Craft beer’s part of new Government 10 year growth strategy

Food Wise 2025, the new national strategic report for the agri-food sector was published this week. Craft beer and whiskey are designated key areas of focus over the next decade. This is the latest acknowledgement by Government that efforts must be made to allow these producers to continue to grow and expand.

The overall objective for beer and whiskey is to nurture the entrepreneurial spirit of the producers. A dedicated sectoral strategy is needed setting out “supports, targets and best practice for the entry, development and progression of these companies to 2025”. An increase in R&D and innovation across the sector is needed but for that to happen there needs to be a 10% increase in funding per annum. The need to develop skills in brewing and distilling is recognised, particularly in the areas of mentoring and training. I would like to see this progressed further into the development of a formal apprenticeship scheme for aspiring brewers. This would result in a blend of formal qualifications and on-the-job experience in a structured format.

Develop a sectoral strategy for food and drink SMEs, which sets out supports, targets and best practice for the entry, development and progression of these companies to 2025      Food Wise 2025

It is little surprise that a key focus is in boosting export sales. We’re a small island with a small but growing population. Yes, there’s plenty of room for breweries to expand at home but for those that want to, we need to help them gain access to international markets. One just needs to look at the approach that Carlow Brewing Co took all those years ago, a big effort in exporting because the market wasn’t really available in the country. That was when there were only a handful of craft breweries. We’ve over 70 now and the domestic market still has a long way to go in order to open fully to them. That is not to say that craft isn’t growing, it is and will continue to do so. I’m just saying a craft beer export strategy could really boost those already able to ship internationally. However, we also need to support those not yet ready but have aspirations to do so. Food Wise 2025 recognises the need to “continue to work directly with indigenous companies to identify new export market opportunities and develop services and supports for companies to facilitate export growth”. It also sees that specific market knowledge of the US market needs to be provided. This maybe more targeted at whiskey but there’s room for Irish craft beer too. The time has never been better for crafting an export strategy for beer.

Continue to work directly with indigenous companies to identify new export market opportunities and develop services and supports for companies to facilitate export growth   Food Wise 2025

The focus on beer in whiskey and beer in the report is hardly surprising. Minister for Agriculture and the Marine, Simon Coveney TD has been a more than a fair share of beer events during this time in the department. It’s a good news story, entrepreneurs starting up, producing products in the country and looking to export – what more could you need! However, there’s a growing trend that whiskey is getting more attention than craft beer. Yes, a distillery requires far more investment in capital than a brewery, not least with the three years needed for maturation alone. Also, whiskey has the snob factor and beer suffers unfairly for not been seen as civilised as other mainstream alcoholic drinks, with the possible exception of cider. The need to “develop an Irish Whiskey and food pairing trail as a major tourist attraction and to differentiate Irish food and drink produce” is singled out but we should also be pushing for a brewery tap licence to be introduced.

Beer, cider and whiskey makers must be equally respected, supported and championed. They all tell the same story. We can produce excellent, diverse and quality products on this small island of ours.

Orders please: the Westminster Barliament is open

Wow, what an election that proved to be over there in Britain.  I had an eerie feeling that it could prove to be ’92 all over again for Labour.  In certain areas it was even worse. While they retain control of every former mining area, they ‘lost’ Scotland. The SNP, the real surprising force, now occupies the third party spot, previously held by the Liberal Democrats in Westminster.  And with 56 out of a total of 59 seats, they are the undisputed party of Scotland.  Whereas UKIP and the Green Party received 15% of the popular vote, they only managed one MP each.  In an election full of surprises, few expected the Conservatives to win an outright majority. However, this could prove to be a pyrrhic victory. Without the Lib Dem crutch, they could find themselves at the mercy of their Eurosceptic wing.

Two pints for two-terms as Prime Minister - David Cameron returns with a single party government
Two pints for two-terms as Prime Minister – David Cameron returns with a single party government

Last month, I featured a piece on what the election could do for beer (British general election 2015: political pint scoring).  Now in its aftermath it is time to look at what is likely to happen.  The Queen’s Speech to parliament contained few bills that would have direct impact on the British beer industry. This is hardly surprising, as the Tories wish to remain silent on the issue of Minimum Unit Pricing, for the time being at least. It could be back on the agenda pending the outcome of the legal challenge to the Scottish equivalent.

Harriet Harman is acting leader of the Opposition and of the Labour Party. She is pictured alongside Lib Dem Danny Alexander, former Chief Secretary to the Treasury and one of the big names to lose
Harriet Harman is acting leader of the Opposition and of the Labour Party. She is pictured alongside Lib Dem Danny Alexander, former Chief Secretary to the Treasury and one of the big names to lose

In a move that will boost consumer demand generally but will spill over to beer, the Treasury will not increase income tax rates, VAT and national insurance before 2020 at the earliest (i.e. not before the next general election, providing it goes full-term). What is unknown is whether George Osbourne will reduce excise duty for a fourth consecutive time. There is a second 2015 budget scheduled for July 8. But this emergency budget is likely to focus on measures to reduce the deficit. We may have to wait until Budget 2016 before seeing any additional moves on excise.  Britain needs to address the legacy of the duty escalator, which caused excise to increase by 42% between 2008 and 2012.

Back as Chancellor, will George Osborne continue work to reverse the "beer tax"?
Back as Chancellor, will George Osborne continue work to reverse the “beer tax”?

The British political scene is marked by “buzzword” overkill.  This could be observed when the British monarch confirmed that her government will be doing the hokey cokey on the Brussels dancefloor in the lead up to an “in-out referendum” to be held by the end of 2017. Speculation is mounting that it is likely to be held sometime in the autumn of next year. Cameron won’t want this issue to completely dominate the national agenda and the longer it drags on, the less stable his government could be. The deal he will seek to do with Brussels will focus primarily on regulatory issues and possible opt-outs. These discussions and the subsequent referendum may attract a negative sentiment towards British imports across the EU, but this is likely to be over-stated.  What is likely to happen is that more sectors of the British economy will publicly acknowledge the importance of the EU for their business. The brewing industry could well be one of them. While its practitioners may not agree with all aspects of labelling regulation, a move on the origins, ingredients and ownership issues would be supported by the likes of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA). So too would dealing with certain issues as part of the EU-US trade deal, the Trans-Atlantic Investment Partnership.

Nigel Farage of UKIP and "pint-op" fame lost his election bid and can look forward to more beers in Brussels and Strasbourg
Nigel Farage of UKIP and “pint-op” fame lost his election bid. He can look forward to more beers in Brussels and Strasbourg

A new Enterprise Bill will be introduced to Parliament with the objective of cutting £10bn worth of red tape. We can expect to see plenty of bizarre regulations appearing over the coming months to illustrate the types of reforms that will be introduced, such as the removal of fines for “No Smoking” signs being the wrong size or in the wrong font. The main beneficiaries of this bill will be small businesses, which includes virtually all breweries in Britain. Business rates are to be reformed and a Small Business Conciliation Service will be introduced. This will be a low-cost mechanism for solving disputes (e.g. payments) and could bring benefits to the supply-chain dependent industry that is brewing. Energy costs are also likely to be addressed but as part of a separate bill.

Devolution is back on the agenda, with added powers promised for Scotland and Wales.  Expect to hear a lot about “metro regions” and the “northern powerhouse” (buzzword overkill?) as regional administration is reformed and new directly-elected mayors introduced. Pub goers can expect more integrated public transport across cities and not just London, apparently. Holyrood has recently agreed to commission a study into the tied-pub sector in Scotland to provide evidence on what changes need to occur. However, it remains to be seen whether any changes can be introduced ahead of next year’s Scottish parliamentary elections.

New MPs can look forward to enjoying one of eight bars in Westminster
New MPs can look forward to enjoying one of eight bars in Westminster

CAMRA ran an effective campaign in the run-up to the general election and sought pledges from candidates to “support well-run community pubs”, “promote Britain’s 1,300 breweries” and “represent pub goers and beer drinkers”. Over 10,000 of its members contacted their local candidates to support these issues. The organisation received pledges from 1,162 candidates, of whom 211 were returned to Parliament. This means 32.5% of the MPs in Westminster have committed to supporting the beer industry. As the table below shows, this support is spread right across the board, with less than a third of the ruling Conservative Party pledging their commitment to beer. Oddly, UKIP’s sole MP, Douglas Carswell didn’t sign up to the campaign. This is in spite of UKIP incorporating these priorities in its manifesto, along with other issues close to CAMRA’s heart. Perhaps he had enough of Nigel Farage’s endless “pint-ops” for Britain?

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But it’s early days and naturally it’s difficult to predict with any great certainty what the political landscape will look like next year let alone in five years’ time. What will happen to the likes of Nigel Farage? Will he finally be allowed to resign as UKIP’s leader? Obviously, alcohol will continue to be linked to health and crime policies by all parties. Regardless, I think “pint-ops” will be here to stay and the All-Party Parliamentary Beer Group will have some new faces.

On the radio talking about the business of beer

Last Saturday I was invited on to RTE’s The Business Show along with Miriam Atkins, editor of Food and Wine Magazine to discuss craft beer. Conor Brophy was sitting in for regular host Richard Curran.

It was a lot of fun discussing a broad range of issues impacting the beer business. Yes, it meant an early start for a Saturday morning but anyone who knows me would know (for better or worse) that I’m always happy to talk about beer. It was a quick 11 minutes or so and I just hope that it goes to show that beer is a topic deserving of more airtime.

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Beer Wars – Craft vs. “Crafty”

“The world’s population of beer connoisseurs has been steadily expanding over the last few years, and in the States this week a disgruntled beer drinker from California, Evan Peters, is suing Miller-owned Blue Moon for falsely advertising itself as a “craft” product. Are there some big beer wars brewing? Aidan Sweeney, Beer Sommelier, and Miriam Atkins from Food and Wine Magazine gave Conor an overview”.

Listen here

British general election 2015: political pint scoring

Britain goes to the polls tomorrow. The outcome of General Election 2015 will likely have an effect on the British beer industry, well, the entire alcohol industry. As a bit of a political anorak, I couldn’t help but scan each party’s manifesto to see what alcohol measures were being put forward. The following doesn’t include other business-friendly policies, such as commitments to reduce business rates, which would benefit the brewing industry.

Over the duration of this past parliament, an interesting shift has taken place in attitudes to the alcohol industry. This has been on the back of heavy lobbying by the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), the Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA), publicans, the industry directly and a few umbrella campaigns. Tax breaks for small breweries were improved. The infamous duty escalator was abolished and Budget 2015 marked the third year in a row of cuts to the beer tax. These cuts were small but symbolic. The lasting impact, however, of the duty escalator remains. Between 2008 and 2012, excise duty on beer increased by 42%, thanks to the British economy witnessing high inflation during those years. This is the big reason that pints have been topping £4 and above.

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Of course, alcohol is again being singled out as a key contributor to crime and violence. A number of measures are being put forward to tackle the anti-social behaviour. More support is being promised by the majority of parties to tackle the issue of alcohol dependency. These are the ‘old dependables’ in policy terms.

The introduction of minimum unit pricing (MUP) seems to be the flavour of the day. The rationale put forward is that it will help to curb alcohol-fuelled violence and reduce binge drinking etc.  Interestingly, the Conservative party remains silent on the issue. Back in 2013, the party ditched plans to introduce such a measure at the eleventh hour. Only UKIP remain vehemently opposed to MUP. While some are awaiting the outcome of the legal challenge to the Scottish case (Liberal Democrats), others go so far as to suggest prices to be charged per unit. This can range from 50p per unit on all alcohol (Plaid Cymru) to “40p per unit of beer and cider to 50p per unit of spirits” (Ulster Unionist Party).

Alcohol sponsorship of sport is also proving to be a hot topic. Yes, this may be more of an issue for macro-breweries but there are potential local issues involving regional and small breweries. While we may not see it in football, there are a number of county cricket teams that receive some sponsorship from their local breweries. This is not to say it doesn’t happen with rugby. The Green King IPA Championship aside, local clubs often look to their local breweries for support. The Tories, Labour and UKIP are campaigning to retain such sponsorship. The Lib Dems are silent on the issue but the Greens are against such sponsorship and are advocating a complete ban on “advertising (direct or indirect) and product placement on remuneration or reward”.

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Two parties are actively promoting ‘personal freedom’ policies but come at it from completely different angles. The Green Party wants to decriminalise cannabis because “people should not be criminalised for the recreational use of a drug which is no more harmful than alcohol or tobacco”. In fact, they want to regulate it in a similar manner to alcohol and they are pushing for tougher regulations on alcohol. On the other hand, UKIP wants to reverse the plain packaging legislation and to “amend the smoking ban to give pubs and clubs the choice to open smoking rooms provided they are properly ventilated and physically separated from non-smoking areas”.

This is not to say that policies won’t pop up in the next Parliament. Some may be harder to enact. Examples of such policies may be along the lines of UKIP’s one-time policy to ban long-term welfare recipients from buying alcohol and the Scottish National Party’s attempts to prohibit purchasing of alcohol online from English retailers. Other examples might include banning happy hours in Northern Ireland and the DUP proposal to explore the introduction of a rates levy on off licences and supermarkets that sell alcohol. The revenue generated by this “could be used for dealing with adverse impacts of alcohol abuse in society”. The Green Party wants to go so far as to increase the tax on the “net profits of tobacco companies and companies producing alcohol for consumption”. These proposed taxes would be in propoprtion to the amount of alcohol in the finished products.

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CAMRA have been running a visible campaign (www.ge2015.camra.org.uk) in the run-up to the general election, including stands at the main party conferences. They have received pledges from over 1,000 prospective MPs to “support well-run community pubs”, “promote Britain’s 1,300 breweries” and “represent pub goers and beer drinkers”. This includes letters from Ed Miliband and David Cameron.  “The Labour Party are leading the pack as most pub and beer friendly,” according to the real ale body, with pledges from 292 election candidates, “followed closely by the Green Party (264), with Liberal Democrats in third place (225), Conservatives in fourth (160), and UKIP bringing up the rear in fifth (118), although famously pro-pub UKIP leader Nigel Farage is among those pledging support”.

Food and drink have played a visible part in the general election campaign, from Ed Miliband bungling the eating of a bacon sandwich to the constant photos of Nigel Farage with a pint in hand. They’re easy props for photo ops, but they’re very presence may be significant. It’s reasonable to assume that the recent policy developments and new promises could indeed herald better times for Britain’s beer industry.

Of course, if a voter casts their ballot purely on the basis of what their MP might do for alcohol, their beer goggles might be on a little tight… But as a beer lover, I have to say, I’ve heard worse reasons for going out and voting.

In Kingstown for a taste of Old Empire

I was out at a conference in Dún Laoghaire recently to hear about initiatives to revitalise town centres. There are clearly a lot of ideas floating about in how they can be improved. Over the past few years it was easy to see the effects the recession, the opening of the Dundrum Town Centre, aggressive clampers and other issues has had on Dún Laoghaire itself.

The conference due attention to the role independent retailers, restauranteurs and publicans can play in urban regeneration. However, it was also stressed that it was important to get the balance right in terms of attracting the chains etc. The town has seen Starbucks take root alongside prominent retailers as well. One of the latest and certainly high profile openings was JD Wetherspoons second Irish venture, The Forty Foot. Sharing the site and name of the previous incarnation, the pub is a departure from the sort of “village feel” Wetherspoons and fits in with the more modernist and light-filled of the large “corporate” Wetherspoons.

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Spread over two floors, the 40 Foot has fantastic views over the harbour and across Dublin Bay. By all accounts it has a younger clientele to Blackrock’s The Tun Tavern, particularly at weekends. I only had time for a quick pint and of course opted for cask ale. Although it’s great to see Brú Brewery joining Eight Degrees in their Irish craft beer bottle range.

With the town formally being called Kingstown, I had the excuse to opt for Marston’s Old Empire, a 5.7% abv IPA. Martson’s is one of those breweries that lost a significant amount of charm over recent years. Yes, it’s still independent but it has grown through acquisitions. The Midland’s based company comprises the likes of Bank’s, Eversheds, Wychwood and has just acquired the brewing arm of Thwaites, including the Crafty Dan range. The brewery has embarked on a successful partnership with English cricket (more on that at another time). While Marston’s is firmly in the company of big independent brewers, it could suffer reputational damage along the lines of Green King.

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So out on the deck of the top floor of The Forty Foot, I tried Old Empire. The beer was a clear and bright copper colour. It was bronze almost and would leave those hooked on spray tans, satisfied. There was fresh orange and grapefruit on the nose but there was also a hint of toffee. On drinking, it was clear that this beer there was about chewy bitterness, little else. There was only the slightest sweetness on the back of the palate. It was slightly astringent in the finish. The toasted malt bill had too much burnt notes for my liking.

It’s interesting to note that the two outside areas of the bar are non smoking. Those wanting to smoke will find themselves confined to an area a safe distance from the main entrance. I will be back to the 40 Foot the next time I’m in Dún Laoghaire but I will opt for something else on cask.