Our male-about-ale Pete Brown on why beer deserves the support it got in the Budget
Never has a gift been so compromised by the manner of its giving.
There was delight in beer circles the other day when George Osborne announced not only the end of the hated alcohol duty escalator, but also a further penny cut in the duty of beer.
And then Grant Shapps put out that tweet.
— Grant Shapps MP (@grantshapps) March 19, 2014
As soon as I saw it, the taste of my celebratory pint went sour in my mouth. At first I thought it was a piss-take created by some Guardian-reading social media satirist, making a clever point about how out of touch the Tories are with working people. Then the real piss-takes started flooding on Twitter, and online news confirmed that no, the Tory party chairman really had said, “Cutting the bingo tax and beer duty to help hardworking people do more of the things they enjoy,” like some modern version of Marie Antoinette, or John Cleese’s upper crust Robin Hood in the film Time Bandits. (“Have you met the poor? They really are marvellous people.”)
Within hours, the #ToryBingo hashtag was the main focus of Budget discussion online. The next day, Metro’s headline was dubbing it ‘The Pub Landlord budget,’ complete with a big shot of Al Murray’s character.
The Pub Landlord is, let’s remember, a character. He’s a dinosaur, a brilliantly clever depiction of out-of-date, blinkered views and attitudes. In his hands beer is there to be swilled, by men only. Showing any serious appreciation for it would be girly – something the French might do, perhaps.
And #ToryBingo has sent beer right back into that world – a world it has spent the last decade trying to escape from. Linking beer and bingo, and distancing them from ‘us’ by informing us that these are the things ‘they’ enjoy, the patronisingly named ‘hardworking people’, evokes the image of a 1970s working men’s club: smoke-filled rooms of booze and fags, the bingo called just before the ‘turn’ comes on stage, greasy crisps in cellophane packets and maybe a limp ham roll if you’re lucky. It’s a long way from ‘our’ world of lattes, café bars and a nice Chablis.
It didn’t take long for a passage from Orwell’s 1984 explaining how a dictatorship controls the proletariat, to become an internet meme:
“…films, football, beer, and above all, gambling filled up the horizon of their minds. To keep them in control was not difficult….”
Whether you’re a fan of the Tories or not, it seems the beer that received the Budget duty cut is the beer of a downtrodden, docile proletariat in a grey world we thought we had left behind.
This is how beer was still seen by some when I started writing about it ten years ago. Wine had just about replaced beer as the aspirational drink of choice. As I wrote in my very first LondonlovesBusiness.com column several years ago, many people found the idea that I wrote about beer to be amusing, and faintly ridiculous. When I confounded them by selling quite a few books on the subject, several people said, “You’re obviously quite good at this. Have you ever thought about writing a proper book?”
But things changed – gradually at first, and then very quickly. The first time I realised something seismic was happening was when I was doing some ad agency consultancy, and one of the junior execs – a girl of about twenty-four – quietly admitted to me that she didn’t like real ale.
“So what?” I said. “It’s okay, not that many people do.”
Then she told me the reason she was embarrassed about it was that everyone in the ad agency drank real ale, and she was regularly the butt of jokes about her rubbish drink tastes. Back when I was working full-time in advertising, you got the piss taken out of you if you did drink real ale.
Ale began consistently outperforming the lager market. While the total beer market went into sharp decline, ale held steady and began to increase its market share. And then the craft beer revolution hit the capital. London went from having just two breweries in 2006 to around 50 in 2014. Craft beer bars began springing up like mushrooms in cool locations. Last year, Time Out proclaimed Asian food and craft beer to be the two most important culinary trends in the capital. After years of pitching ideas for beer features to the deaf ears of national press and magazines, suddenly publications that had always said no were approaching me and others like me and asking us to write about beer for them.
Mintel claims that 13 million adults have tried craft beer in the last six months. A quarter of pubs now stock a craft beer, and 40% of pubs think they should be doing so. Craft beer and real ale are attracting women who were alienated by boorish lager brands. Chefs like Michel Roux and Marco Pierre White have had brewers create bespoke beers for their restaurants. A few weeks ago I presented at a Guardian Masterclass where a100 people came along to learn how to set up a new independent brewery. We have more styles of beer, and more innovation in brewing, than at any point in our history.
This is the reality of beer in 2014, and it’s a very different picture from the one painted around the beer and bingo Budget. Beer and pubs contribute £22bn to the economy and generate £11bn in tax revenue. They support over 900,000 jobs. On average, every pub puts £80,000 into its local economy every year. We’re fond of reflecting that Britain doesn’t make anything any more. Well, it makes beer. The British ale tradition is admired around the world, and exports are booming as the craft beer craze goes global.
This is why beer deserves the support it got in the Budget: because it is a thriving example of British craft and creativity, an industry in which we are world class. And on the other side of the bar, it is currently the most interesting and on-trend drink there is, arousing the curiosity and igniting the taste buds of a whole new generation of drinkers.
It’s not that I have anything against bingo or working men’s clubs. But beer has left that world behind. And Grant Schapps has done its image almost as much damage as he has to that of his own party.
Pete Brown is the author of the newly published Shakespeare’s Local, an amusing romp through six centuries of history through the George Inn near London Bridge, watering hole to Chaucer, Dickens and the Swan of Avon. It is currently Radio 4’s book of the week.Pete is also celebrating being crowned Beer Writer of the Year for a second time.