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.

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.

A pint of independence please

The Scottish Independence Referendum comes to a head this week and by Friday, we’ll know the result. Either way, Scotland will be getting more power from Westminster (albeit not as much with a “No” vote). I’ve been heavily involved in referenda over the years and know that the most ethereal things can capture the attention and swing votes. There have been a few people out there in the blogosphere commenting on the referendum in the context of beer but are there beers out there looking to speak out themselves on the vote?

Famous (or infamous depending on your view) for speaking out on topical issues through their beers, BrewDog has chosen to remain silent on the referendum. They’ve even refrained from making any public statements on this vote. While this may be surprising for some and disappointing for others, it’s completely understandable. For a company in Scotland with significant presence across Britain (both in terms of staff and locations), it’s an extremely sensitive issue for them. Although a few people out there are joking that in the event of a “Yes” vote, BrewDog could be back at the Great British Beer Festival but on the foreign beer bar with kegs!

So it appears to have fallen to Ireland’s very own Eight Degrees to take the plunge and nail the Scottish colours to their latest limited edition brew. Alba Abú makes no secret what result is desired on Friday. Eight Degrees have been embarking on a single-hop series of late and they use plenty of Chinook in this Scotch ale, which also contains heather and pine. Scotch ales can be an acquired taste as some people are put off by darker, sweeter tasting beers but this beer proved to be an extremely popular choice at the Irish Craft Beer and Cider Festival.

Alba Abú proved to be a big seller at the Irish Craft Beer & Cider Festival
Alba Abú proved to be a big seller at the Irish Craft Beer & Cider Festival

Earlier this week I was in touch with Scott Baigent, the kiwi-half of Eight Degrees. Scott kindly took timeout from his busy schedule to discuss Alba Abú.

Being Antipodeans living in Ireland did you come up with the name as a cheeky nod to Scottish Independence?

Our intention behind Alba Abú was not to make a statement as a couple of Antipodeans, but as an Irish business. We have been following the build up to the independence vote over the last year and felt that it had massive ramifications for Ireland both economically and politically. We were disappointed at the lack of public discussion on the vote, and in particular, the lack of solidarity from the political elite.  From Scotland, I can only imagine that from the silence across the Irish Sea, they must think that Ireland is largely indifferent to the vote.  We decided that as an Irish business we wanted to get off the fence and show some of that solidarity to the Scottish independence movement.

In terms of the beer itself, how did it come about?

The Alba Abú recipe was developed in collaboration with a local company to us, Ballyhoura Mushrooms. Ballyhoura Mushrooms specialise in growing fantastic gourmet mushrooms and also in wild foraging ingredients for great restaurants around the country. We played around with ideas for various locally sourced wild foraged ingredients, and felt that heather and Scots pine needles would provide a great floral and pine aroma to a beer and also a synergy with the story. The beer recipe itself was loosely based on a brown Scotch Ale and then enhanced further by substituting traditional Cara/Crystal additions with wonderful Weyermanns Cara Aroma malt. For hop selection, we went for multiple Chinook additions – primarily to form parallels between the pine aroma characteristics of the Chinook hop and the pine needle. We were anxious that Alba Abú would be a great beer and sell itself, irrespective of the political message behind it.

Are you surprised with the name generating a lot of media interest?

Our intentions with the beer name was to find a balance between making a bit of a public statement while not overegging it. Hopefully we struck that balance!

What do you say to people out there on social media saying beer has no place in politics?

We were interested in the sociological aspects of this campaign: Beer is a well known lubricant for political discussion – what would happen if the beer prompted the topic for political discussion? We are always pleased to see craft beer consumers highly engaged with us on social media – and to be honest we weren’t too sure what the reaction was going to be. We felt strongly enough about what we were trying say with Alba Abú, that we were willing to take any criticism on the appropriateness of a brewery making such statements on the chin.

Last year, the award-winning Amber Ella made its debut at the Irish Craft Beer & Cider Festival, will Alba Abu be merely a once-off or do you see it becoming a regular release or autumn seasonal? If the vote goes the other way, will you be considering a name change for the beer?

Alba Abú was conceived and developed solely for the independence vote. We such a great pipeline of limited edition and seasonal releases coming through in the next couple of months that we don’t have the capacity to do a repeat brew of it.

Wasn’t it the first beer of yours to sell out at the festival? Any comments from patrons on the name?

Yes, it sold out mid way through Sunday, and was probably our greatest seller at the festival. Based on people repeatedly coming back for it, this appeared to be because it was a great tasting beer rather than necessarily the story. We had a couple of patriotic Scottish friends resident in Ireland helping out behind the bar on Friday and Saturday. The beer gave them a great forum to talk with people and explain the importance of the vote for them personally, Scotland and implications for Ireland. As only people resident in Scotland are able to vote, it gave them a public way of expressing their strongly held views, although they won’t have the opportunity to do so at the voting booth.

Everything you'd want in a Scotch Ale & more
Everything you’d want in a Scotch Ale & more

Last Sunday, I had the chance to enjoy a pint Alba Abú in The Norseman in Temple Bar. It’s one to look out for if you haven’t tried it or better yet it’s one to have over the next few days to either celebrate or think what might have been.

Alba Abu's clearly the beer for the moment
Alba Abu’s clearly the beer for the moment