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.
- Jim at Beers Manchester has been an unspoken critic of the Small Brewers Duty Reform Coalition for as long as it’s been around. This impassioned piece from January sets the context.
- Keith Flett explains how this might fit with the historic relationship between breweries and the Conservative party and suggests practical steps campaigners might take.
- Timothy Taylor’s rather weaselly justification for supporting the change is also worth reading.