The Big Interview: Julian Grocock, SIBA chief executive

By Mike Berry

- Last updated on GMT

Grocock: "The bleeding of the beer industry through duty escalation has to come to and end"
Grocock: "The bleeding of the beer industry through duty escalation has to come to and end"
The boss of the Society of Independent Brewers tells the PMA’s Mike Berry that he has as much passion now for beer as he did in his formative drinking years as an undergraduate in Leeds.

November 5th, 2008, is memorable as the date Barack Obama created history by becoming the first black president of the United States. But for Julian Grocock the date has a more meaningful resonance: it was the day that Carlsberg announced the closure of the famous Tetley brewery in Leeds.

“I heard the news on the radio as I was driving to an alcohol harm reduction conference and thought ‘I’m not even going to have anyone to commiserate with when I get there’,” he recalls. “I thought it would be the end of the brand and when I learnt that this great Yorkshire icon was going to be produced in Wolverhampton (at Marston’s Banks’s Brewery), my heart sank.”

Grocock’s concerns were assuaged by a trip to Leeds when, dewy-eyed, he settled in a pub to sup what he thought would be his last pint of Tetley’s from Yorkshire, and discovered it was the ‘new’ beer from Wolverhampton. “It still tasted how I remembered it,” he says.

Grocock’s love affair with real ale goes back to his student days in the early 1970s and has continued unabashed for four decades. “My ex-wife once accused me of loving Tetley bitter more than her,” he says. “I found it hard to disagree.”

Passion for cask
He retains the same passion for cask beer now as he did when a history undergraduate diligently following the ale trails around the pubs of Leeds. “It’s fair to say that part of my student education was developing a liking for beer, in particular handpulled beer.”

From Leeds he moved to Nottingham to study a post-graduate certificate in education, for no real reason other than his partner at the time wanted to be a teacher. After landing a teaching job himself he joined the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) and became active in the local branch. There he met Chris Holmes, the then chairman of CAMRA, and his passion for ale and pubs was cemented.

After giving up his teaching career in 1984 (“not a difficult decision”) he became bar manager at Holmes’s first pub the Old Kings Arms in Newark. Twelve years and two pubs later, he took a broader role in Holmes’s business, Tynemill (now Castle Rock Brewery), eventually rising to managing director. He eventually left the company in 2006 “for a lie down”.

A book about beer was started, and still remains to be finished, and Grocock soon discovered that being at home full-time with a wife and three daughters was not necessarily conducive to relaxation. The following year he was sounded out about taking the new chief executive role at the Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA) and jumped at the chance.

He has now been in post for five years and in that time the association has grown exponentially as the microbrewing sector, fuelled by renewed consumer interest in cask and craft, as well as government tax breaks, has exploded. SIBA now has nearly 600 brewing members, 160 supplier associates and more than 100 pub members. Plans are in progress for its largest ever conference and exhibition next year and a raft of commercial initiatives, aiming to make it easier for members to bring their beers to market, have been successfully launched.

Short-sighted policies
It’s not hard to tell that Grocock used to teach. Despite almost 30 years out of the profession, he retains the scholarly air of teacher, particularly when chiding a room full of rowdy brewers at SIBA’s annual conference. He is a passionate and articulate advocate of the brewing industry as a job and wealth creator, and struggles to hide his despair at what he labels “short-sighted” government policies.

“The bleeding of the beer industry through duty escalation has to come to an end and politicians have to realise that it’s a driving  factor in persuading people not to go to the pub,” he says. “It’s surely not time for this great British institution to fade away.”

Although he acknowledges there are supportive MPs of every political colour, Grocock says it’s difficult to persuade those in power that the pub is an endangered species if attempts to do so are in Westminster hostelries packed to the rafters.

In his view, that’s why the beer duty escalator petition​, which will trigger a parliamentary debate when it hits 100,000 signatures, is critical as it demonstrates a wider groundswell of support against the policy. “The government isn’t getting more money in its coffers because everytime someone chooses to buy from the supermarket instead of the pub [because of the price differential], the government is getting less in VAT, less in employment taxes as people lose their jobs, and it then pays out more in benefits,” he says.

Grocock speaks from the unique position of a trade association leader working at the coalface. Last year he re-entered the pub world and took a free-of-tie lease at the Rose & Crown in the village of Hose, Leicestershire, where we meet for the interview. “I knew the pub well but it’s the first time I have felt so dependent on the success of the food business,” he admits. “I do interesting beer, cask and quality keg, but it’s a different proposition to what I’m used to. We’re making a go of it, but without the SIBA job I might have a different view.”

You get the sense that if Messrs Cameron or Osborne walked in and ordered a pint the reception would be somewhat frosty. “I don’t think I would refuse to serve them,” he says. “But I might be inclined to advise them that the price of their pint would be 50p cheaper if they were in Germany.” They would see for themselves if they took a trip to the gents as Grocock has stuck a ‘beer tax league’ above the urinals which shows England topping the table.

“When the beer duty escalator was introduced by a Labour government in 2008, the then Leader of the Opposition said the tax would hit “every drinker in every pub”.​ Yet now he’s Prime Minister he’s quietly allowing that policy to continue.” he says.

Despite his disillusionment with the current government, Grocock is quick to praise its predecessors for introducing Small Brewers Relief (SBR) in 2002 which provides tax breaks for microbreweries.

“SBR has helped to achieve growth in the industry and proves there is more than one way for the government to achieve its revenue requirements. Investment through duty relief is an alternative to taxation,” he says.

He acknowledges there has been some disquiet from mid-size and larger brewers about the unfair advantage SBR provides their smaller competitors, and insists that SIBA is lobbying hard for the brewing thresholds to be re-examined.

For all the variety of styles and proliferation of choice that his members offer, there’s still much of the unreconstructed bitter drinker about Grocock. That’s why Tetley’s is the main cask beer on his bar, and when he’s offered a drink he always chooses a pint of his favourite.

“Drinking Tetley’s, I know exactly what my capabilities will be the following morning,” Grocock says. It might even help him finish his book.

Related topics: Beer