An Outsider’s Perspective on the Divided State of British Beer

As an American living in the UK it’s been interesting to observe the outcomes of recent votes by two organizations that exist to protect and promote beer in the UK.   In March the Society for Independent Brewers (SIBA) voted against raising the maximum amount of beer a brewery could produce and still belong to the organization.  The proposed change, from 200,000 hL (170,000 BBL) to 1% of annual UK beer production, currently 437,340 hL (373,000 BBL), would have brought larger independent breweries like Fullers and St. Austell into the organization, while stopping short of including very large brewers like Greene King, Marstons, and the multinational conglomerates.   Then this past weekend the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) adopted a series of changes to their articles of association (click here for details), expanding their mission to advocate for naturally carbonated cider and perry, in addition to real ale, but voted down the following objective:

To act as the voice and represent the interests of all pub goers and beer, cider and perry drinkers

If this objective had been adopted it would have seen CAMRA advocate for consumers of craft beer served in kegs, in addition to the traditional cask ales the organization has been promoting since the 1970s.

In both cases the proposed measures failed by the slimmest of margins.  The SIBA vote to expand the upper limit on production needed a simple majority but went down by a 66 – 63 vote, while 72.6% of the CAMRA members voted in favor of representing all beer drinkers, falling just short of the 75% majority needed to change the articles of association.

Durham Beerfest taps_cropped

What’s a beer loving American expat to make of all this?  It’s certainly a path different than that taken in the USA.  The Brewers Association (BA), which is the closest equivalent to SIBA, has continually raised their maximum production limits over the years to keep the largest independent brewers—Sierra Nevada, Boston Beer Company, Yuengling, New Belgium—in the organization.  At this point the size of a brewery is pretty much irrelevant, and the organization has shifted its focus to independence.  While that rubs some small brewers the wrong way and leaves the BA open to criticism for moving the goalposts, the organization has been an effective force in lobbying for changes to the byzantine laws that govern the sale and taxation of alcohol in the US.  The most recent victory was approval of the Craft Beverage Modernization and Tax Reform Act, which among other things slashed the excise tax for small producers (those who produce < 2 million barrels per year) from $7 per barrel to $3.50 on the first 60,000 barrels produced domestically.  It seems to me that if SIBA wants to effectively lobby parliament on behalf of independent brewers, a large tent strategy is the way to go.

As an organization run by consumers/drinkers CAMRA has no equivalent in the US.  The first question that comes to my mind is whether consumers need an organization to promote their interests.  After all the consumer wields the ultimate lobbying tool, his or her wallet.  Mega breweries like ABI, Miller-Coors and Heineken aren’t adding craft beer to their umbrella of products because of outside lobbying, they are doing it to make money.  Having said that I think it’s a good thing to have a consumer-driven organization to promote and celebrate beer, to organize festivals, to help educate the consumer, and to speak with a common voice.  I wish we had an equivalent organization in the US.

Before going any further, I should state unequivocally that when it’s done right British cask ale is glorious, one of the true gems of the beer world.  Cask ale is an extreme niche in the US, not many breweries serve cask ale and those that do tend to offer it only sporadically.  While living in the UK I’ve thoroughly enjoyed sampling cask ales whenever the opportunity presents itself.  The freshness, mouthfeel, and temperature of a bitter or golden ale served from a beer engine can elevate a simple session beer, one that would otherwise be unremarkable, to something special.  When it comes to hoppy, sessionable pale ales, I think it’s the absolute best method of delivery. It would be a tragedy for British beer producers and drinkers to squander this inheritance.

Coalpitts with Mark
Enjoying a pint of cask bitter with my friend Mark (left) at the Colpitts Hotel in Durham.

At the same time let’s not make the pedestal so high that we distort the reality of real ale.  British cask ale is one of the world’s great styles of beer, but great beer doesn’t start and end with real ale.  It’s not more difficult, more expensive, more time consuming, or more artisanal than many other equally glorious styles.  The attention to detail that goes into serving unpasteurized Czech pilsner in a tankovna pub is every bit the match for cask ale.  The difficulty and expense of producing a Lambic or Flander’s Red goes far beyond what it takes to make bitter and cask condition it. Cask ale may be difficult to distribute widely, but it’s not impossible, and some very large brewers, including the multinational conglomerations, have their tentacles in the cask ale category.

The real question is whether expanding CAMRAs remit would lead to a decline in real ale production and sales over the long term.  Could real ale go the way of Berliner Weiss in Germany, gradually retreating until it’s just a shell of its former self?  That’s an outcome that should be avoided at all costs, but one that seems unlikely to me.  As pointed out by Roger Protz in an excellent post on this topic, while cask beer sales are down 5% in 2017, that’s a much smaller decline than traditional British keg beers which are off 25%, and lagers which are down 11%.  The main style that would have been brought into the CAMRA fold had the measure passed, craft keg beer, accounts for only 5% of the market. The marketing pitch of craft beer—artisanal beer crafted from quality ingredients by small, independent breweries—meshes perfectly with what it seems to me CAMRA was fighting for when it formed over four decades ago.

I also wonder what it means when 72% of the membership votes for a change that is ultimately rejected.  Such a structure doesn’t make for a very nimble organization that can change with the times.  It’s rather like the procedure we have in the US for changing the Constitution.  I don’t have to remind everyone about the challenges of working around the full implications of the 2nd amendment in 21st century America.

I certainly don’t want to see real ale diminished, but it seems to me that the best way to preserve it is to fight for quality, independently produced beer of all types. If you have a vibrant healthy beer culture, real ale will take its rightful place as a special product.  Who benefits from those pubs, and there are many, that serve 2-3 cask ales and then the typical lineup of Carlsberg, Strongbow, John Smith’s and Guinness?  Why not work to replace that tap of Heineken with something from Magic Rock, Beavertown or Steam Machine?  Some of the best breweries in the UK—Black Sheep, Thornbridge, Wylam, Roosters—make quality beer for both keg and cask without any apparent internal conflict.

The quality of beer and plethora of choices are better now than they’ve ever been, but that doesn’t mean we can take these blessings for granted.  The fact that beer sales are down across most categories signals there are challenges to be met.  It seems only logical that those who love great beer should work together, and I can’t help but think that expanding CAMRAs mission is the best way to achieve that goal.

I’m curious to hear what the Brits who read my blog from time to time think about the whole issue.  If I’ve been naïve on certain points please educate me.  I’m sure that both I and those who read the blog in the US would likely benefit from the discussion.

3 thoughts on “An Outsider’s Perspective on the Divided State of British Beer

Add yours

  1. Interesting post and context. The rough roads of beer politics are tricky to navigate. It is unarguably true that there is much great beer that is not cask (which CAMRA sought to explicitly recognise); but also that it is only in the UK where cask beer is produced and sold in such large quantity.

    The key point for me is that cask beer cannot be served at its best without very skilled cellarmanship. Where this is the case it is often superb (acknowledging all the variables that exist prior to any beer arriving at the point of sale) and, on occasion, without peer. Where this is lacking however, cask can range from mediocre to poor to undrinkable. Whilst it obviously still needs to be served in clean and carefully managed conditions, craft keg beer can be dispensed without the need for that same skill-set. In other words, that skill-set only kicks in after a beer has left the brewery.

    I agree with Roger Protz’s assertion that cask is the wine of the UK and must always be at the heart of CAMRA’s purpose.

    In my view the motions were not worded as skilfully as they might have been and were not easy to digest, but nonetheless all bar one passed the very high 75% threshold (that is I believe, par -for better and for worse – for constitutional changes in most organisations).

    The fight for a consumer organisation that champions cask beer should not be with high quality craft brewers but I don’t believe very many people think it is. The fight is surely with national and global, industrial scale, flavourless brands that once threatened the very existence of cask beer before CAMRA led a resistance that chimed with so many drinkers.

    1. I think we are pretty much on the same page. Because of the challenges in distributing and serving it properly you can make a valid argument that cask ale needs more advocacy and support than many other styles of beer. The only question is how best to support and protect it. My gut feeling is those who love cask beer and craft keg beer should join forces to stand up against those who would push industrial scale, flavorless beer upon the public. Unless I am uniformed there is no organization to represent the interests of the craft keg beer drinker. Of course those consumers could form their own organization and work closely with CAMRA, but it seems easier for the already established CAMRA to expand its tent to take in those consumers. There is power in unity.

      1. I suspect that view will ultimately prevail but there are some that will choose to die in the ditch before it happens! One view is that craft keg is doing so well it doesn’t need that sort of consumer organisation. One thing’s for sure- much of today’s craft beer uses high quality ingredients to generate great flavours in often (though not always) low-carbonated beer; when CAMRA was formed the keg filth that was pushed by the monopoly big brewers had none of those attributes.

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