.

    We really do have to think about pricing people out of pubs. JDW have their faults but at least they contribute to the idea of pubs where a mixed crowd can still be found. OK – you may not like some parts of that crowd but that was ever thus.

  8. Your assertion that CAMRA is “a consumer organisation sponsored by a retailer” is factually inaccurate. JDW provides a benefit for CAMRA members; it does not sponsor the organisation itself. Plenty of individual non-Spoons pubs also offer discounts to CAMRA members: should we refuse those too? Should we also refuse the discounts from other companies that provide CAMRA membership benefits such as Cotswold Outdoor, Cottages.com, Hoseasons, Sealife, National Express, Red Letter Days or Beer Hawk – the last two also being beer-related benefits? There is nothing to stop any other PubCo offering CAMRA discounts, except for the fact that the business model of most has saddled them with massive debts, a problem entirely of their own making.

    There is a lot of snobbery involved in this issue. I’ve sometimes read beer writers complain that beer is too cheap. I suspect it’s because they are quite prosperous and they don’t want to rubbing shoulders with the hoi polloi, who would be weeded out by price. Personally, I’d rather spend an evening with drinkers of lager or smooth in my local than with beer snobs. If it’s not snobbery, then as a customer I don’t know what it is, seeing that in most other areas of retail, getting a bargain is generally regarded as a good thing.

    Is beer to cheap or too dear? It’s worth noting that in 1972, I was paying 13p for a pint of bitter and 11p for mild. Using the Bank of England inflation calculator, such sums now equate to £1.55 and £1.31 respectively, and those are the kind of prices we’d be paying (here in the North anyway) if inflation had been the only pressure on beer manufacturing and pricing.

    I do agree with the suggestion that having a mixed economy of prices is healthy, and I think it’s quite likely that if JDW had never existed, we’d all be paying even more for our pints. Unlike beer snobs, people on limited incomes will be glad that’s not the case.

    Shredding your Spoons vouchers is up to you, although there seems to be a certain level of economic masochism involved in rejecting a discount. Making your intention to shred your tokens public is simply exhibitionism.

    1. Nev — I guess we could have said something other than ‘sponsored’ but the point’s the same, I think. And, actually, we do think there’s a potential problem with pubs giving discounts to CAMRA members, especially when it is members (one way or another) who decided which pubs get into the GBG and so on. We’ve certainly heard, and heard of, grumbling from publicans who feel pressured to offer a discount, or at a disadvantage if they don’t. It’s another example of where, even if it’s all above board in every case, it could be perceived as a conflict of interest.

      And Eddie (a pro brewer) shredding his vouchers is a bit different to Joe Bloggs CAMRA member making a big deal out of doing so, although even that could be legitimate political statement couldn’t it?

      1. Well, it is a conflict of interest – CAMRA represents beer drinkers, and drinkers’ interests aren’t always going to be aligned with brewers’ or even publicans’. (Remember the early suggestion of a change of name to “the Beer Drinkers’ Union”!) Things are never going to be all cheery beery when we’re talking about money. We don’t want to antagonise brewers or licensees, but equally we don’t want them taking the p. on pricing, and discount schemes are a good way to guard against that.

        1. The key point is that the discount isn’t just offered by Spoons at point of sale – the vouchers are sent out under the auspices of CAMRA, and so there’s a strong implication that the two are hand in glove with each other.

          I can’t honestly get very worked up about it, but I agree that it does create a potential conflict of interest, and it could put CAMRA in an awkward situation if Spoons started doing something they really didn’t like. For example, Tandleman’s reports suggest that it might make sense to remove cask beer from some of their Scottish outlets.

          Spoons do benefit greatly from having CAMRA onside. If CAMRA were constantly badmouthing them it would generate a lot of adverse publicity, given that they are a very prominent national pub chain with a single undifferentiated offer.

  9. Shred vouchers if you want but If you are still drinking in spoons all your doing is ensuring 50p a pint more goes in tims pocket. personally I’m rarely in spoons not sure if that’s principles, snobbery or fact that this side of town relatively spoon free and it’s not a dog friendly chain.

  10. I would agree that a brewer shredding his JDW vouchers is not the same as ordinary members doing so, not because he’s making a political point, but because it’s no more than a publicity stunt.

  11. “But we find it hard to imagine that if our local Tesco shut everyone would suddenly start shopping at the local Deli or Farmers’ Market. They simply couldn’t afford to, even if they were so inclined.”

    And many would also struggle to find the time to go with their working hours and commutes, compared to longer opening chains.

    That’s definitely a major factor why I – for instance – only really went to a butcher’s round the corner (closed Sun and fairly early Sat) from a previous bedsit when on the dole when I had all week.

    Whereas now with a 1.75-2h commute it’s mostly only chain supermarkets – and the odd late opening corner shop – I can get to after work on a weekday. (Ordering online to collect from Doddle at the train station has helped with time poverty on weekdays too, and occasionally benefits small traders and not just Amazon).

    1. Good point – it’s often overlooked that supermarkets offer convenience as well as low prices. Independent local shops opening the traditional 9-5.30 pm hours and closing on Sundays are of limited use to working people.

  12. And as someone on 30p above minimum wage I agree with Tandleman.

    Though stupidly because they’re staggered over the year, every year I’ve managed to lose/forget about most of my CAMRA beer/scrumpy vouchers…

  13. Good reasoning. Personally I’ve no problem with the existence of ‘spoons, nor with them selling cheap beer. It is a decision for the brewer to make whether or not they sell ‘spoons beer. And a decision for the drinker to make whether or not they buy ‘spoons beer. And if ‘spoons want to buy the custom, loyalty, and GBG-votes of CAMRA members with a special offer that seems like a sound business decision. (Plenty of independent pubs do this too.) Brewers complaining about ‘spoons buying rules/prices have the simple option: don’t sell ’em beer! Some seem happy enough with it, but I bear in mind that small brewers in my region seem to enter existential difficulties soon after ‘spoons deals. (I’m not blaming the ‘spoons deals, it’s more likely selling to ‘spoons is the death-gasp of a failing brewery.)

    But – I do dislike CAMRA letting them piggyback their publications. This was terrible PR for CAMRA “on the ground” when it comes to pub relations, yet another reason for publicans to hate their local branches. One thing that drove me away from being an active CAMRA member was the effect it had on getting on with publicans in a couple of my locals. (And it’s ultimately one reason I’m not a member any more, albeit not that I have the time or money for that malarkey.) If CAMRA HQ *want* to look like they bend over and take the corporate schlong up the backside that’s their call… I’ll have no part of it.

    This is a whole other argument though.

    1. Well, indeed – if brewers are happy to sell to Spoons, it’s a bit holier-than-thou for me to refuse to drink there, isn’t it?

  14. This has been fascinating. Many points have been made which I agree with and some I don’t, one of which is that you can buy your way into the GBG with discounts – a variation on the ‘free rooms/free butties and you are in’ nonsense.

    As chairman I would never allow such a thing to happen and, importantly, nor would my members.

    I do see the issue of conflict of interest as one thst has to be managed (much as Eddie manages his in selling beer to JDW) and of course Spoons benefit from it. Yes it helps keep CAMRA members onside but surely if you are selling cask beer, it is a fine idea to keep CAMRA onside. After all they come to your pub and sup the stuff. And actually to do so just sell the beer in top condition at a fair price. Trust me. If you do that no discount is needed.

    Discounting is part of retail. Membership benefits are part of membership organisations offer.

    Balance and perspective needed. And I disagree with Rednev about Eddie too. I think he is making his own stance and defending it. And why not?

    We all walk fine lines at times.

    1. I was quite careful with how I worded that bit about the GBG…

      It almost doesn’t matter whether it *actually* happens as long as a cynical observer might suspect or suggest it does.

      It’s a very similar issue to that other perennial, freebies for bloggers. In practice, we reckon most do play it straight, but it all muddies the water.

      1. CAMRA is a many-headed beast at branch level. I’m sure Tandleman’s branch is spic and span, but others may be less clean and tidy in how they manage things. (And it goes both ways, I know branches who make an effort to ensure ‘spoons is avoided. And that’s not fair/right either.)

        ‘spoons swinging votes with discounts is just a bit of decent marketing.

        CAMRA being the medium by which this marketing is promulgated to its membership feels at least slightly uncomfortable to me.

    2. I wouldn’t say you can explicitly buy your way in with discounts, but it’s certainly one way to attract CAMRA members to your pub, which means you get more Whatpub ratings and that indefinable “buzz” among the people who get to decide GBG entries. The motives will differ a bit in town and country, but don’t forget that there’s many rural branches that can be half the size of Greater London and they might have one big town at one end of the branch (say “Greenwich”) which means great pubs at the wrong end of the area (say “Croydon”) just don’t get many visits from the “critical mass” of members. Another reason for offering discounts is to persuade regulars to join CAMRA and hence have a say in GBG voting.

      I often feel when I go to a “foreign” area that about half the pubs deserve their place in GBG and half are maybe in there on inertia and local members having a soft spot for a place even if there’s another one down the road that’s just that 10-20% better.

      Obviously, this only works for pubs that are of a quality to join GBG in the first place, but there’s a lot more of those than there used to be, but the same number of slots in the book. I don’t think there’s as much turnover in GBG entries as there probably should be, and member discounts are one way to try and reduce the “friction” faced by newly deserving candidates, particularly outside the main “patch” within a branch.

    1. I recently had a couple of pints of Loddon Bamboozle in a Spoons, a beer which I’d never come across before and which was excellent. It was interesting to see a Thames Valley beer in a pub which normally concentrates on more local brands; a very good beer being exposed to new customers looks like a win/win.

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