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.