Tuesday 17 September 2019

Real ale 'isn't dear enough' and it's all our fault!

The root of all evil? The Sir Henry
Segrave, a Wetherspoons in Southport
A couple of months ago I picked up the summer issue of Ale Cry, the magazine of the CAMRA Central Lancs Branch. It's an interesting mag, and its layout and presentation are much better than a few years ago when, although the articles were okay, it looked like a badly-produced college rag mag. One article grabbed my attention, 'The Price Of Your Pint Revisited', written by the editor Adrian Smith - you can read the article concerned here (on page 22).

The general thrust of the article is that we drinkers are reluctant to pay what he considers a fair price for real ale with the consequence that real ale may be "dumbed down" to save costs, or discontinued altogether. He makes some international comparisons, but comparing our beer prices with those in other countries is of little value unless you also compare average incomes, taxation levels, duty, and indeed all the many other factors that affect what we British drinkers pay.

He also has some scathing words for Wetherspoons and the vouchers that they give to CAMRA members, describing this membership benefit as CAMRA encouraging members to visit JDW pubs at the expense of traditional pubs, even though it is actually funded by Wetherspoons, not CAMRA. The value of the vouchers, £20 per year, equates to 39p per CAMRA member per week, not an amount, I would suggest, that would drive traditional pubs to close, especially as 99.7% of the UK population are not CAMRA members.

Many organisations have benefits for members provided by outside businesses; indeed, some of the membership benefits I am entitled to claim, in addition to those via CAMRA, come through my trade union, the National Trust, my railcard, my car breakdown service and even my folk club. Furthermore, there are 17 other companies that offer perks to CAMRA members, some of them in the beer and hospitality industries - but there's not a word in Ale Cry bemoaning any of those. Besides, there is absolutely nothing to stop any other pubco making similar offers.

At this point I wondered whether I was beginning to detect the anti-Wetherspoons snobbery that, regrettably, some CAMRA members are prone to, a perception reinforced by a statement in the Ale Cry article that, "Real ale on sale at £2.09 a pint is frankly ridiculous". Why? Wetherspoons are making a profit, so if they can afford to sell beer at such a price, why shouldn't they? Perhaps it's the perception of the clientele that Wetherspoons' prices are said to attract: people on benefits, parents with screaming brats running wild and pensioners drooling into their cheap meals, all of which shameful slanders - and more - I have read too many times (although not in the Ale Cry article). I consider such generalisations about Wetherspoons clientele both inaccurate and disrespectful.

CAMRA says that avoiding isolation by going to the pub is a good thing, but without Wetherspoons, many people on low incomes could rarely, if ever, afford to go out for a pint; they would certainly have no chance of paying the price for real ale that Adrian Smith thinks they should.

I've written before about the price of beer, most recently in June 2018 here. One point I have made several times is that in 1972, a pint of bitter here in the north west was around 13p or 14p. Using the Bank of England inflation calculator, I learned that 14p back then is equivalent to £1.82 in 2018. In recent years, and especially since 2010, ordinary people's incomes have definitely not increased correspondingly. In real terms, beer is nowadays markedly dearer while many people's incomes are lower. It's logical to assume this is a significant reason why drinkers are reluctant to pay more for real ale, but the Ale Cry article makes no mention if it.

A list of factors affecting pub usage, the level of beer prices in pubs and what people can afford would include (in no particular order):
  • Beer taxes that over the years have risen by more than the rate of inflation, and which are among the highest in Europe.
  • Excessive business rates (which, incidentally, are set by Whitehall, not councils).
  • Pub companies overcharging their tenants for rent, supplies (including all drinks) and building maintenance.
  • Rising costs for brewers (e.g. raw materials) and pubs (e.g. utility bills).
  • Falling beer sales overall.
  • Changes in drinking habits, with many young people preferring go to bars and clubs rather than traditional pubs.
  • More choices of places to drink, such as bars, restaurants, hotels and clubs.
  • Cheap drink in supermarkets.
  • Sophisticated home entertainment systems.
  • Austerity, leaving people with less cash and either unemployed or worried they might be.
  • The increase in insecure employment, zero hours contracts, and minimum wage jobs.
  • The smoking ban.
In the face of all this, it seems perverse and facile to criticise the drinker, and I am surprised that the editor of a drinkers' campaigning magazine does so. I did e-mail him a couple of months ago making some of these points but received no reply.

► For information, the Wetherspoons voucher scheme is currently being replaced.


  1. And arguments like this always miss the fundamental point that, if you charge more for something, you will inevitably sell less of it. Cask beer is critically dependent on turnover - it has no future as a low-volume niche product sold at a premium price.

    1. Good point; I completely agree.

    2. Ditto,sadly even some well established breweries dont seem to get that point anymore,and try to chase the niche product price for cask,£4.30 for a 3.6% cask ale,when the average in area is £3.50 for an equiv strength ale at best,and then they bemoan the decreasing volume of cask beer they sell at that higher price,cause & effect dont seem to register to them anymore

  2. I think real ale should be more expensive. £4 minimum. To save pubs and real ale and what not.

    Keep Spoons Bud Light at £1.99 tho yeh?

  3. Living in Leytonstone, £4 a pint would increase the cost for standard beers.

    The new voucher scheme includes Stonegate, Castle Rock and Brains.

    Certainly agree that draught beer is a bulk commodity and needs to be priced as such to sell.

  4. Well said Nev. Excellent article.

  5. While I generally agree with the premise of the post, I do wonder sometimes whether new breweries coming into the market are put off from producing real ale as a result of the lower margins involved.

    A couple of years ago I wrote a brewery business plan with my brother as we were investigating the possibility of starting something in the East Midlands and the cost of creating the actual beer is exactly the same for real ale and the dreaded "craft keg", but keg beer has a longer shelf life, even if unfiltered and unpasteurised.

    Given largely similar production costs but the ability to sell for a higher margin, why would I as a business owner leave money on the table?

    When I was home in the summer I went to a couple of pubs in the Inverness area that were charging a fiver a pint of excellent kegged beer from the Black Isle Brewing Company, while the average price of real ale seemed to be about 3.50-4.00.

    To play devils advocate, while it is true that turnover is necessary for real ale given its short shelf life, unless a pub uses cask breathers, does that not create a form of scarcity that would allow pubs to charge a premium on the basis that they consistently provide a superior quality product compared to pubs with lacklustre cellarmanship.

    The too ready acceptance of mediocre real ale pulls down the places that put quality first.

    1. My post was intended as one of explanation, firstly as to why real ale is dearer in real terms now than it used to be, and secondly why people may be unwilling - unable in some cases - to pay more. If excessive taxation and rip-off pub companies were reigned in, just to cite two factors, more profit could end up in the hands of brewers and pubs. My main point was that it is misguided to blame drinkers if real ale isn't as profitable as it should be.

    2. I agree that blaming drinkers for the lower margins in real ale is misguided, there are a raft of other factors to consider.

      One question that pops into my head though is if people stop drinking real ale because of a price increase, what do they start drinking in its place?

    3. Now, that is an interesting question!

    4. Some of the local pubco pubs sell smooth bitters for less than cask. But it's more likely to be a slow drip-drip-drip of drinking a bit less or going less often. For every price increase, no matter how trivial you may think it is, there will be *someone* was is deterred.


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