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WRITER, CONSULTANT AND BROADCASTER SPECIALISING IN BEER, PUBS AND CIDER. BEER WRITER OF THE YEAR 2009 AND 2012

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Friday, 13 November 2009

Open plea to the beer and pub industry: please stop behaving like a bunch of teenage dickheads

Sitting very closely outside the industry looking in, I sometimes want to beat my head against a brick wall repeatedly until I simply don't care about anything any more. Today is one of those days.

The pub industry, as we all know, is in crisis - 52 a week closing and all that. And while real ale is heading for growth, the beer market is still well down overall and in seemingly irreversible long term decline. We're beset on all sides by neo-prohibitionists. Alcohol is the new tobacco, more dangerous than heroin, crack, or walking out in front of a runaway bus.

This is the time to pull together and put on a brave face, a united front, such as happened in the 1930s when beer volumes were plummeting and the industry came up with the 'Beer is Best' campaign, promoting the beverage with iconic ads that still look cool today.

So what do we do in 2009? Form a cross-industry lobbying group? Take pre-emptive action against tighter licensing restrictions and more duty rises? Fight back against the misinformation about binge drinking with a concerted, positive campaign about the benefits of moderate drinking and the truth of our wholesome pub culture?

Do we fuck.

The front page headline of this week's Publican says it all: Industry at War.

The BBPA has been consulting with other trade bodies about a set of guidelines ensuring transparency of pub leases. The Fair Pint campaign don't like what they're saying, and have published these guidelines without BBPA's consent, and may now face legal action for doing so. Meanwhile, there's another new body, something called the Independent Pub Confederation, that's also weighing in and attacking the BBPA, saying they don't speak for the average publican. Given that Greene King, one of the largest regional brewers and a decent-sized pub co in its own right, is giving up membership of the BBPA, they might have a point. Although why anyone thinks this furthers the cause of beer and pubs in any way is a mystery to me.

And it's not just them: a few months ago Nigel McNally of Wells & Youngs began a war in the trade press by accusing SIBA brewers of not doing anything good, of being amateurs who piggyback on the investment of big regionals to further their own amateurish aims. On the other side of this particular fence, the Great British Beer Festival continues to hike rents, making the big, colourful stands of the regionals prohibitively expensive, meaning the festival loses a lot of its experiential interest. CAMRA and SIBA members start to accuse the big regionals of producing bland, tasteless beers, using language previously reserved for fake European lager and ratty keg bittermongers, grumbling that "we don't need the regionals now".

Brew Dog of course are at war with the Portman Group, seeing dark conspiracy in every corner because this industry self-regulating body is funded by The Man.

The trade press themselves are not above criticism - everybody seems to have their own proud of pubs type campaign, or fight against whatever. There's never even a ghost of a hint working together to achieve greater impact.

Everybody namechecked in the above paragraphs is talking shite.

Christ knows how many times I've said this - clearly I'm talking to myself and no one agrees with me - the beauty of this industry is its diversity. We need microbrewers. We need big regional brewers. We need pubcos. We need some version of the tie. We need the opportunity to exist outside the tie. We need freeholds. We need managed pubs and tenanted pubs and leaseholds. God help me, we even need Wetherspoons. We need trade bodies. We need regulatory bodies. We need people to challenge regulatory bodies and we need to keep each other on our toes. We need interest groups. But most of all, we need to remember that in the broadest and most important sense, WE ARE ALL ON THE SAME SIDE.

My first column for the Publican, back in January, compared the beer and pub industry to the scene in Life of Brian with the Judean People's Front. Clearly no one read it - the industry is getting more like that every day.

Yes, I've slagged off Brew Dog, I've slagged off CAMRA, I've slagged off other people too. But I've always - always - balanced it with due praise and suggested actions they could do to counter my critiscism, if it mattered to them. And anyway, I'm just a writer, an opinionated individual with no actual stake in the industry.

I was drawn to beer writing because I believe beer is the most sociable drink in the world. And because of that, I believe beer people are among the friendliest people in the world. Not since first year at university have I made so many friends so quickly as I have on the last few years.

But our industry is tearing itself apart. Government policy, the neo-prohibitionist lobby, public opinion and the might of mainstream media may be difficult targets to attack, but they are the real dangers. Still, it's so much easier to have parochial squabbles, isn't it?

I only swear in writing when I'm angry. And right now I'm fucking furious as the industry I love and have now devoted my life to embarrasses the hell out of me with its increasingly childish, short-sighted, blinkered, stupid behaviour.

Fuck 'em all. I'm off to think about something else for the weekend.

19 comments:

red dave said...

Maybe we should have a march?

http://i.imgur.com/RxUHW.jpg

Curmudgeon said...

I think everyone in the on-trade should band together and start a campaign against the off-trade, who as we know are the root of all evil...

jesusjohn said...

...not to mention The Publican reporting earlier this week that CAMRA is considering a legal challenge to the OFT's (ultimately correct, though I'd add caveats to that which would be too long to go into here) decision not to refer the beer tie to the Competition Commission.

I completely agree with the need for a united front. Such a broad-based campaign might achieve the level of national consciousness as Post Office closures. It beggars belief that the Daily Mail (admittedly hardly my paper of choice) bangs on about 'binge Britain' when its readership are just as likely to be concerned about pub closures.

One can imagine the front page picture of smiling couples chatting with a cloth-capped old boy at a bar all holding dimpled mugs. Twee? Yes, but a broad-based campaign would hand each media outlet a message it could sell to its readers on a plate.

Barm said...

Can't agree that we need Greene King.

John Ogilvie said...

utterly agree!

Cooking Lager said...

Life is suffering, Pete. The 1st noble truth. Life is suffering due to our desire for life to be otherwise. That's the 2nd. Your problem is that you care, and the solution is not to care. Don't waste your thoughts or energy giving a blind bit of toss.

So long as the supermarket is full of cheap grog, what's it all matter?

Alan said...

I do love a parade.

What I do not understand about the beer market is the idea that pops up in various forms that "we are all in this together." Isn't that a bit too much to bite off for your purposes? Wouldn't it be better to make a topic specific alliance that attacks the false health and safety allegations without getting together for the full body kumbaya?

StringersBeer said...

The 2nd noble truth is rather mis-represented by Mr Lager. It's a common mistake. The trick (as I see it - but who am I) is not to "not care", but to try to quiet our cravings - our wants, so that we can find the time and energy to allow ourselves (and others) to satisfy our essential needs. Which will include real ale and a vibrant pub culture. Naturally.

Mark, Real-Ale-Reviews.com said...

Pete, we set up our website because we wanted to make a difference, because we loved beer but couldn't find enough positive beer writing out there. And we were inpsired by people like you.

The bloggers we knew before we set up and the myriad we've found since we've set up, have inspired us to take this from a potential hobby one rainy night in May, to a full blown time-heavy take-over-lives passion.

And for the most part, I can say that without even meeting some of those bloggers, writers, tweeters, landlords and beer lovers face to face, I've made friends. No, I've made friendships. And that's because beer is sociable, and so is writing about it.

We're here from the long haul and I damn well want to make sure that beer doesn't become something demonised and doesn't become something that becomes less available to me because of divisions in the industry.

And with our resident home-brewer Sam, who's starting brewing his own beer, I hope we're adding to the diversity of not just beer writing, but on a (very) local and (very) tiny scale, contributing to the diversity of beer making as well.

Pete, you'd better bloody come back after the weekend, we need you in the industry.

Mark J Daniels said...

The infighting amongst some publicans in online forums is just as frustrating!

Great blog.

Eddie said...

Hi Pete,

As an insider (one you gave a thorough rollicking to last year for the very reason you're angry at them moment) I have to tell you there are very many, very old grudges within this very old, knackered and bent industry. And I think that's the problem - the industry has been so bent for so long that straightening it out inevitably means some people losing big money. Who would sacrifice their livliehood for the greater good? Not many, apparently.

Woolpack Dave said...

You've certainly got a point. Your Life of Brian comparison works for me. I understand and agree with your anger.

However, as an insider too I agree a lot with Eddie. We've all got our own individual battles to fight. For me the weight of the national bland tasting brands on peoples preconceived ideas about product ranges in bars is a frustrating inhibitor to how I want to run my business. The increasing success of the microbrewery industry is knocking the big boys so of course they will fight back. We all want to try and maintain the size of our own slice of cake when the overall beer gateaux is shrinking. Individually we are not going to make the slightest bit of difference to the holistic view. In business you can't afford to be altruistic, that much I've learnt.

There is a collective group. It's called the All Party Parliamentary Beer Group.

Boak said...

"...the beauty of this industry is its diversity...".

Hear hear. We have a real range of favourite pubs, from pubcos to large regionals, places specialising in Woodhams Old Nobby to places where there is no real ale at all. In all these places there are certain common denominators - great, sociable atmosphere, friendly staff, and something we enjoy drinking.

That doesn't make for much of a manifesto, unfortunately. All you can do is continue to promote enthusiastically places that are getting it right, partly by writing about them but mostly by bringing people to them. I've had the joy of introducing a number of people in the last week to a couple of my favourite pubs, and in all cases people have not only had a good time but have said they would come back.

I don't think I share your neo-prohibitionist conspiracy theories; most MPs like a swally as much as the next man or woman, as do most journalists. But it's still a fine rant!

DunnAle said...

I don't know the ins and outs of the publican trade but it looks like a clear case of there being no clear cut answer. What people want is a panacea for the entire industry. Camra wants the peoples pint, the publicans want lower taxes, others want reform of the tie system. Unfortunately with everyone having different ideas on how to save the sinking ship we may never get round to actually plugging the hole.

Zak said...

Nicely said Pete, and that's without even touching on the split between the on- and off-trade that Curmudgeon alludes to.

Chris said...

Good on you Pete, couldn't agree more. Said as much myself in my own blog. The Great Liquid is under constant threat as never before, and the Judean People's Front, the People's Front of Judea, and all the rest of them are just pulling it down. Just look at the average ten comments to a Publican article online and eight of of ten are bitter ravings of broken men (and women). We need to band behind not just a name, a person, a company or some agenda-obsessed quango, but behind BEER. If we could persuade people to have a beer once more a week than they would normally, just imagine the difference it could make.

The Crap Blog Detective said...

Only a homeless alcoholic would agree with your point of view. Every other beer drinker buys their beer at the supermarket and drinks it at home.

Pete said...

Crap Blog Detective... does that mean you detect crap blogs, or you're crap at detecting blogs?

If your comments were serious - which of course they aren't - you'd be wrong by a factor of about 8 million UK craft beer drinkers.

Have you checked out Cooking Lager yet? You two would get along famously.

In fact, are you sure you're not Cooking Lager?

johnlyle said...

What a great article. The biggest problem as I see it is that the government will talk about regulation and freedom at the same time and still be more concerned with their tax revenues not falling at all. They don't care who sells it really as they win all ways up whether it is on trade or off trade.

The great thing for the government is that heavy drinking pays heavy taxes, and like life for smokers, they have the added advantage of not always living as long as the holier than thoughs. They more than pay their way!

Keep up the good fight. It is important. We are a beer nation and we need to preserve this tradition for many generations to come so we don't slip into the anodyne cafe culture of mainland Europe.

Cheers

John