Keith Flett

Keith Flett

Keith Flett is convenor of the socialist history seminar at the Institute of Historical Research and has been a member of CAMRA since 1975.

Brewdog: what is to be done?
Friday, 18 June 2021 11:30

Brewdog: what is to be done?

Published in Eating & Drinking

Keith Flett contributes to the debates around Brewdog

If you drink craft beer you are probably aware of the crisis that has hit Scottish brewer Brewdog after a group of ex-employees, Punks With Purpose, published a statement detailing experiences of harassment and discrimination while they were working for the company.

Some media commentary noted that there are always disgruntled ex-employees, but ignored the reality that the statement has attracted the support of hundreds of people, most of whom still work in the beer industry.

Brewdog in the UK is certainly the best-known craft beer brand. Its beers are in supermarkets and its main brand Punk IPA is on the bar in Wetherspoons. There are regular publicity stunts – some worthwhile around climate change or helping the NHS during the pandemic, others less appropriate. Engagements with politicians are also common, not only with Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, but also Keir Starmer, who has also done publicity appearances in Brewdog bars.

Brewdog is seen as the progressive modern face of beer, something different from the traditional and conservative brewing trade. The Punks with Purpose statement underlines that the reality is very different.

There is a good deal of commentary already by beer writers like Matthew Curtis and Melissa Cole which is well worth seeking out. Cole in particular underlines that she has seen numerous apologies from Brewdog in the past which have made no obvious difference to what actually happens.

Brewdog in the form of co-founder James Watt has apologised, and indeed it is still issuing apologies as more people sign the Punks statement. The first reaction was to argue that of course some former employees didn’t get on with Brewdog but that many had a great experience. Watt asked existing employees to sign a statement agreeing that it was a good place to work. That approach didn’t last long before Watt issued his first apology, which agreed the complainants had a point and matters would be looked at.

The next apology reported that Blythe Jack had been appointed the new chair of Brewdog. Reports made something of her gender – and indeed female chairs of Companies are still far fewer than would be merited if that was the criteria for appointment. However she is in fact a senior figure in Brewdog’s private equity investor TSG, and one suspects her appointment is as much to do with protecting their investment after last week’s furore. She has in fact been on the board of Brewdog for some years without any obvious changes to culture being made. There is some speculation that she might in fact be preparing Brewdog for a launch on the Stock Exchange.

More interesting perhaps is the appointment of Ren Navarro, a diversity consultant who has worked widely in the hospitality area in North America. A glance at her social media indicates that she does indeed ‘walk the walk’ on issues of discrimination. How welcome that will be to quite everyone at senior levels in Brewdog remains to be seen.

Partnerships with trade unions

My experience as a union officer in private sector companies much bigger than Brewdog is that while people who work in the diversity area are invariably well intentioned and want to make positive changes, they often do better when they are in partnership with recognised unions.

Senior figures in companies have many issues to pursue and may need persuading that diversity is up there with the most important. If they see that not only their own specialist team but the unions who represent their workers are on board, that is often a key motivator to make progress.

The latest James Watt apology underlines that there will be an independent survey of Brewdog workers, and complaints will be listened to. One might think that given the culture that has prevailed it would indeed be a brave employee who spoke out on issues in the survey unless they had already secured a job elsewhere.Watt also announced that there would be an ‘employee forum’, which any trade union activist will recognise as a device used by employers to frustrate attempts at union recognition.

So what is to be done?

There have been suggestions of a consumer boycott. Brewdog is a global beer company now (albeit not a big player) and its secure market position in the UK suggests this would not worry Watt too much. It would also be very difficult to organise.

The yawning gap between Brewdog’s image and reality could however be narrowed by recognition of a trade union. Both Unite and London IWW have members at the brewer. A union can provide a genuinely independent framework for employees to raise issues and get them resolved without, in most cases, the need for external publicity. It is of course mundane, but it means in this case Brewdog can get on with brewing beers and workers can get concerns heard without worrying that they are placing their entire employment future on the line.

Those who use Brewdog bars can play a role, not by boycotting them but by talking to staff about unions and why being a member is important.

Given that Brewdog likes to place itself at the cutting edge of beer, a more radical agenda could be considered. Watt could move towards making both brewery and bars into a more co-operatively run and owned enterprise. Not the anti-union device of employee shareholders but more on the basis of giving recognised employee union representatives a key role in decision making

It would be radical but that is how Brewdog has always liked to position itself in the world of beer – except when it comes to its own workforce that is. It’s notable that despite Watt’s love of eye-catching publicity, he hasn’t ventured into this area.

CAMRA at 50: will it combat Big Beer?
Thursday, 18 March 2021 20:04

CAMRA at 50: will it combat Big Beer?

Published in Eating & Drinking

Keith Flett mulls over CAMRA's history and its options for future campaigning activity

CAMRA is 50 years old in March. That is quite an achievement for a voluntary campaign, implying at least renewal through several generations of activists, something which is often hard to achieve. It now has 170,000 members and most will be active at least in the sense of promoting CAMRA’s raison d’etre, the production and drinking of good beer.

It is not a party political organisation or, in the main, a campaign that takes capital ‘P’ political decisions. After all drinkers of decent beer come with all kinds of opinions and none. All that said of course there are politics. That can’t be avoided for any campaign that operates in a capitalist market economy.

CAMRA is neither pro or anti-capitalist as such but strongly in favour of a ‘moral economy’ of beer. That is, a society where brewers and publicans can make a fair profit but the quality, price and supply of beer are influenced by ordinary drinkers.

When CAMRA started the outlook for beer and pubs was poor indeed. There had been a long process, accelerating from the 1950s, of brewery consolidation. That meant takeovers and closures. By the early 1970s beer in Britain was very largely controlled by what was known as the Big Six – giant brewing concerns such as Courage, Watneys and Whitbread. Since the breweries also owned most of the pubs, that meant a significant restriction of choice for the drinker at the bar. To put it in perspective, in 2021 London has well over 100 independent breweries. 50 years ago there were just two – Fullers and Youngs.

There was also the question of the beer the Big Six were producing. With the consolidation big brewing operations brought , cost reduction was looked for. That meant a move away from traditional cask beer to pasteurised keg beer, which was much easier to transport and keep in the pub without cellaring skills. One problem was that for many beer drinkers this cold, fizzy beer, served under gas pressure, was either tasteless or had a distinctly unpleasant taste. A related problem was often that as breweries owned the pubs, there was little escape from keg.

The beer writer Richard Boston wrote in his 1970s Guardian column of areas of East Anglia where if you didn’t want the Watneys Red Barrel served in one pub you could always try another. The problem was that also sold Watneys. There was a lot for CAMRA to oppose and that meant it had no choice but to confront the Big Six, aka Big Beer. That meant a range of campaigning tactics. The Big Six were lampooned – Watneys became Grotnys and Whitbread Twitbread. Pubs were boycotted and those that sold traditional cask ale promoted. The first Good Beer Guide to CAMRA-approved pubs appeared in 1974. At the same time campaigning pressure was exerted on the Big Six to draw back from keg and start selling cask beer again. Over time this campaigning pressure worked. Allied breweries were first producing a cask Burton Ale from 1976. Even Watneys finally gave in and brewed Fined Bitter real ale.

CAMRA pressure on large companies had its impact. They had to change their strategies and plans. Capital constantly revolutionises itself, or tries to, however and no battle against it within its framework is ever definitively won. The Big Six had to return to cask beer and more pubs now sold it. But the choice remained very limited. In early Good Beer Guides, symbols were used to show the range of beer available. To stretch beyond a mild, an ordinary and best or special bitter was unusual. Beer from the remaining independent breweries – around 100 of them – was very hard to come by, outside of their own local area.

CAMRA’s focus shifted to an extent to lobbying for changes in the law, under a Tory Government. No easy matter clearly, but it was achieved. The Beer Orders restricted the number of a pubs a brewery could own. That meant pubs were sold and saw the rise of pub companies. At the same time there was legal provision for a guest beer to be sold in pubs which were tied to particular breweries. Again it was a pursuit of the moral economy strategy of CAMRA – not ending the control of capital but tempering it in the interests of drinkers.

That was 30 years ago and capital has not stood still since. If the first wave of Big Beer had been successfully grappled with by CAMRA, a new wave appeared that posed significant new challenges. If you want a pint of Courage Best or Whitbread Bitter you won’t find one in 2021. The Big Six companies that once dominated British brewing are long gone. Even the classic and benchmark pale ale, Bass, is hard to come by. Its recent history summaries well where Big Beer has now gone.

The Bass brewery in Burton is owned by Molson Coors, a US/Canadian brewing giant. The actual beer however is owned by another huge brewing operation, ABInBev. It is based in Belgium but has significant interests across the world – in Latin America and South Africa, for example. However, it has contracted out the brewing of the beer to Marstons, one of the larger UK-based brewers and pub companies. Or it was – in 2020 it sold a majority stake in its brewing operations to Danish brewer Carlsberg.

Grappling with UK brewers as CAMRA did successfully in the 1970s and 1980s is one thing. Trying to take on global brands is a rather different matter. The focus has shifted to some extent to supporting those larger brewers that remained UK owned – albeit often supporters of the Tory Party. However Big Beer has marched on here as well. As well as Marstons, Fullers’ brewing operations were brought by Japanese brewer Asahi and Greene King is now owned by a Hong Kong businessman. Nor has it stopped there. Some of the larger craft brewers whose backgrounds had rested on the idea of independence from Big Beer have ended up being swallowed by it. Heineken has a 49% stake in Beavertown while ABInBev owns Camden.

This is not a counsel of despair. CAMRA remains a large organisation with the capacity to campaign and influence. It’s fairly clear though that on its 50th birthday the original model – even with later tweaks – of promoting a moral economy of beer, not anti-capitalist but for a constraining influence on it, needs to be re-thought.

Firstly, CAMRA could do more to combat Big Beer on a global basis. Consumer organisations around beer, like CAMRA, exist in a number of European countries and the US. There are long-standing links which could be developed and mobilised further. That is easier now using global communications apps like Zoom. The trade union and anti-war movements have been co-ordinating activity across the world for a while.

Secondly, CAMRA could look to build on its original campaigning focus. It’s very good at lobbying MPs and Government for legislative changes, but the protests of the 1970s about brewery closures or takeovers are now rare. To some extent this relates to an ageing membership, but with the rise of movements like Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion, it’s clear that the mood to protest which was there in the early days of CAMRA is back again.

In practice both of these could be done, but a lot does depend on managing to engage and mobilise younger drinkers in a way CAMRA did so successfully 50 years ago.

Co-operative, democratically run community pubs? The new Budget announcement
Tuesday, 09 March 2021 11:46

Co-operative, democratically run community pubs? The new Budget announcement

Published in Eating & Drinking

Keith Flett considers the recent Budget boost to community pubs

The past year of the pandemic has caused massive problems for nearly everyone in the brewing, beer and pub trades area. Nearly everyone, because global big beer such as ABInBev and even large UK-based concerns like Marstons - now a PubCo - have weathered the economic times well enough. But that is not true of course for many of those who work in the industry who at best have found themselves furloughed with no real guarantee of future employment and at worst have lost their jobs.

Estimates of the number of pub closures so far vary but the number is likely to be significant. This is particularly true for ‘wet-led’ pubs. That is those who sell mainly beer and little or no food. They have been shut for most of the last year without recognition of the particular issues they face by any of the four UK Governments.  Measures announced in the March 3rd Budget by Rishi Sunak include a range of grants, loans and VAT cuts (but not on alcohol), while beer duty remains frozen despite the long running CAMRA claim for it to be cut. UK alcohol taxes are amongst the highest in Europe. In short it is in the ‘better than nothing’ area of Government interventions.

Against this backdrop the Government however has at last decided to do something specifically on pub closures. A lot of it is probably spin, designed to appeal to a particular section of Tory voters. In a tabloid paper owned by Rupert Murdoch, Boris Johnson was reported as claiming that he is ‘on the wagon’ until the pubs re-open and that re-opening is a priority.

Some might suggest that there are other more pressing matters for financial help - the NHS for example. It is not however an either/or matter. There is such a thing as society, and pubs play a key role in that even for many who don’t drink. They are meeting places, where much of the social fabric of society is knitted. Without them isolation and alienation start to predominate. In this context, the Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s Budget announcement of a £150 million fund to help communities save places and spaces they see as central to their local area, has been widely supported.

The scheme works on matching funds raised by local community campaigners up to a limit of £250,000. £500,000 might not be enough to buy out quite every pub, depending on location, but is probably sufficient for some that are struggling. Three key questions emerge.

Firstly the last year has seen numbers of Government funding schemes most of which, with the exception of furlough, have proved patchy, slow and bureaucratic. Will this be any different?Secondly, the Government has a notorious record of channelling public money to its mates. Might this be just another way of doing that. Thirdly, supposing that neither one or two is correct, or only partly so, what might a radical community pub actually look like?

So far we have only a headline document, carefully written by civil servants. The detail of how to apply for the fund will appear in June 2021, when pubs should be able to open without significant restrictions. The focus of the scheme - which applies across a range of institutions that a local community might want to save from being lost including pubs - is on proper governance from established community groups rather than ad hoc campaigns that come together on a particular issue.

Shock horror! Activists!

We’ll see in June where the balance lies. It does read though as if well-off Conservative-led efforts in the shire counties might be preferred to what the Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden often refers to as ‘activists’.

There are two further caveats here. Firstly there are a number of existing well-run campaigns to save community pubs, sometimes successful. Often these are informed by the experienced campaigners of CAMRA, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this month. They can offer advice and strategies for community pub buy-outs and they are an officially recognised ‘player’ by the Government.

Secondly there is the stage before a bid for a pub gets underway, and that is making sure that a developer doesn’t get in first, knock it down and build flats. For this planning permission is required as it’s a change of use. However in the absence of any alternative proposals it's likely to get nodded through. That’s where the Asset of Community Value legislation needs to be used. An ACV allows bids on pubs to be halted while a community buy-out is attempted - specifically that means raising funds. How this legislation works in conjunction with the Community fund (if it does) will be important.

Successful community pub buy-outs require hard campaigning and fundraising work and this is now a more common feature of life. If there is success there are more issues to address. An historic pub where I live in Tottenham, the Antwerp Arms, was saved and is now a very successful place. It meant a lot of hard work by an experienced community management team and it also meant a good pub manager who was on board with the ideals behind the project. 

So what might such a pub look like? Firstly it should not be in any way a top down project. The Carlisle State Management scheme is an interesting historical template, but for the community buyout to work it needs to be from below.

That means a truly co-operative pub, democratically run by regulars and staff to the mutual benefit of both. There are examples of this working, but there are a lot of market and society pressures to be understood and dealt with.

Such a pub could and should be a genuine community space welcoming to all, drinkers and non-drinkers. It also though has to work as a business and turn a profit. Here lie tensions that require careful community management governance and stewardship. Let’s hope for the moment though that the new community fund provides the chance to give this model a try.

Beyond Dry January and alcohol: the key role of the pub
Saturday, 09 January 2021 14:14

Beyond Dry January and alcohol: the key role of the pub

Published in Eating & Drinking

Keith Flett celebrates the key social role of the pub

As we enter the New Year the Dry January campaign is once again active. It is a registered charity and it aims to persuade people to abstain from alcohol for a month, after a supposed festive season of excess.

While no doubt Boris Johnson and Co. did manage some seasonal excess, that was far from the reality of Christmas 2020 for many.

Dry January, although it never says so, has a particular place historically in wider campaigns to cut down on drinking. In calling for people not to drink at all, albeit only for a month, it is at the extreme end of what used to be called the temperance movement. That is those who were teetotalers. Others were happy enough for people to drink beer and focused their concern on consumption of spirits. Hence the slogan ‘strong drink is raging’.

In the Carlisle State Pub Scheme from 1916, which was partly inspired by temperance motivations, while the strength of the beers sold in Carlisle pubs was reduced – and the quality improved – consumption of spirits required special treatment. Large glasses were used and water to dilute the spirit accompanied the drink.

Dry January is however about promoting alternatives to all alcoholic drinks and it is correct in saying that there is an increasing demand for this.

Writing in The Guardian, veteran beer expert Roger Protz noted correctly that while low or no alcohol beer used to be hardly drinkable, it has improved a lot. He cited Adnams Ghost Ship which is a 4.5% pale ale but also has a low alcohol version that sells well. There are also specialist low/no alcohol brewers such as Big Drop. Meanwhile Kernel Brewery in South London has done much to promote very hoppy Table Beers, usually at around 3% alcohol.

That wouldn’t satisfy Dry January, but it is very popular with those who like a beer but don’t want to become intoxicated.

One of the key motivators of temperance supporters (accepting that it can have a positive side, which I’ve written on before) is that people only drink to get drunk and behave in a socially irresponsible way.

That seems to be very much in the mind of all four UK Governments as they have closed hospitality without any significant evidence that (for example) pubs, which have had strict controls in 2020, are a particular source of COVID infections.

There is an alternative campaign, run entirely on a voluntary basis and loosely linked with the Campaign for Real Ale amongst others.

Try January (@tryanuary on Twitter) is about continuing to try new beers and new styles. It’s mostly done virtually at the moment, by ordering beer for delivery – many craft brewers now have significant online shops – or from off licences.

Consumption of the beer is then often discussed and 'shared' on social media and sometimes via zoom meetings.

It still offers some sense of the social benefits that the pub provides, and indeed CAMRA branches have run online ‘pub’ meetings.

It also means keeping breweries going by buying beer they can’t sell in pubs, keeping people in work and where pubs are doing takeaway, keeping them going too. Rather different from the idea of Dry January!

It also suggests a wider agenda about the pub, community and social relations that both myself and Phil Mellows have previously touched on.

During one of the brief non-lockdown periods in 2020 I looked through some issues of the weekly socialist paper The Clarion, published in the early 1900s. The paper has been fully digitised and is available online, although paywalled except in academic locations such as the British Library, where access is free.

Clarion image

The Clarion promoted socialist fellowship and culture, perhaps notably with cycling. It straddled an audience that used pubs and those who didn’t, and carried some reports of temperance hotels and pubs. These were attempts to emulate the social atmosphere of the pub, but with non-alcoholic drinks such as ginger beer, dandelion and burdock and Vimto. The view was, even from those who were well disposed towards temperance, that these were that these were austere and unfriendly places.

This reminds us that the role of the pub is very far from just being about drink. This was the point of Labour’s 2019 ‘pub is the hub’ policy.

The reality that pubs and bars were shut more often than they were allowed to be open in 2020 rests on an official assumption of what happens in pubs. One can find numerous statements on the matter, written fairly obviously by people that rarely visit a pub.

The caricature is that pubs are places where people gather to drink as much as possible, shout loudly at one other, crowd together and generally engage in behaviour that encourages the spread of infection.

No doubt examples can be found – just as very occasionally a Tory MP can say something sensible.

In general, however, pubs are socially controlled environments and that is one of the key reasons for the legal and licensing framework in which they sit. Pubs are licenced by law, and the landlord or manager must also hold a personal licence. For people to be drunk (or for that matter asleep) on licensed premises is an offence.

In addition pubs, when open in 2020, were COVID-19 safe environments in a way that very few other places were.

On occasion this was recognised. The Welsh Labour Government did keep pubs open a little while longer than some, because it was recognised that it was safer for people to mix there than in unregulated private homes. They were also places where people, especially those who lived on their own, could meet and enjoy the company of others in a social way.

Fundamentally it is as much the social context of the pub and drinking that temperance promoters dislike as the drink itself. Here we can make a useful distinction from those, primarily in the medical profession, who voice concerns about drink because they have to deal with those who over -ndulge and the impact on their health.

This takes us back to the Carlisle State Pub scheme which ran until a Tory Government privatised the operation in 1971.

The pubs offered a decent quality of beer, food and quite often leisure facilities such as games. This combination welcomed all sections of the community, and proved to be both very popular and very profitable. So much so that before long, temperance campaigners who had pressed for the move during World War One were demanding its end.

In times like these the social role of the pub, safely managed, should be valued and promoted.

Black Lives Matter, slavery, the Beerage and beer in 2020
Monday, 06 July 2020 16:13

Black Lives Matter, slavery, the Beerage and beer in 2020

Published in Eating & Drinking

Keith Flett considers Black Lives Matter, slavery, the history of the ‘Beerage’ and beer in 2020

Following the police killing of George Floyd the Black Lives Matter movement has exploded across the globe. It is nothing to do with beer, but that doesn’t mean that beer isn’t involved.

Take an immediate example. Lots of individuals and large companies have shown support for BLM. Some large companies have half-decent policies on racism, but a lot of statements from this area of corporate capitalism are more about reputational promotion.

I looked at a few Twitter accounts of some of the better-known craft brewers. A handful had said something. Quite a few had not. Perhaps if they knew about the strong associations of the history brewing in the UK between both slavery and abolitionism they might have spoken up.

On beer social media there was strong support for BLM but very little reference to the links between brewing and the history of slavery, and hardly any ideas about what it might and indeed should mean for the future of brewing and drinking beer.

The subject was discussed by two veteran beer writers however – Martyn Cornell and Roger Protz. Both drew attention to aspects of the brewing industry and slavery that have been in the public domain for a long time, but not previously thought worthy of further discussion in the present day.

The ‘Beerage’, a term used to describe brewery owners who sat in Parliament, is usually seen as being part of the Tory Party. This is because the Liberals were in the main the party of temperance and often strongly anti-drink. Yet matters were more complex than that, because not just politics but religion was also important here.

Cornell draws on the Dictionary of National Biography entry for the Greene family, a central part of what is still Greene King, albeit owned by a Hong Kong Property Company. He looks at the difference between the Greene’s religious beliefs and their business practices.

Perhaps the key paragraph in the DNB entry for the Greene Family is this one:

Benjamin Greene had thrown himself with enormous vigour into representing the interests of the West Indian slave proprietors at a critical juncture of their affairs. To effect this he acquired the Bury and Suffolk Herald in 1828. For six years he ran this ultra-Tory provincial newspaper during the heady period surrounding the Reform Act and the abolition of slavery amid mounting controversy, involving himself in no fewer than three libel cases. Utter reaction to these key pieces of legislation was a strange position for a one-time prominent Dissenter to occupy and the third case heaped such obloquy upon him that he left Bury in 1836 to found a sugar importing and shipowning firm at 11 Mincing Lane, London. He died at Russell Square on 26 November 1860, was buried in Highgate cemetery, and left an estate sworn under £80,000.

Cornell’s piece and perhaps other publicity got Greene King to act in mid-June. They acknowledged that the brewery had been involved in the slave trade. The BBC reported:

Nick Mackenzie, Greene King's chief executive officer, said:

It is inexcusable that one of our founders profited from slavery and argued against its abolition in the 1800s. While that is a part of our history, we are now focused on the present and the future. (We will)…….make a substantial investment to benefit the BAME community and support our race diversity in the business.

Its own website now states after changes were made:

Benjamin Greene handed over the Greene’s Brewery to his son Edward in 1836. After founding the brewery, Benjamin went on to own cane sugar plantations in the West Indies where he was a slave owner. Even in the 1800s, his views on slavery were extremely unpopular and in the brewery’s home of Bury St Edmunds he wrote columns in his own newspaper that were critical of those campaigning for the abolition of slavery.

Given that all the details have been in the public domain for a very long time it is surely appropriate to ask what took them so long? Perhaps it was only concern about possible protests and reputational damage from people avoiding their beers that got them to do something.

A bit of a better bitter from the Beerage

Other leading parts of the Beerage, notably Whitbreads and Truman, Hanbury and Buxton had a rather better record.

Samuel Whitbread was an MP for Bedford from 1768 to 1790. His DNB entry notes that he spoke mainly on brewing matters but also was a supporter of the abolition of the slave trade. That of course is not the same as the abolition of slavery in Britain’s colonies but that didn’t become a central issue until after Whitbread’s death.

The history of Hanbury, Buxton and Truman take the matter further. Thomas Fowell Buxton (1786-1845) became an MP and worked with William Wilberforce to end the institution of slavery in the British colonies. He was for doing so gradually and no doubt criticism can be made, but there was certainly not any benefit being gained from slavery.

This history is important, and worth knowing and reflecting on. It begs the question of what is to be done now?

A statement by the Chief Executive of the Campaign for Real Ale, Nik Antona on 10th June set a welcome benchmark. It makes it clear that the experience of drinking beer should be an inclusive one and urges attention to beer and pub names that hold objectionable associations with the past as a first step.

Calling for action beyond fine words is important here. The statement attracted some criticism including comment by some racists but also a good deal of support. Even in making it, CAMRA revealed the scale of the challenge in addressing racism and racist attitudes in beer.

One concrete example of action is that of a Wetherspoon’s pub name in Wrexham - the Elihu Yale. Yale’s connection with Yale University is well known and had lived in North Wales from 1699 until his death in 1721. He made his money from the slave trade with the East India Company. In response to a local campaign to change the name, Wetherspoon’s have agreed to review the matter.

Another US initiative by Weathered Souls brewing is to ask breweries to produce a stout based on a common recipe:

We took a stout recipe and decided to call on our peers in the brewing industry to collaborate in unison for equality and inclusion amongst people of colour. All proceeds from the purchase of these releases will be donated to local funds that support police brutality reform and legal defences.

Most of the breweries participating are US based but there are some in the UK including Brewdog, Cloudwater and Crafty Devil.

The Black Lives Matter movement continues to spark protest and change worldwide. When it comes to beer and brewing I’d suggest three things:

1. Understand the history of the links between slavery and brewing, and which present-day companies bear some responsibility for reparation.

2. Breweries and pub companies should embrace the positions of Black Lives Matters, particularly in terms of equality of employment and encouraging an inclusive culture in their pubs.

3. Actions speak louder than words. CAMRA’s focus on pub and beer names and associations is a good start.

 

Something we can all drink to: Wetherspoons in public ownership
Wednesday, 13 May 2020 19:44

Something we can all drink to: Wetherspoons in public ownership

Published in Cultural Commentary

Keith Flett says pubs could be a radically different experience after lockdown ends, and taking the Wetherspooons chain into public ownership would be a good start and a great example of cultural democracy. Image: Wetherspoons' Lord High Constable pub, Gloucester, Photo: Philafrenzy/Wikipedia


All pubs in Britain are currently shut for trade on the premises and it’s not known when they will re-open. But after the Covid-19 crisis has receded, how could they be different? How could the spirit of self-help and community organisation, discussed by Jack Newsinger in his recent article in this series from Culture Matters and the Morning Star, be applied to pubs?

There is already a model model of pub ownership and operation that stemmed from a national crisis — the Carlisle state management scheme, which started in 1916. Pub opening hours were restricted and those in areas where munitions were manufactured were nationalised, with five breweries consolidated into one state-owned one.

The architect Harry Redfern designed 14 new “model” pubs around the Carlisle area in the style of the arts and craft movement influenced by William Morris. They could operate to wider criteria than making profits and take into account principles of enjoyable and healthy alcohol consumption, all under the democratic control of an elected government rather than owned and run to make returns to private shareholders.

The Carlisle scheme was a great success. By 1933 the pub contributed £60,000 annually to the Exchequer in profits, around £4.3 million in 2020 prices.
While the language and attitudes of 1916 are not those of 2020, the aim was clear — to shift the pub from being a place where men went to drink and get drunk to a more social environment where the whole community could go to talk, read, play games and generally enjoy some time away from work or home.

In a post-Covid-19 world, a national network of publicly owned pubs owned and run by local communities or municipal bodies, promoting a socially conscious model of drink and leisure, would surely be an improvement on the current situation. Fortunately, there already exists such a network of more than 800 pubs across the UK and, based on pre-lockdown statements and actions by its owner, it  could well be ripe for bringing into public hands.

Tim Martin started his Wetherspoons pub empire within a few months of Thatcher becoming Prime Minister in May 1979. Some of the free-market changes that Thatcher’s governments brought in helped Martin’s business. They boosted pub companies over traditional brewery-tied houses and promoted a philosophy of individual freedoms — for some — which meant loosening restrictions on pubs. No doubt these changes were welcomed by many but they came at a price, such as long hours, low pay and zero-hours contracts for pub workers.

Forty years ago many pubs sold only poor-quality keg beer, the result of a trend to monopoly in the brewing industry from the 1960s that had left Britain with just a few mega breweries. They didn’t often do much in the way of food and many tended to be dominated by middle-aged men with rather right-wing views. In short, they were welcoming to the few, not the many.

The Wetherspoons business model, like the Carlisle scheme, was different. Reasonable quality real ale, tea, coffee and meals were sold all day at reasonable prices. The pubs didn’t have loud music blaring out, TVs or fruit machines. They were places where you could go and chat, or read a book. The result was that at that time in Wetherspoons pubs one could find a socially mixed clientele, including far more women and ethnic minorities than might be usual in other pubs.

But nowadays Wetherspoons has become notorious as a poor employer, even in an industry not known for a high standard of employment practices.

So why not roll out a 2020 version of the Carlisle state management model by nationalising Wetherspoons? The state would have a network of pubs which could be relatively easily modified to fit a concept of a new model pub, a community hub run for local people, not for profit. In time, they could be handed over to local authorities and communities to run.

As with the Carlisle scheme, there could be rules and requirements covering managers and staff, so that a decent working environment with good wages could be provided and precarious employment abolished. Nationalising Wetherspoons and turning the pubs into a network of socially owned new model pubs would be an example of cultural democracy which communities could build on in other areas of their cultural life, such as sport.

It is of course only one of a range of responses that will be required in beer, brewing and pubs as a result of the Covid-19 crisis. State intervention could also be used to protect pubs threatened with closure and shape them into more socially aware community hubs, where breweries or pub companies are still demanding rent against their non-existent income.

But it would be a good start and relatively easy to do.

This is the latest in the series of articles on culture after Covid-19, jointly published by the Morning Star and Culture Matters.

Dry January, temperance and the Left
Monday, 20 January 2020 17:31

Dry January, temperance and the Left

Published in Eating & Drinking

Keith Flett writes about Dry January, and outlines the history of temperance & the left

It’s Dry January – an annual campaign that suggests people should abstain from alcohol during the month, to recover from possible festive excesses and generally to cut down on drinking. It's important to understand that what we see in 2020 around campaigns like Dry January is historically the extreme end of the anti-drink movement.

There was a division between temperance campaigners, who thought the issue (with some justification) was heavy consumption of spirits and saw beer drinking as a moderate alternative, and those who promoted total abstinence, no consumption of alcohol at all. The relationship between radical and labour movements and drink was complex from the start. Pubs were radical meeting places. One need only look at how protesters gathered at Peterloo on 16th August 1819 from all over the north-west, some stopping at alehouses on the way for refreshment (water was not generally safe to drink).

The 1830 Beer Houses Act allowed for the opening of a new layer of pubs that sold beer only (no spirits) and had a mainly working-class clientele. The Chartist Movement certainly met in pubs but also contained those who rightly regarded drunkenness as the enemy of radical organisation. The Chartists had a principle of ‘exclusive dealing’ – buying things only from those who backed the Six Points of the Charter for the vote. The August 1839 Grand National Holiday called for abstention from all excisable goods, underlining the development of a trend towards temperance.

Temperance remained an important part of working-class and labour politics in the first decades of the twentieth century. Keir Hardie was a temperance supporter from the early days of the Independent Labour Party in the 1890s. He argued ‘that a man who can take a glass or let it alone is under a moral obligation for the sake of the weaker brother who cannot do so, to let it alone.’

By 1905 a Trade Union & Labour Official Temperance Fellowship had been formed, and a majority of the Labour MPs elected in 1906 were abstainers. Philip Snowden, a leading figure in the first Labour Government in 1924 published Socialism and the Drink Question in 1908. There was a problem though. The Tories were the party associated with brewing, beer and pubs; and working mens’ and socialist clubs sold drink, not only because it was what their customers wanted but also because it provided the profit to allow them to continue.

Temperance has remained, in part, an honourable tradition rooted in dislike of giving money to (Tory) drinks manufacturers and a realisation that unsober people rarely get to change the world for the better. Jeremy Corbyn for example, is a noted non-drinker.

In October 1908 the Labour MP Victor Grayson tried to adjourn a Licensing Debate in the Commons so the question of unemployment could be considered. The next day he underlined the point: ‘there are thousands of people dying in the streets while you are trifling with this Bill’.

Many of those who survive on Universal Credit may well think Grayson had a point. Whether they like a drink or not their focus is on keeping a roof over their heads and making sure they have enough money to buy food.

Even so Dry January gets plenty of publicity and support. In 2020 it has been notable for brewers coming on board. The range of low and no alcohol beers has developed in recent times to a situation where they can be a decent alternative to beer with alcoholic content. These beers, as was traditional with temperance drinks in Victorian times, are fermented. Brewers like Big Drop are known for producing such beers. For those who are driving, unable to drink for health reasons, or simply not wanting to drink alcohol on occasion, they allow a visit to the pub and socialising without having to drink overpriced and highly sweetened soft drinks.

Craft brewer Brewdog’s decision to open an alcohol-free beer bar in Old St on the northern edge of the City of London is an interesting and welcome development. The bar is on two levels with ample, comfortable seating, working wi-fi and a relatively small-ish bar area with 16 taps of low or no alcohol beer. There are also a couple of hammocks. Take care out there.

I stopped by at 6pm one day in opening week and it was fairly busy, though not rammed. I ordered a pint of Hazy AF (0.5% £5.90). The AF may stand for alcohol free or, being Brewdog, just as likely ‘As F*ck’. I sat down to drink my alcohol-free beer and pondered soberly how to smash capitalism, as you do. The beer was not particularly hazy, coldish and carbonated and tasted ok. It tasted less great as I got down the glass and it got less cold. It was still perfectly drinkable but not something that made me think, hmm, perhaps another.

Fortunately one of the original London craft beer pubs, the Old Fountain, is immediately over the road. It was busy, as it more or less always is. I had a glass of a Burnt Mill pale that was decent. Perhaps that makes me a beer flexitarian?

The demand for low to no alcohol beer is rising and it’s not necessarily associated with temperance. Big business was not a factor in the nineteenth century abstinence market either. Yet in 2020 global brewer Heineken have had a big marketing push on their 0.0% beer in the United States. If not drinking alcohol can be seen as a rebellion, at least by some, then the Clash’s words, ‘turning rebellion into money’ still ring true as well.

The election: brewing, pubs and beer in Labour's Manifesto
Friday, 22 November 2019 20:58

The election: brewing, pubs and beer in Labour's Manifesto

Published in Eating & Drinking

Keith Flett sets out some proposals for progressive policies, and discusses how the Labour Manifesto begins the task of addressing a radical overhaul of brewing, pubs and beer 

Labour has produced a radical Manifesto and it contains some important passages that will positively impact those who drink beer, those who use pubs, and people that work in the industry.

Jeremy Corbyn is not a drinker but he is well aware of some of the concerns around pub ownership and beer. I well remember being in a pub with him not long before he was elected leader. He was there because the pub was in his constituency and it was threatened with closure. We had a chat about the kind of craft beers I was drinking and what they were like. A lifelong hallmark of Corbyn has been a curiosity about what ordinary people do and what they get up to.

The process of writing the Labour 2019 Election Manifesto and what it contains of course went far wider than what Jeremy Corbyn thinks. It involved the whole Labour Party and anyone else interested in contributing ideas, too.

Perhaps the first point to make is that it does matter. In the last 30 years Parliament has passed legislation that has had a significant impact on beer and pubs. In 1989 the Beer Orders were passed. They addressed the dominance in the beer and pub industry of what were there then the ‘Big Six’ brewers, Whitbread, Courage etc. None of the Six still exist.

They were ordered to sell pubs so that their maximum holding was 2,000. That led to the rise of pub companies such as Punch. There was also a requirement for brewery tied houses to be able to sell a ‘guest’ real ale from another brewer. The Beer Orders were repealed in 2003.

In the meantime, Gordon Brown in 2002 when he was Chancellor introduced the Small Brewers Progressive Duty Relief. In summary it allowed smaller brewers to pay less tax and therefore stand a better chance of competing and surviving. It sparked the huge growth of breweries we’ve seen in recent years.

So what should we look for in the Labour Manifesto?

Ownership

This goes wider than brewing but in the year we have seen Fullers sell to Asahi and Greene King to a Hong Kong Property Company there must be a requirement to refer such sales to Government to review their implications for jobs and pubs. Both brewers were part of the Beerage, that section of the industry that traditionally helps fund the Tory Party. Don’t expect Johnson to act though.

Pub Companies

Pub Companies not breweries are now the major presence in pub ownership. Sometimes they employ managers but quite often they lease pubs to landlords as tenants. It is an uneven match and while the pub landlord isn’t always a natural ally of the left Labour needs to be on their side.

It goes much further than that reflecting the stranglehold such companies at least attempt to secure. Heineken, a global operation, runs a UK pub chain Star which has several thousand pubs. But it is also involved in providing and servicing cellar equipment in a lot more and without that no beer gets served.

A new version of the 1989 Beer Orders is now needed to address PubCos, while making sure that what is done doesn’t lead to fewer pubs.

Sales of Pubs

Most readers of this will be familiar with the reality of perfectly viable pubs being sold off for even more profitable housing. In England Asset of Community Value legislation allows a stay on sales while community bids to buy the pub are organised. Even so planning law needs to be strengthened so that when a change of use application for a pub is made it is automatically rejected unless it can be demonstrated that it is the only viable way forward. The Manifesto makes it clear that the Pub is the Hub and that all pubs will listed as ACVs to allow the community the first chance to buy them if they come up for sale.

Workplace Organisation in Breweries

Beer drinkers and perhaps particularly craft beer drinkers are often unpleasantly surprised when they learn of working conditions in the brewing and pub trades.

Big breweries are on the whole unionised by Unite and that extends in many cases to the larger regionals. Craft breweries are not unionised, although some do pay the living wage as does at least one pub chain- Brewdog. Another well-known pub chain, Wetherspoons, certainly does not and the Bakers Union (BAFWU) has been campaigning here.

Until quite recently craft breweries rarely employed enough people to make workplace organisation a priority. Now some do and unionisation campaigns are underway.

These of course meet exactly the same obstacles, around employment law, that exist elsewhere in industry. Legislation to strengthen workplace rights is a central part of the Manifesto.

Climate Emergency and the Green New Deal

Big Beer is global and beer drunk in the UK is not always brewed in the UK. That doesn’t mean that the occasional appearance of, for example, US craft beers that are not generally available here needs to be stopped. However shipping or air freighting large amounts of beer around the world is not environmentally friendly. There should be tax incentives to promote locally produced beer which is sold locally as a practical way of starting to address that. The Manifesto is very much on this page promising to use public procurement to strengthen local jobs and supply changes.

Attempting to control the global movement of capital can come later.

The Pub Environment

This is primarily about what those who like beer and pubs would want to see in a Labour Manifesto. But the labour movement, take the Labour leader himself, has not been and is not all about those who like a drink. Some don’t drink for cultural, religious, personal or medical reasons. Pubs should be welcoming to all as community hubs. That means that low/no alcohol beers (which thankfully in 2019 can be very drinkable)and non-alcoholic drinks should be readily available in pubs and this should be a licensing requirement.

Minimum Pricing

This already exists in Scotland and will shortly be implemented in Wales. It is not primarily aimed at beer drinkers but rather those who imbibe high strength ‘white’ ciders and cheap spirits. Even so it should be UK wide not just to promote sensible drinking to prevent price undercutters too. And once all that is done we’ll be able to raise a glass to the many who will benefit as opposed to the few who won’t.

In the meantime the 2019 Manifesto shows that there is a willingness from Labour to listen to and act on the voices of those who want a beer industry and pubs that are not dominated by the interests of big business.

Big Beer and Big Capital - What is to be done?
Saturday, 31 August 2019 13:01

Big Beer and Big Capital - What is to be done?

Published in Eating & Drinking

Keith Flett discusses the challenge of Big Beer and Big Capital in 2019/20. What is to be done to resist and oppose them?

Beer writer Roger Protz has noted the strategy of Big Beer:

First Big Beer buys up a swathe of independent breweries. Now it’s attempting to control the natural ingredients used to make beer. The power of these global behemoths is frightening and has to be vigorously resisted….

Big Beer is on the march, and we risk losing our wealth of choice to merely the illusion of it. Not only are consumers being misled, but these global brewers are changing the very character of the beers they buy and driving genuine independents out of business….

The question of what the strategy of Big Beer and Big Capital is for the 2020s has come into sharp focus in recent months. Firstly, by Japanese brewer Kirin’s takeover of the Huddersfield craft brewer Magic Rock. Secondly, by the sell out of Fuller’s brewery (and with it Dark Star) to Asahi and finally (so far) by Greene King’s sale of its brewery and pub to a Hong Kong-based property company.

I agree with Protz that one of the aims of Big Beer is to control the market, and produce mass market beers which will claim to be ‘craft’ but will be of lower quality and more bland than ‘genuine’ products. That process will usually take time. It is the outcome of a series of decisions that capitalist businesses make about cost savings and efficiencies in order to retain or boost profit levels.

It would be a mistake, however, simply to expect a re-run of the 1960s. In that period regional and smaller brewers, often those which had failed to invest or keep pace with changing markets for various reasons (but not always) were swallowed up and closed. Their beers, or at least their best-selling beers, were produced elsewhere in much larger breweries. At the same time the Big Six, Watneys, Whitbreads and the like sought to monopolise not just beer production but beer sales. They did that by growing pub estates and making sure only their products could be obtained in wide geographic areas – Watneys in East Anglia for example.

Richard Boston, who wrote on beer for the Guardian during this period, noted the case of a drinker who had left an East Anglian pub, fed up with the quality of Watneys beers, only to find that every other pub in the area also sold Watneys – and only Watneys.

I don’t think the 2020s will look quite like that. For a start Big Beer is now definitively global. It still has some interest in shutting down a brewery it buys and brewing the beer elsewhere. Where would that be? To an extent it can be contract-brewed and at the moment that can be in the rest of Europe as much as the UK – it’s unclear what impact Brexit will have on that.

It may not have a big interest in owning pubs, unless of course as with the Greene King sale the new owner is actually a property company. What it does have an interest in is making it financially attractive for pubs to carry its products, and not those of genuine independents.

Moreover, unlike the 1960s it’s not really about reducing beer ranges and promoting a few big brands. These already exist. The problem is that the profit to be made out of them by Big Beer is not as high as it was, while the profit out of the (much smaller) craft beer market is higher.

The Big Beer combination could therefore be to reduce the cost of making craft beers they acquire (and in doing so make an inferior product) and to seek to make them as widely available as they can.

That means of course not just pubs but supermarkets, restaurants, cafes. The shape of the beer market looks a bit different in that respect to the 1960s.

A preliminary summary might be that the broad trends that Big Beer pursued in the 1960s remain, but that the context of the 2020s is somewhat different.

What is missing in the above is the input of an independent campaigning voice for beer drinkers. CAMRA arose out of the impact of Big Beer in the 1960s. It is still around – but can it, or others grapple with Big Beer 2020s style?

Roger Protz has suggested on social media a summit of CAMRA, SIBA and others to determine proposals to be put to Government – once there is one that is actually concerned with day-to-day Government.

But what should be proposed? As ever it is much easier to oppose than argue for a positive and realistic way forward.

One idea might be to return to the model of the State-owned brewery in Carlisle that was started during World War One and lasted until the 1970s. Its aim was to set a benchmark for good beer, family-friendly pubs and of course moderate drinking habits amongst munitions workers and others.

I have no issue with reasserting that idea but in a world where global beer and capital operate it can’t be the entire answer.

Another is to strengthen legislation (which currently operates in England) to allow community bids a first crack at buying a pub under threat of closure. That would make property-focused takeovers like that for Greene King less attractive.

More is still required. Perhaps it’s time to designate a range of regional brewers as producing something unique to the UK and put strict regulations around anyone trying to interfere with it. Much for example as the EU has done (remember them) with Stilton cheese.

Finally, if not State or municipal ownership, perhaps local or national authorities could take a golden share in some leading breweries, meaning they could not be sold without a reviewing process.

Some possible ideas for the manifestos which are no doubt being hastily drafted at the moment? Because it all depends, of course, on who gains power in any forthcoming general election.

Beer for the many in 2019
Wednesday, 30 January 2019 09:59

Beer for the many in 2019

Published in Eating & Drinking

Keith Flett surveys the beery landscape of 2019, and considers what a Labour Government could do about Big Beer

You don’t need a crystal ball to know that beer in 2019 will follow trends already evident in 2018. In craft beer there is a perpetual search for new styles or takes on old styles that will prove popular. For example in 2018 we saw a proliferation of Brut IPAs. 2019 will certainly see something different.

But beer and beer drinking are much more than style wars amongst craft brewers.

We might identify a couple of areas which may influence the broader area of pubs, beer and drinking in 2019. The first is Big Beer and the potential impact of Brexit (or not) and a possible recession. The second is a potential Labour Government and what it might do, or at least plan to do, in this area in its first 100 days in office.

Following ABInBev’s acquisition of Camden Town brewery in 2015, the news that Heineken was to take a significant stake in Beavertown in Tottenham was probably the most controversial brewing news of 2018. The funding is designed to get the long talked-about new brewery ‘Beaverworld’ built. Its location is in Enfield, not far from where ABI built a new brewery for Camden. The concern of course was – and is – that over a period Heineken will simply take total control as they did at the US brewer Lagunitas.

To any Marxist it is hardly news that capitalism is about consolidation in a quest for profit and ultimately, if left unregulated, monopoly. Also in 2018 Japanese brewer KIrin bought Fourpure in South London, while Carlsberg continued to develop its reshaping of London Fields Brewery

For those who like their beer local, community-based and small-scale Big Beer is anathema. I might broadly be in that category, but it is not one that is easy to sustain within the framework of market capitalism. Alternative structures of ownership, around co-operative production might work better.

The drinker might in any case query whether this actually makes any significant difference to the beer they end up drinking at the bar, or acquire from a supermarket or craft beer bottle shop.

The answer I think is problematic for the left. Some beer pundits claim that beer produced by Camden’s new ABI brewery or indeed by Beavertown’s outsourced operation in the Low Countries (the current brewery being at capacity) is as good as anything they’ve done before. With Big Beer comes quality control (hence a more consistent product) but also cost control (hence sometimes a weaker beer). Big Beer can and does compete on price to force competitors out of the market. Again however this can mean that decent beers such as Camden Pale Ale or Beavertown Neck Oil start to appear in bars where previously the choice was much less inspiring. And the aim of most craft brewers is to get better quality beers into the hands of the public.

Whether Big Beer plans further UK activity in the craft beer area in 2019 we shall see, but it’s worth keeping in mind that the companies in question operate on a world scale and may feel they have made sufficient headway in the UK for now.

More likely perhaps is the acquisition of small-ish craft brewers by larger or regional brewers. Again it is a familiar process of industrial concentration of ownership. The end of 2018 saw York Brewery rescued from administration by Black Sheep brewery for example, itself some years ago a spin-out from Theakstons Brewery, which it stands next door to it in Masham, North Yorkshire.

A new Labour Government

Should an incoming Labour Government aim to do anything about all of this?

In the first period of a new Labour Government there will be other priorities and in any case state intervention in a situation which has seen a huge expansion of breweries and beers in the last 10 years needs to be thought through carefully.

It was tax changes introduced by Labour that promoted the boom in the first place, and perhaps a first step would be an Inquiry, a device beloved of Labour Governments in the 1960s and 1970s, to assess what issues prevent it from developing further. How much for example the activities of Big Beer on pricing and supply are anti-competitive, balanced against the reality that the price of a pint of beer is already expensive for many people on low incomes.

Combined with that might be a look at the whole structure of the industry and whether alternative methods of ownership might work both in terms of breweries and of pubs. Here we could expect to hear a considerable amount of moaning and groaning from the Beerage – breweries who support and donate money to the Tory Party

There has been a long-running lobby, primarily by the larger regional breweries, who are now the core of the Beerage, to change tax rules on the amount of beer produced. Their argument is that the tax breaks given to smaller breweries impact unfavourably on them and that the cut-off point where standard tax is paid should be raised so that they also can benefit from it.

It is a complex issue not least because while socialists are unsympathetic to the politics of the Beerage, the regional brewers support a considerable number of unionised jobs, and a pub infrastructure in the areas they operate in.

This takes us into the wider area of pubs and how beer gets into the hands of the drinker. A future Labour Government might well look at cut-price beer in supermarkets (minimum alcohol pricing may impact this but is designed to address different issues) and controlling the market. One senses that taking on Tesco and Sainsbury’s might be an even tougher battle than the Beerage.

Beer for the many not the few will require not just inquiries and legislation but popular campaigning too.

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