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The transition from beer blogger, enthusiast and drinker to journalist has not been an easy one.Read More
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It's been a funny few days. Earlier this week, I wrote a story for The Morning Advertiser about a pub in London charging more than £13 for a pint of Cloudwater Double IPA. The story was picked up by no less than seven national newspapers, got nearly double the views of any other story on our website for the month of August and brought out the absolute worst of beer twitter.
Amongst other things, I was called lazy, accused of stirring to generate headlines and attacked for reinforcing the stereotype that craft beer is a niche pursuit. I don't have particularly strong views about a pub charging in excess of £13 for a pint of Double IPA. It is a strong, expensive and rare beer, being sold in a pub in the centre of London, and if people are willing to pay those sums of money then fair play to them.
However, in the ensuing fall-out I was sent a picture of a London bar chain charging a similar price for a Cloudwater beer marked as a 4.2% Session IPA. Although this pricing was later claimed to have been a mistake (A fact I still have my suspicions about), some of the statements it generated about pricing made me question my own sanity at times.
One of the best things about beer, in my humble opinion, is that it can be so many different things to so many people. For some, it is a drink to be consumed in large quantities down the pub on a Friday night, whilst for others it is something to be savoured and appreciated for its complexity and depth of flavour. For most people, it is somewhere inbetween, and one of the greatest things about craft beer is that it caters to all of those tastes. Want to spend £15 on a bottle of mixed ferm saison? Go ahead. Want a pint of Neck Oil? Be my guest. I'm a great believer that beer is for everyone, and that everyone should have access to good quality beer.
A £4.50 third of Session IPA is not acceptable. End of.
I refuse to believe that this kind of beer, whilst it may be slightly more expensive than other comparable SIPA's to produce, costs this much to make or buy on the part of the pub. Clearly, this was a pricing mistake, but I still had people in my timeline yesterday trying to justify it with reference to ingredients costs and comparisons to wine. With respect to those individuals, I couldn't disagree more.
As a self-identifying socialist and a beer lover, there has always been something of a struggle in my mind between wanting brewers and independent bar owners to be paid what they deserve for the fantastic work they do, and wanting to see beer available at a price which is inclusive and affordable to the consumer. However, when we are having a serious discussion about whether or not £4.50 for a third of a beer that is meant to be drunk in pints (*read: SESSION IPA*) then I think the pendulum has quite clearly swung too far in favour of the brewers and pub owners. Beer priced at this level is prohibitively expensive, and excludes a huge amount of people from the market. Heck, I couldn't and wouldn't even pay that much myself, and I like beer a lot more than most people I know.
The argument "If people are willing to pay it then let them" absolutely does not stand up in this case. It's one thing to charge nearly £14 for a pint of a beer that won't be on the taps every week, and almost certainly won't be drunk in pints, but to defend charging that much for a beer of less than 5% ABV on that basis is madness. It sets a price precedent that will eventually filter across the market and exclude a great many people from the world of craft beer. We have already normalised the £5+ pint in London, lets not normalise the £10+ pint.
As someone who has worked in bars and whose dad owns a pub I know for a fact that beer does not cost anywhere near that much to buy, either direct or through a distributor. Someone is making a big fat chunk of profit on beer priced at this amount, and needs to be called out.
Before you engage with this post, and start telling me how wrong I am, take a step back and think about the issue being discussed here. Think about how you would justify spending £13 on a pint of 4.2% beer to someone outside of the craft beer bubble. Think about what you want the craft beer world to be; inclusive, welcoming and accessible, or some weird bullshit elite club where nobody can afford to drink more than two drinks in an evening but its okay because at least the brewers and pubs are being paid what they deserve.
I know which camp I'm in.
With business rates climbing ever higher, Brexit forcing up the price of imported drinks and young people drinking less than ever before, could this be the end of the British pub as we know it?
By all accounts, it ought to be a golden age for British pubs. In 2016, the number of UK breweries rose by 8% to number around 1,700, whilst almost 50 new gin distilleries opened in the UK in 2015 alone. Fuelled by the growth of independent, small-batch ‘craft’ producers, one would expect the industry to be booming. So why are pubs in England and Wales still closing at a rate of 21 a week?
The most immediate threat to the British pub is the much-publicised hike in business rates. The rates, the commercial equivalent of council tax, are being reset to take into account rises in property values this April, and it is pubs, which generate 0.5 per cent of turnover across the economy yet pay 2.8 per cent of the business rates bill, and small independent businesses, that will be hit hardest by the changes.
According to rates and rents specialists CVS, 17,160 pubs will have to pay more in business rates from April, and this is just the start, with rates expected to rise by £421m in the next five years. This hike means that pubs will need to pour an extra 121 million pints to fund increases in property taxes paid to councils. CVS estimate that high business rates have contributed to one in five pub closures in England and Wales over the last six years.
Sean Hughes, landlord of The Boot pub in St Albans, said his rates are set to soar by nearly 300% in April from £14,000 a year to £52,000. "It leaves us in a very difficult situation,” he told BBC Radio 4's You And Yours programme, "we've worked out we'll have to sell an additional 22,000 pints of beer a year just to pay for the increase. I can't see how we're going to do that. It'll have a huge impact on our family run business.
“It makes you wonder if it's worth it."
The backlash against the surge in business rates does appear to be growing, however. Wetherspoon Chairman Tim Martin, who faces paying £8,000 more per pub in rates, has questioned why supermarkets are expected to receive further rate reductions in April, whilst UKIP MEP Bill Etheridge has also warned that the rise could risk undoing the good work of ending the beer duty escalator – which put the price of a pint by 2% above inflation every year – if it is too punitive. Chancellor Philip Hammond has suggested he may take measures to ‘soften’ the impact of rate rises in the Budget, after The Association for Licensed Multiple Retailers (ALMR) asked for more transitional relief for the sector.
Business rates aside, however, another threat looms on the horizon for British pubs, after Britain voted to leave the European Union in June of last year. The resulting fall in the value of the pound has sent the cost of imports spiraling. The impact of this on pubs is twofold. Firstly, producers using imported ingredients in their products are likely to hike prices to absorb the higher cost of their raw materials, cutting into pubs margins. Secondly, pubs that import goods directly will face higher prices. Italian wines, Belgian beers and French brandy have all become more expensive for British pubs, which either have to suck up the increases or pass them on to their clientele.
Alex Greig, owner of Fuggles Beer Café in Tunbridge Wells, has already had to increase the price of his Belgian lager by around five per cent since last June in response to the Brexit vote. “About 30 per cent of my sales are of products imported from Europe,” Greig says, “and hence our prices have risen as a result of the exchange rate tumbling.”
“I want to be investing in the business and in my staff, so ultimately it’s meant I’ve had to pass that price rise on to consumers in order to achieve those goals.”
It’s not just small-batch, luxury products becoming more expensive for pubs. Just last month, International brewers Heineken and Carlsberg became the latest beer makers to raise prices, following Carling and Budweiser in attempting to compensate for the value of the pound. Martin, an active supporter of the Brexit campaign, suggested in November that Wetherspoons would consider switching to British drinks brands if prices continued to rise.
However, not everyone thinks Brexit will necessarily be a bad thing for the industry. In a letter to the Guardian, Roger Protz, beer writer and editor of The Campaign for Real Ale’s (CAMRA’s) Good Beer Guide, insisted that encouraging UK breweries to use more British grown ingredients could mitigate for the weaker pound. However, whether these savings would necessarily be passed onto the pubs actually purchasing the beer remains uncertain.
Another huge worry for landlords and publicans is the news that people, in particular those under 25, are drinking less than ever before. The latest statistics from the ONS show that spending on alcohol and cigarettes has almost halved in 15 years as Britain seeks to become a more clean-living nation.
Dr Richard de Visser of Sussex University 's Centre of Innovation and Research in Childhood and Youth, has suggested that fewer young people are drinking due to having greater opportunities for socialising in non-alcoholic environments, and not having enough money after covering the costs of studying. With more than a quarter of Britons under 25 now teetotal, pubs find themselves increasingly struggling to stay afloat.
Lucy Barron Reid, who has been forced to close two of the three pubs she runs with her husband in Kent in the last six years years, said she believed changes in the way young people socialise have contributed to the decline in fortunes of British pubs.
“People just aren’t coming to the pub in the way they used to socially,” she says, “when I was growing up we used to go to the pub to meet people as our first port of call, but for youngsters nowadays their first port of call is on their telephone, via Snapchat or Instagram, and consequently we’re not finding that next generation of people interested in coming to the pub.”
“Combine this decline with the huge tax levies that the Government put on the sale of alcohol in pubs, plus the costs of heating the building and paying the staff, and there isn’t a great deal left in the pot for the publican.”
It’s little wonder, therefore, that CAMRA, an organisation long committed to protecting pub from closure, remain concerned by the threats posed to Britain’s watering holes. With the UK brewing and pubs sector supporting nearly 900,000 UK jobs, the rate of pub closures remains a huge concern. Campaigners have called on the Treasury to reduce beer duty by 1p a pint in next month’s budget, in the hope of mitigating against rising costs. Tom Stainer, CAMRA’s Head of Communications called on the Government to do “whatever it can” to help pubs survive.
“Pubs are facing numerous threats which make it more difficult to survive in an already difficult market,” he said.“With high taxation, changing consumer drinking habits and the recent review of business rates, the government needs to do whatever it can to help them survive.
“A duty cut is essential as it will offer a saving for customers - more than half of which perceive the price of a pint as ‘unaffordable’. Limiting further cost increases will encourage pub going and boost pub business.
“It will also boost confidence in the industry, promoting growth and investment in pubs and creating more jobs.”
Ultimately, however, beer duty reduction or not, pub owners still face a huge struggle to overcome the challenges they face in the 21st Century. It’s not quite kicking out time yet for the British tavern, but if things continue to deteriorate, it won’t be long before the landlord is calling time at the bar.
Spoiler alert: I love cask beer. To me, there is no greater pleasure in life than the first sip of a properly conditioned, well kept, cask beer, served at the right temperature. You can imagine my disappointment, therefore, when Cloudwater, one of the most exciting new breweries to emerge in the UK in the last two years, announced last night that they intend to cease production of cask beer entirely in 2017, joining the likes of Buxton, Beavertown and Brewdog in turning their backs on Britain's most famous dispense method. But why exactly are breweries like Cloudwater choosing to abandon cask beer, and what threat does this pose for the future of that particular segment of the market?
In a nutshell, Cloudwater are stopping cask production for two simple reasons: Money and reputation. The margin of profitability on cask beer is too small, and poor cellarmanship can lead to an end-product that simply does not meet the high standards that Cloudwater are seeking for in all their beers. Breweries can spend hours upon hours honing their craft and improving their skills, only for the final product to be spoilt by being served at the incorrect temperature, or left on the bar well past its best.
For a long time, I've always been baffled by exactly why cask beer is so much cheaper than keg. From spending over two and a half years working in the industry, it is perfectly clear that cask beer requires far more care, time and attention to detail to get right, both from the brewers themselves, and the publicans who serve it. Combine this with the fact that cask beer should be drunk within five days or so of going on the bar, and its almost impossible to see why exactly it is that cask beers are regularly a pound or so cheaper than their keg counterparts.
Part of the reason for this is, of course, historical. When the Campaign For Real Ale (CAMRA), was launched in the 1970s, one of the main ways in which they sought to promote cask beer was by offering it up as a cheaper alternative to mainstream kegged products at the time. The organisation still supports Wetherspoons, a chain notorious for its bad cellar-care and poorly conditioned beers, by offering members vouchers for 50p off cask beer or cider in their pubs. The sad reality is that for many CAMRA drinkers, the dispense method and price has become more important than the quality of the beer itself, and as a result cask beer is now fundamentally undervalued in the market, with many punters simply refusing to pay the price that well-kept quality beer deserves.
That's not to say, however, that all of the blame for the devaluation of cask beer lies squarely at CAMRA's door. There are also plenty of breweries who are happy to peddle shit cask beer to pubs and consumers that just want crappy beer at a cheap price. But there does appear to be a distinct lack of willingness, particularly amongst older, more traditional drinkers, to pay the £4+ a pint price that premium, properly kept cask beer deserves, and hence breweries have no choice but to accept lower margins in that segment of the market.
For breweries such as Cloudwater, this means selling their cask beer at a far lower price than ought to be the case, especially when the added time and costs associated with handling, racking, collecting casks is factored in. With more effort for far less reward, it's difficult to see why any brewery in the UK continues to package beer in cask at all.
I think that there is a real danger of complacency in the UK market with regards to cask beer. Not only are many breweries turning away from the dispense method, but many pubs, particularly in London, also seem to think its no longer worth their while. CAMRA think that the battle has already been won and - if the non-event that was their new Revitalisation Project is anything to go by - they cannot be relied upon to take the steps needed to save the it.
To make cask beer attractive to both breweries and punters again, two things need to happen. Firstly, the price has to go up. The end-price of the product has to reflect the time and money involved in producing it. Secondly, the quality needs to be far greater that what we are currently seeing in some pubs at present. Is it any wonder that young people are put off cask beer when it is often served warm, flat, through dirty lines or just downright infected?
CAMRA could and should have a vital educational role to play here, as should breweries, industry leaders and writers. Tell that dickhead mouthing off in the pub exactly why the pint of bitter is 20p more expensive than it used to be. Send that warm/flat pint of porter back to the bartender and ask to speak to the manager. Educate and inform people about the extra time and effort that goes into the production and maintenance of cask beer, and why it deserves to be respected and treasured.
I'm bitterly disappointed to see a pioneering brewery like Cloudwater turning their backs on cask beer. I think that as well as being a unique and fantastic British tradition, cask beer is one of the most difficult skills to master and represents the very pinnacle of brewing. When it is served correctly and given the love and care it deserves, I rarely find myself wanting to drink anything else. Unfortunately, this isn't always the case, and looking at that particular segment of the market at this moment in time, I can totally understand why Cloudwater are choosing to stop making it.