Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Pub Tie, should this sacred cow be shot?

The Small (or as some would rather know it, Craft) Brewing sector is under attack once again, while many revel in the fact that there are now more breweries in the UK than any time in the last couple of hundred years, the threats are increasing to this sector almost as fast as pubs close and more breweries open to serve the remaining few.
In the midst of all this booming and busting we have the "old Lags" of the regional brewers, I remember about 20 years ago being told by one of their number (when there were less than 100 micros out there) that we were seen as a bunch of upstarts who had no "right" to be in existence - effectively we should pack up and go home, leaving the "Traditional" brewers to make their Mild, Bitter, and Best, continue to decline and fade away, until the last one closed its doors as the shareholders cashed in their chips on the prime development land on which the breweries stood.... The beer drinker who looked for quality, tradition and variety could then be left out in the cold, forced to brew their own, or be left with the last decent brews in the UK coming from Belgium (no, I do not mean Stella - that's brewed in Wales for the UK market!).
Eventually the numbers of small brewers grew, it became obvious that they were here to stay, and by steady campaigning by a few dedicated and unpaid long forgotten names, Jim Laker, Phil Freakly, Paul Soden, Dave Roberts, Carolla Brown, a few of whom are left in the industry but their efforts long forgotten, the unthinkable happened, Progressive Beer Duty was achieved, and suddenly it was everyone's bright ideas which had bought it about, the pioneers long forgotten.
With the advent of PBD, even more breweries have sprung up, to the point where we are today, many breweries, few pubs, and the Old School breweries that remain, barking like dogs in mangers at the nasty uncouth newcomers with their fancy ideas, innovation, and PBD.
The backdrop to this has seen most of the very big brewing capacity ownership go overseas with the likes of AB Inbev, Coors, Heineken to name a few of the few. Pubs have become discount lead through the deals set up with Pubcos on the dissolution of the tied estate, the pubcos now feeling the crunch of overextended credit, continue to push both suppliers and tenants to patch up the cracks with more money, beer is a commodity, as are employees. The city boys running the pubs fail to see what the independent (and in many cases successful) sector have known for a long time, provide character to your pubs, staff who care (because they own the pub!) and quality with genuine choice and customers come. Screw the staff, insist on a restrictive and inflexible beer list, and cut everything to the bone and the staff don't care any more than the customers do, stay at home and drink there.
Meanwhile, we have the mewling wingeing and howling from the Family Brewers, those people who bleated that the small brewers should not be there, who have been too slow and stuck in their ways (with a few exceptions) to respond to the 21st Century challenge of multimedia entertainment competing with their tied pubs and those nasty crafty people making everything from traditional beers through to the newer golden styles, spiced beers and even real lagers!
The response of this sector has been to launch broadside after broadside, taking it it turns week after week to attack what they see as unfair competition from the new brewers, instead of competing, the only medal they can win is the moaning medal for the Olympics rather than anything for innovation or pub development. The small brewers seem to be caught like rabbits in a car headlight, waiting for impact, thinking that if they sit there proclaiming that "they believe in PBD", it, just like Tinkerbell, will be saved by everyone crossing their fingers and   wishing hard. Well, it isn't like that, the Small/Craft brewers have a bigger fight on than I think they realise, while the sectors own representatives sold them down the  river while preserving their own operations in the pub supply department for the sake of not being embarrassed next time they are on the piss with their chums from the BBPA or the Pubcos, the rest of the brewers out there can see what is really going on. Even Camra in the form of Roger Protz has felt it necessary to wade in and comment on the fire being aimed at the Craft sector  in place of it defending itself, like a bystander stepping in to stop a young pup which doesn't realise that it can bite back when threatened without loss of face.
I do not want to see the traditional breweries (what's left of them) disappear any more than I want the Craft sector to shrink, but enough is enough, spurred on by the limp wrist appeasement by SIBA, they now think that their tied estates are safe, that they should be the only brewers on the block, and with the opening of the game-bird season, so comes the opening of the Craft brewer season.
The answer? Craft Brewers need to kick back independently, the emollient stand taken by Siba has made it look weak and politically toothless, the Brewers need to independently get into the press, state our case, the Family brewers claim that with every duty rise PBD gets bigger as a discount from the true duty rate, but according to basic maths, so does the fuel cost, and the cost of materials and the cost of employment, so that argument is well shot on the wing. While they moan away in their wood clad boardrooms, many of the family brewers vigorously hold on to their block exemption for their tied houses (conveniently forgetting that SIBA didn't gun hard for them at the last HMGovt review). If the Family brewers wish to play hard ball then it is time the brewers took the high ground, next time the chance comes have a bloody good dig at the tie, ask your SIBA representative why they are sat on their hands, and ask the Family brewers why they would rather moan about the Craft sector instead of innovating , opening up their protected tied estates, and get into line with the small brewers to get PBD for them too (the European definition would include them as small brewers and they could get PBD!).
Moaning about the price of beer from Craft brewers is not the answer, most Craft Brewers have got plenty of experience of "special" deals being done by the very brewers complaining that PBD brings cheap beer.
The threat to brewers, our own industry future, is greatest from within, poor representation in the name of appeasement, and Dog in a Manger stick in the mud attitudes from the "traditional" element really don't help either.

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