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.

  15. I’ve done a blog­post with some thoughts about the pric­ing issue here.

    This tweet in response from Lod­don Brew­ery is par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ing:

    It’s a com­pli­cat­ed issue, but Spoons real­ly is an excel­lent, vital sup­port­er of inde­pen­dent brew­eries.”

    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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