Thursday 16 February 2017

Thin Times Ahead?

Is it a sign of the times that London’s latest craft brewery is to focus entirely on low and no alcohol beer?  Nirvana Brewery Co, is a new craft brewery based in East London, is aiming to produce “great quality, full flavoured craft beers, but with low or no alcohol.”  Steve Dass, Co-Founder of Nirvana Brewing and said: “We want to create a range of alcohol free beers in a way without compromising on quality or taste. Ultimately, we want to produce a range of beers that can be enjoyed by those looking to cut down – as well as craft beer fans. The aim it seems is to target specialist craft bars etc in London and around the country.

 Interestingly the brewery mentions “We’ve already seen a huge rise of people wanting to drink non-alcoholic beer as part of a healthier lifestyle in both the UK and Europe.”  Now funnily enough I was reading yesterday in the German press about the fall of beer consumption, down by roughly a third since the seventies. “For years this number has slowly been going down,” Walter König of the Bavarian Brewers’ Association explained. As well as the fall off in lunchtime drinking Herr König mentions the public’s changed perspective on beer. "In people’s minds, beer is not healthy. Consuming anything that seems unhealthy has decreased… There is more health awareness, though with a false understanding - beer in moderation is healthy.”

The goes on to mention another aspect, not reflected in the statistics, is that more Germans are drinking alcohol-free beer. The nationwide German Brewers’ Association wrote in their annual report for 2016 that there are now about 400 different brands of alcohol-free beer - 50 more than the previous year. And every 20th litre of beer brewed in Germany is alcohol-free. So is Nirvana Brewery on to something?  The first thing to say about that is that Britain isn't Germany and it doesn't follow what happens there will happen here.  The history of no and low alcohol beers (NABLABS) in this country isn't exactly a glorious one. Frankly beers such as Kaliber and Whitbread White Label were pretty poor and nowadays while you may encounter the odd bottle of Beck's Blue or Clausthaler, you'd probably be advised to check its "best before" date before handing over your dosh.  You'll be just as unlucky if you fancy a low alcohol beer. When the Government reduced the duty on low alcohol beers it encouraged a rash of them, the vast majority of which lasted a few months before sinking without trace. That isn't to say that there aren't honourable exceptions, but you'll be unlikely to find them down your local.

The problem with low/no alcohol beers is that typically, they just don't taste very nice - ales taste thin and even German ones taste a bit odd when the alcohol is taken away.  The ambition of providing "a good quality craft beer that is full in flavour" as Nirvana hopes has proved to be a Will o' the Wisp for the industry as a whole. It would be a brave man that thought this will have a different outcome, though of course I wish them well. Nirvana aims to export their beer, but wait. Let's return to Herr König. "We can compensate for what’s not being drunk inland with export increases and alcohol-free beer,” he said. Looks like a fair bit of competition for Nirvana then.

Is history of NABLABS about to be overturned? Will this venture fly or are there thin times ahead?

I suppose that there are exceptions to the rule and one variable would be where you draw the line in deciding low in alcohol is low. 2%? 3 or more?  That will make a difference.  I still reckon that for no alcohol beer, there isn't a rosy outlook taste-wise. There will also be more possibilities if you drink at home rather than the pub though it will still be a hard find to source them. As usual, I talk from a pub perspective.

If you do want to take a punt on these kind of beers, the Independent and the Telegraph have some advice. Good luck.


Friday 3 February 2017

A Different Version of Truth

Many of you will have read Mark Johnson's blog post on sexism and his "unfair" treatment at Manchester Beer and Cider Festival under the provocative title of "What Men Did Next".  The men in question being me and my good friend Graham Donning, Organisers of the said festival. In this hard hitting piece Mark explains how he was unfairly shut up when he wanted to ask the panel, which I chaired, that was discussing beery matters, for their views on sexism in the beer industry. It's a serious subject which Mark takes, well, very seriously.

"Two male organisers of the festival decided that the four male panellists didn't need to discuss sexism in beer."

The underlying, implied but unspoken charge being that in objecting to his intervention that Graham and I are a couple of old unreformed sexists. Well we are over 60, so we must be mustn't we? Oh and of course we had chosen an all male panel, so guilty as charged.  Except it wasn't quite like that, but a little background first.  A bit of a case for the defence. Graham and I first met around 35 years ago at a Trade Union Education Seminar at what was then UMIST in Manchester. We have been friends from that day to this. We were both active trade unionists of long standing and both Chairmen of our respective branches, him in Barrow and me in Liverpool. The 1980's were a bit of an interesting time for trade unions and in Liverpool in the febrile Derek Hatton days, a lot was going on.  Of course representing members isn't all strikes and picket lines. It involved the mundane and the important, side by side. One of the things we sometimes had to do in those much less enlightened and male dominated times, was to represent female members who had been discriminated against on grounds of gender in cases such as lack of promotion, unfair treatment when needing to look after children, wishing to work part time or job share and other such instances of gender based bias.

That was the responsibility and it comes with the job. When you head up anything, when you represent people, you put your head above the parapet and lead. It doesn't bring you much thanks on a broad level, but that isn't the point.  The point is that from a very early stage in my adult development I was immersed in an organisation that rightly breathed and taught at courses such as the one mentioned above, the fundamental importance of gender equality. In short Graham and I have been involved in gender equality since before our accuser was born. And actually, we can prove it.

"Two male organisers of the festival decided that the four male panellists didn't need to discuss sexism in beer."

Even during these days Graham and I were both involved in the Campaign for Real Ale and have been active in it ever since. We have been at the progressive end of the campaign for years and been responsible for many modernising changes. We have organised beer festivals galore and latterly - well for the last seven years large beer festivals such as the one in which Mark was stopped in his tracks. During that time we have tried hard to make the festival a forward looking one. We have tried to ban sexist materials and won't knowingly allow such stuff. We got rid of the T Shirt man and his dubious apparel, we have an active equality outlook and many of our bar managers and management team are women. We aren't perfect in an imperfect world, but we do what we can. We like to think that we get most things right given our background and we certainly always try.

"Two male organisers of the festival decided that the four male panellists didn't need to discuss sexism in beer."

Of course though, in the real world things don't always work out. Mark scoffs at an all male panel and implies sexism again. Not that simple I'm afraid. It is fiendishly difficult to get such a panel together in the first place. One tends to look to people that you know will fit the bill and while I know lots of people in the trade, I don't necessarily know lots of people who are suitable and willing. I had one female brewer in mind, but she is no longer in the trade and I did put out an appeal on Twitter with no takers. Of course I could have done more, but funnily enough there are a million and one other things to do in organising a large beer festival. But for the record, I did try.

"Two male organisers of the festival decided that the four male panellists didn't need to discuss sexism in beer."

So why did I not allow Mark to put his reasonable question "What does the panel think about sexism within the beer trade?"    (or similar). The simple answer is that he didn't say that or anything like that when chosen (by me) to speak.  At the beginning of the debate, following on from last year's experience of speechifying from the audience on their pet subjects, I made it clear that the audience should only ask the panel a question and that speeches from the floor instead of questions wouldn't be allowed. Instead Mark related an incident about a pump clip that his girlfriend had found offensive and extremely upsetting. As his story went on, I cut him off as he hadn't asked a question, just as I had done with two others earlier.  As I understand it, Graham's intervention from the side was complaining that Mark hadn't drawn the incident to any organiser's attention when it happened on the Wednesday when it could have been dealt with.  (Wouldn't that have been reasonable? Confront the sexism when you come across it rather than days later?)  Mark ran from the debate, shouting many things as he stormed off, telling Graham who offered to discuss the pump clip with him, to "Fuck Off (or similar)."  Other words were uttered too, but not all decipherable.

 "Two male organisers of the festival decided that the four male panellists didn't need to discuss sexism in beer."

By the way, if I had been trying to gag Mark, I 'd hardly have invited him to put a question. I've chaired thousands of meetings and know how to ignore those I don't want to hear from. So why didn't I give Mark a second chance? There wasn't a chance to do so as this all took a matter of a minute or so - and there he was - gone. (I have to say that Matt Curtis did indeed grab a mike to say that sexism was a very important subject worth discussing as indeed it is - though I should point out that contrary to what is alleged,  Matt knew exactly who was on the panel well beforehand and raised no objections to it. Indeed he praised it.)

"Two male organisers of the festival decided that the four male panellists didn't need to discuss sexism in beer."

I've chaired enough meetings to know that unless you want the meeting hi-jacked, you may well have to curtail those that want to exercise a hobby horse even if that hobby horse actually does need a trot out.  That's the Chair's responsibility to the audience. As mentioned before I did that with two others who wanted to give speeches. They didn't ask a question of the panel either, but they accepted being told it wasn't allowed. Throwing a strop and unfairly implying it is due to sexism when you don't get your own way is as distasteful as sexism itself. This wasn't an attempt to stifle debate, but simply a response to a member of the audience ignoring the conditions set by the person who chaired the debate. Losing self control, storming out shouting and swearing is rank bad behaviour and more importantly, it doesn't advance the cause.

This was all most unfortunate, depressing and unanticipated. I hope I have recalled it correctly as it was over in a flash. I will say however that when people with a long and proud record of representing other are branded sexists in public, there is a need to put the record straight. 

I thought long and hard about writing this, but given the circumstances, I felt I had to. There's plenty more I could add, but this'll do.

The pumpclip instance is a hard one to have got wrong.  The fact that it is approved by a female brewer shows just what a minefield this area is. No we didn't spot it - our bad - but we don't order from many breweries on distasteful pumpclip grounds and have told them so. As I said, we are not perfect and can no more control volunteer staff to the nth degree, than we can change human nature. But we do what we can, while still trying to organise a massive beer festival.
Point of Information: I also met my partner of 30 years at a Trade Union Meeting in Preston.