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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.
By all accounts, Pete Brown hasn't had a bad career. The three time winner of The Guild of Beer Writers' beer writer of the year award is currently in the middle of promoting his eighth book -‘Miracle Brew’ - his first exclusively about the subject of beer since 2009. I sat down with the globe-trotting author to find out why it took him so long, what motivated him to write the book, and where he sees the industry going in the future. "It feels quite hilarious that I stepped away from writing about beer just as craft beer was taking off," he tells me. "I always wanted to write it the broader arena of food and drink, so I think it was a case of getting that established that saw me move away from the subject, but I did leave it a bit too long."
"It takes about two or three years from starting to think about the idea for a book to it finally being published so I was kicking this idea around in 2013, and this is how long it has taken to come to fruition."
The book focusses almost entirely on the four core ingredients that make up the nation's favourite brew - barley, hops, yeast and water for those less educated in the subject - and Brown admits that the decision was based on a desire to speak to a more mainstream audience about the product.
"Most of my mates who now drink beer very enthusiastically don’t actually know what it’s made from," he says.“Beer is the most popular drink in the world after water, tea and coffee. Everybody knows that wine comes from grapes and cider comes from apples, but when you talk to people about beer they go ‘it’s made from hops isn’t it?’ They don’t know what hops are or what they do, they just think that beer is made out of them, which isn’t exactly true.
“I just thought it was so weird that everyone is so into food and drink and where it comes from, yet so even most beer drinkers don’t know that much about what they’re drinking.”
Despite this desire to educate and inform, Brown's book steers away from some of the more technical elements of producing beer, instead adopting an anecdotal and accessible style. "I generally write in the engaging conversational style and not get too technical," he admits. "I’m not a biologist or a scientist, so where I do get technical I’ve had to reduce it so that I can understand it myself! I’m hoping I’ve given it to people in a way that is engaging and interesting.
"Before I wrote this book I thought I knew a lot about hops and barley and yeast and water, and I decided to put everything I knew to one side and I just learnt so much new stuff, and got a new appreciation of beer all over again."
That's not to say that the book doesn't offer anything for the more advanced reader, and Brown tells me he has even had brewers get in touch with him to say it has taught them things about water and barley that they weren't previously aware of. "Even though it’s written for an introductory audience I think there’s something in there for everyone," he says proudly.
Another motivating factor behind writing Miracle Brew was Brown's desire to see beer elevated to the status enjoyed by drinks such as wine, which he does not see as in any way superior to his favourite amber nectar. "When people talk about wine they talk about terroir all the time, but terroir is in beer more than it is in wine," he says. "Take the water that is used in beer, for example; it falls as rain and then soaks into the ground and runs through rock or shale.
“It is a product of that land, which is the very definition of terroir. The water in Burton on Trent is totally different from the water in Pilsen, and hence beer is really tied with place and with location.”
One thing is for certain, Brown is certainly not someone who is tied to location. Whilst writing his latest book, the jovial adopted Londoner travelled far and wide, visiting breweries from the Czech Republic to Belgium. On his travels he became aware that other cultures had a greater sense of pride in their brewing traditions than the UK, something he hopes to see change in the future.
“British drinkers think that cask ale is a bit old and dull, but you go anywhere else in the world and people say how amazing it is,” he says. “Marris Otter malt gets exported across the entire world and is regarded as the best malt from Japan to America, and we don’t take that much pride in it.”
“We just don’t take a genuine pride in our styles and our ingredients and products in the way that other countries do.”
Nevertheless, he is at pains to point out that in order to take pride in British output, the product must be at its very best. In January of this year, he drew criticism for an article in which he claimed to have almost stopped drinking cask beer due to the poor quality of the product in most pubs and bars. Today, he stands by that position, and says that pubs are doing cask beer a disservice by serving it in poor condition.
"“There are publicans out there who are desperately proud of their cask beer,” he says. “But I think if you’re not proud then don’t stock it. If you’re not genuinely proud of it, just don’t serve it, because you’re doing it a disservice by serving it below par, which is what most pubs do.
"There are plenty of pubs that serve good cask and I’d rather just see it in them. When I was writing The Cask Report the message was always to try and improve and increase distribution and I just don’t think that’s the right thing to do anymore.”
"In America they recognise that hop aromas are incredibly delicate and they recognise that heat kills them, and so all craft beer is distributed with cold chain distribution, the beer is chilled from the moment it is packaged to when it reaches the consumer. British cask beer is different but can be just as good as American craft beer if you use the right methods for distribution and cellaring. When you see pubs with casks sat outside in the sun or being thrown around it’s like ‘god, treat it with a bit of respect.’"
Turning to the subject of pubs themselves, the subject of another of the writer's many books, Brown warns that unless local boozers do more to attract customers they would continue to face closure due to changing social patterns.
“Pubs have got more competition than ever before, beer is spreading outside the pub and the pub is no longer the default,” he says. “There are so many other places that serve beer now. Look at festivals, pop-ups, supermarkets. My local barbers offers craft beer when you go in for a haircut!
"We say in the industry ‘use it or lose it’ when it comes to pubs, but that makes going to the pub sound like something we should feel guilty about not doing; Great, let’s turn the most pleasurable thing in life into a chore. Whether it’s great food, the pub quiz, the best conditioned cask beers, the greatest range of craft beer, pubs have got to have a USP.”
He does, however, have some sympathy with pub owners, who he says often face a near-impossible task for little financial gains. "I appreciate that all these things are really difficult, and running a pub is really difficult. When I’ve written about pubs that are great, they’re usually run by people who are very very clever who have got a massively wide range of skills."
"A lot of them choose to run a pub because they really, really like it; and the industry relies on people doing the job not because of the renumeration but because of they’re prepared to do a job that is far harder than it should be for the money they are earning because they really love it."
Turning finally to future trends, one thing that Brown believes will continue to grow in popularity over the coming years is low-alcohol and alcohol-free beers, which he states are now catching up in terms of flavour due to the rise of craft beer. "When you drink a pint of lime and soda, you don’t want a second one, whereas when you drink a good beer you want four or five, so that’s the challenge for low alcohol beers," he says. "What’s the point in having a low alcohol beer that doesn’t taste like a good beer? But now all of a sudden they do."
"It’s about the ritual of having something in your hand that you enjoy doing, so if I could do that with low alcohol beer I’d be quite happy to have two or three days off a week.”
A version of this article originally appeared on The Morning Advertiser, and has been reproduced here with their permission.
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.