Friday, 12 August 2016

The Moral High Ground: Shades of grey

The Moral High Ground
Shades of grey

Once upon a time we all knew who the good guys and the bad guys were.

Macro-breweries, Big Beer if you like, were the enemy. Evil empires run by money men, focused on profit, churning out enormous quantities of homogeneous ice-cold beer, irrespective of brand. It didn't really matter what it tasted like as balance sheets were king, maximum profit for minimum cost in the quickest possible time.

The good guys, of course, were the small regional breweries. Guarding their territory, putting quality first, making a superior product at a price point that, although it might be slightly higher than Big Beer, we all were willing to pay.

By buying their beer of these regional or micro-breweries as they were called, championing their cause, we held the moral high ground. We were the consumers raging against the machine. We were the worms that were turning. We prayed for a revolution, a spark that would ignite and spread across the land like a wild fire, sweeping away Big Beer and bringing a new age of beer. A beautifully beery new dawn. We gazed into our pints, imagined this impossible brave new world, let out a sigh and came back to reality.

Now things are different. Beer is booming, and big business as well. Where have those oh-so-clear dividing lines gone? Things that would once have outraged us to the point of getting up out of our chairs and actually doing something about it; brewery closures, selling controlling interests to larger breweries, even Big Beer, now have many of us shrugging, mumbling on social media that we won't drink beer from them again (although by the following week we've forgotten all about it and drink it again), and feel a the warm glow of the self-righteous. I'm as guilty of this as the next drinker.

Forty-odd years ago of course, back in the early days of CAMRA, they organised demonstrations. Proper ones. In November 1973 around 600 members "from as far apart as Northumberland and Kent"(source: What's Brewing - December 1973) protested the closure of the Joules Brewery in Stone, Staffordshire by Bass Charrington by organising a protest march culminating in an orderly rally at the brewery gates where Christopher Hutt, the then CAMRA Chairman and author of the excellent "Death of the English Pub", and Bill Young, the district secretary of the local branch of the Transport and General Worker Union, both gave speeches. The following year there was a similar protest at the Barnsley brewery in South Yorkshire with a turn-out of reportedly twice that number. Although both of these were unsuccessful, both breweries were closed fairly soon afterwards, it showed that, despite a relatively small membership (9,000 by 1974 compared to 181,543 today (source; CAMRA website)) it was able to mobilise members to travel and protest a cause. If you make a direct comparison with the estimated 1,200 that protested against pub closures and the beer duty escalator outside the Houses of Parliament in 2012 then surely it means that its members are, on the whole, less involved, less militant, and couldn't really care less.

This state of apathy is not unique to beer of course it can be seen right across our society, look at the percentage of the electorate who actually watch the news let alone vote, but even though many of us feel we have a strong sense of justice, what our actions say we have is just a general feeling of unease or discomfort, a malaise.

Recently I was invited to a brewery launch party at The Rake by 'French' brewery, Le Brewery. The quote marks around 'French' are there for a reason, because even though the brewery is based in north-western France it was founded by Steve Skew, an Englishmen, and continues to be run from England by, as I discovered on the night, a consortium who had purchased it as an investment when Steve put it up for sale around 18 months ago. I reviewed their Norman Gold in July 2012, and you can read about it here should you so wish.

"We came, we saw, we conquered" was the slogan and, I quote from the invite; "Le Brewery is set to conquer the UK craft beer and cider market as it launches its award-winning range and we want you to be the very first to try them".

I looked at the website, which showed a range of eight beers and one cider so I was expecting to taste a variety of beer when I arrived and introduced myself to the team from Le Brewery. Sadly I was to be disappointed. Only two beers, Mysterieuse Lady, an elder flower blonde, and Norman Gold, the beer I had previously reviewed, the two least interesting and the lowest in abv were available to try, along with the cider, their re-designed labels still showing an interpretation of the images of the Bayeux Tapestry, but one that had been settled on by a committee of marketing men. Bland and uninteresting. It transpired that these were the bottles that had been sent to supermarkets to try and spark an interest in the brand (not the brewery I noted) to enable them to gain a foothold in the UK market. As I was talking to them a gentleman who introduced himself as someone who had run successful charities before turning his attention to crowd-funding, arrived with a bottle of their beer and took their attention. I didn't stay much longer after that, although my attention was diverted by one of their older, oxidised, but infinitely superior bottle of Harold's Revenge, a 7.6% English Old Ale, that they had found whilst clearing out the cellar of old stock.

After being initially shocked by this blatant marketing exercise I was perhaps even more shocked by my process of rationalising the evening. If I had bought a brewery as an investment without being completely immersed in the culture and lore of beer this would probably be precisely the route I would follow. It's a well trodden path, one that pays off in many industries and seeing that beer is making headlines and reading about the money being handed to breweries by multi-national companies in mergers and take-overs then why wouldn't you want the chance to get on that train when it arose? Does it make them bad people or just shrewd marketeers? I wasn't so sure as I used to be.

I'm sure we all remember the outcry on social media when Camden Town brewery was acquired by AB-InBev in December 2015, the last, and most headline-grabbing, from a UK drinker's point of view, of the takeovers, mergers and purchases of a busy year for such things.

Among the most vocal, Matt Curtis let his disappointment be know when he wrote this post about the situation, although he did conclude that he would just have to come to terms with it.

If you follow his writing you probably already know that last month (July 2016) he published an interview with Jasper Cuppaidge of Camden Town on the Good Beer Hunting website. I urge you to read it as it explains some of the reasons, other than financial, that Jasper says he had for accepting the reported £85million offer from the brewing behemoth, and it makes for interesting reading. Investment in a bigger brewery in Enfield, on the outskirts of London, access to business, beer and brewery knowledge, and expansion into new markets, particularly the US, are all cited as reasons and the argument is convincing. I do notice that Matt doesn't have a closing paragraph on this occasion, preferring to finish instead with a future projection question, leaving you to draw your own conclusion.

So while I continue to buy and enjoy as I'm sure many of you do, Camden Town's beer, the fact that I'm paying my money to AB-InBev is an inconvenient truth that I'd rather not acknowledge. I still wouldn't buy Budweiser, but I did go to an event organised by Goose Island, another AB-InBev acquisition, the day before Craft Beer Rising this year because Bourbon County continues to be an amazing beer.

Perhaps, given what I've experienced, that things have changed. Big Beers isn't all bad and obviously transparent marketing of a product (as opposed to this example highlighted by Pete McKerry) isn't the worst thing in the world after all?

So who has the moral high ground now?

Certainly not me, if I ever did. My halo, such as it was, has slipped and things aren't as black and white as I once perceived them to be. All I'm left with is shades of grey and that bothers me a lot less than I think it should.

Still, there's always a new brewery, a new beer release, an event to attend, or a parcel arriving on my doorstep, that will mean that I don't really have to worry about it for too long.