Categories
News opinion

Small Brewers’ Relief – why tinker with it now?

Image: Nick Kane, Unsplash.

This week, the Government announced its intention to reform the small brewery relief scheme (SBR) in ways which will significantly disadvantage some smaller breweries.

The news of this step was dumped alongside a bunch of other fiscal policy on the eve of parliamentary recess. It came less than a fortnight after a ‘mini-Budget’ at which, under a regime less inclined to chaos and knee-jerk responses, you might have expected a proper announcement, debate and supporting paperwork.

The history of the policy is interesting. It wasn’t introduced with the lofty intention of boosting the number of breweries but to provide then Chancellor Gordon Brown with something positive to announce in the spirit of ‘Have a pint on me!’ It wasn’t brilliantly designed or carefully thought through – its success has been an accident.

But changing it now will destabilise the industry or, rather, cause turbulence on top of turbulence. It’s likely that dreams will come crashing down and businesses will fold. (What does that feel like? Here’s some new evidence from a much-missed voice.)

People are understandably concerned – even furious and upset in some cases, and not without justification.

We believe the breweries lobbying for it have made a strategic error; and we, like others, might be less inclined to buy their beer or speak positively of them as a result.

And we don’t really buy the ‘Poor us – we’re being undercut by these upstarts’ argument. It sticks in the craw somewhat to see breweries who own hundreds of tied pubs, to which they often sell their beer at above the market price, complaining about distortions in the market.

It’s also a bit confusing as to which breweries support this policy. Several breweries have already distanced themselves from the initial pressure group, suggesting that what might have been portrayed to the government as a significant industry grouping is more like a handful of very specific interests. Beer Nouveau is keeping an updated list to help consumers identify who exactly has been pushing for this.

We’ll be using this list as a reference point, although we’ll stop short of an outright boycott of the supporters of this policy, for the following reasons.

  • This behaviour isn’t surprising. We’ve never thought of, say, St Austell as anything other than a ruthlessly commercial and politically conservative.
  • It might be unappealing, selfish and hard-nosed but it isn’t immoral or illegal. Breweries are businesses and this is how businesses behave.
  • We believe their grabbiness is borne out of anxiety. One of the great flaws in the system is that even the biggest, most successful businesses are only ever one short step from failure. And family breweries especially have proven vulnerable in recent decades.
  • Some of these breweries are culturally important. It’s in nobody’s interest to see Taylor’s or Harvey’s, among the last of their kind, go out of business.

And yes, we happen to really enjoy products from some of these breweries.

But maybe, when we’re thinking about where to go this weekend, we’ll be more inclined to go somewhere that supports the hard efforts of smaller breweries to compete in these difficult times.

What we might also do is write to our local MP – a calm, personalised, heartfelt letter explaining why this policy causes us concern. (If you send copy-and-paste letters they tend to get categorised as part of a campaign and are treated differently in the system.)

And we hope industry bodies – or perhaps newly formed coalitions of affected breweries – will make their case persuasively to the Government.

It would also be good if the larger breweries who have pushed for this think long and hard about what they’re doing and what sort of message this sends out to consumers.

Despite the tone of the announcement, this is still a policy under consultation. It’s not too late to turn this around, especially with a government so prone to changing its mind in pursuit of short-term applause.

Further reading
Categories
Generalisations about beer culture opinion pubs

You can’t judge a pub on one visit

One of the reasons we are doing #EveryPubInBristol is because we did #EveryPubInPenzance and discovered that we couldn’t always judge a pub from the way it looked.

We like to think we know pubs reasonably well and there were five pubs in Penzance that just never appealed based on the way they presented.

We decided to go to them all before we left and we found that one was much better than we’d expected and was added into our regular route; three were actually fine; and only one was genuinely bad. And because of our general interest in the history and culture of pubs, almost everywhere had something for us to observe or learn from, good or bad.

However, 252 pubs into our Bristol mission, we’ve started to question whether one visit is really enough for some pubs. So much of what makes up an experience in a pub is transitory – the staff who were on, the other punters during your visit – before you even get into what the beer tastes like, changes to the decor, and so on.

When pubs get refurbished and new managers take over, we do try to make an effort to revisit as this kind of thing can drastically change a place. But other changes might be more subtle – perhaps we visited during the day when there’s a calm older crowd and missed the fact it has a DJ and dancing on a Saturday night. Perhaps we visited on a particularly rainy or sunny day when the usual crowd stayed at home or went to the park. Perhaps the bartender who made us feel so welcome left for another job a week later and the place just isn’t as friendly now.

We think this is why it’s easier to judge places that have an identifiable guv’nor or guv’nors – that their personality, for good or worse, sets a fairly consistent tone for the place. And you can tell a lot by the regulars that they gather around them and the behaviours that are and aren’t allowed.

In contrast, the hardest places to form a view on are often managed houses, where staff and management turn over constantly. It’s hard enough to imprint a personality over what the pubco or brewery has decided is the in look this season (usually several years out of date) even when you do have a steady team.

There’s a pub between our house and the centre of town which constantly switches between being a decent pub with acceptable food and drink to a complete kitchen and cellar nightmare. We end up visiting every six months to see what phase it’s in. To be fair, we probably wouldn’t bother at all if it wasn’t on our way home.

This of course is where a good local CAMRA branch comes in useful, particularly if members are attuned to factors beyond beer quality – it’s great to get local intelligence on which pubs have changed hands recently and a hint as two whether the change is for the better, or the worse.

We suppose, in a roundabout way, what we’re saying is that pubs are like living things. That’s great news if you like exploring pubs because over the course of five years, 250 pubs might equate to 1,000 pubs, in terms of the experience of visiting them.

And another thought: perhaps this is why pubs that don’t change – that can resist it for, say, 20 years or more – feel so special.

Categories
Belgium opinion

Why Belgium is the perfect playground for a beginner beer geek

If you’ve decided that you’re going to get into beer, the chances are you will go through a Belgian phase. You may, in fact, never come out of it.

Look at these obsessives, for example, who go to Belgium multiple times every year and find endless fascination in the country’s beer.

We’ve identified five factors that we think make Belgian beers to appealing to ‘beginner’ beer geeks – people at stages three to five – beyond the obvious fact that Belgium is home to many of the world’s greatest beers.

1. Variety

When you first encounter Belgian beer, there’s an impression of boundless choice. Even the most basic bars have lengthy beer lists, usually with enough options to offer something different throughout a weekend city break. The beers on offer range from brain-dissolvingly sour to syrup sweet, and often come with tantalising, almost romantic descriptions.

2. Familiarity

Most Belgian bars will offer a set of reliable classics – the Westmalles, Chimays, Duvel, and so on. So, while there is a lot of choice, it’s not like drinking in a modern UK taproom where the beers change constantly, week by week, like fugitives trying to evade detection. In Belgium, it’s easy to identify favourites and go back to them as often as you like, as you get to understand your own preferences.

3. Consistency

Most Belgian beers are served from the bottle, and most of these breweries have been bottling for a very long time, so when you drink Westmalle Tripel it will taste more or less the same wherever you drink it, unlike with draught beer (and especially cask) where so much depends on the venue. Caveats apply: we have noticed consistency issues with Abt 12, for example, which put us off drinking it for a while.

4. Ritual

On the ground in Belgium, at least, there are the matching glasses, the perfect pours and the general reverence for the product that seems to apply even in non-beer-geek places. Every glass of beer is the most important in the world at the moment it’s served. And if you like reading, there’s plenty to read, from the history of the distinctive yeast to the tales of individual breweries.

5. Quirkiness

Pink elephants! Trolls! Peculiar glassware! It was made for the Instagram age. It’s just fun.

* * *

Are there downsides?

Well, perhaps the generally higher strength of Belgian beer might be offputting to the average British person.

It certainly took us quite a while to adjust to a sensible Belgian drinking pace.

And actually, the alcohol burn can seem overwhelming at first, like the whisky wall we wrote about in last month’s newsletter. We remember considering Chimay White undrinkable the first time we tried it because all we could taste was ethanol. Of course we love it now.

For some, the Belgian scene might also seem a little conservative. There are new breweries and styles emerging – certainly enough to quench our curiosity whenever we visit – but we guess it is difficult for new players to enter the market.

On the whole, though, Belgian beer strikes just the right balance between novelty and solidity. It’s vast but knowable. Often complex but rarely ridiculous. Very weird but absolutely everyday.

Categories
Generalisations about beer culture opinion

Crediting others with sincerity

Why is it so hard for people to believe that other people really enjoy drinking the beers they say they enjoy drinking?

We saw another small outbreak of second-guessing last week when Matt Curtis wrote in glowing terms about Harvey’s Sussex Best – a beer we also happen to love.

To paraphrase, the suggestion we saw float through the timeline was that Matt and others don’t really believe Sussex Best is better than, say, Greene King IPA – it’s just that it’s trendy, or at least on the approved list of Beers You’re Allowed to Like.

The same thinking sometimes seems to be behind the dismissal of ‘craft murk’ – that is, hazy IPAs and the like – and sour beer, lager, or any other style you care to think of.

Here’s what we think the thought process looks like:

  1. I don’t like this beer.
  2. I find it impossible to imagine anyone else liking this beer.
  3. People who say they like this beer must be deluded, or lying.

The assumption that everybody else’s opinions are either (a) part of a herd response to hype or (b) deliberate contrarianism… Well, it gets a bit wearing, to be honest.

After all, taste is a delicate mechanism. Even in this team, Jess is barely sensitive to light-strike or skunking, while Ray is; Ray isn’t especially attuned to diacetyl, but Jess is.

We can’t speak definitively for anyone else, of course, but we know this: when we say we’ve enjoyed drinking something, it’s because we enjoyed drinking it; when we say we don’t, it’s because we don’t.

And we try to assume the same of others.

Of course there are times when you might question the motives of a reviewer – do they have a commercial relationship with the brewery? Are they paid to undertake PR on its behalf? Did it send them a lavish hamper of freebies?

We do also think that some beers are better than others, where ‘better’ means ‘more likely to appeal to people in a given group’, whether that’s beer geeks, mainstream drinkers, traditionalists or whichever.

But we’ve no reason to doubt that Tandleman gained real pleasure for his pints of Morland Original, or that Al found something to appreciate in Tennent’s Lager, or that Brad has never had a beer from The Kernel that was “anything short of outstanding”.

Categories
Generalisations about beer culture opinion

On beer scenes

We’re currently working on a big piece about the Leeds beer scene, hopefully to go live next weekend, which has got us thinking about the very idea of ‘scenes’.

To qualify as somewhere with a ‘beer scene’ there are a few requirements, we reckon:

1. Multiple interesting pubs, bars or beer exhibition venues. One micropub, taproom or bar does not a beer scene make. And they really do need to be within walking distance of each other – the basis of a crawl. There probably has to be at least one legendary, must-visit venue.

2. Punditry. If you’re visiting Boggleton, who do you ask for advice? Who’s written a local guide, whether as a book, website or blog post? Have Matt Curtis, Jonny Garrett or Tony Naylor been in town taking notes?

3. Events. Bottle-shares, meet-the-brewers, tap takeovers and the like. We don’t particularly like events but there’s no denying that they bring scattered beer geeks together, creating and signalling the existence of a community.

4. Festivals, plural. Not just the local CAMRA festival, although those are important, but alternative events organised outside that infrastructure. Especially if they’re focused on particular niches – lager, sour beer, green hops, and so on. (Again, we rarely go ourselves, but…)

5. Faces. The people who make things happen, are at all the events, who drink maybe a bit more than a civilian might and put their money where their mouths are. They’re also the source of low-level soap opera (Thingumabob’s fallen out with Wossname; So-and-so’s left Venue A to work at Venue B). And, of course,  they’re the ones to watch when it comes to the next generation of bars, breweries and beer business.

6. Tourists. If beer geeks build their holidays around your town, city or region, it’s probably got a bona fide beer scene. In general, it needs to be a city or larger town. Falmouth almost pulls it off, as did Newton Abbot for a while, but there almost needs to be a sense that there’s just too much to get into a single long weekend.

What do you reckon? Anything obvious we’ve missed?