Manchester brewery slams SIBA for ‘lining the pockets of big beer’

By James Beeson

- Last updated on GMT

Scathing attack: Steve Dunkley made a number of damning claims that have been disputed by SIBA
Scathing attack: Steve Dunkley made a number of damning claims that have been disputed by SIBA

Related tags Siba Brewery

Beer Nouveau owner Steve Dunkley has launched a scathing attack on The Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA), accusing the organisation of “moving away from their origins, reducing consumer choice” and “lining the pockets of big beer.”

However, the organisation has also offered a robust defence in response to a number Dunkley’s claims, arguing that it is “absolutely committed” to improving access to market for small breweries.

In a blog post​ on the brewery’s website, Dunkley criticised SIBA’s Food Safety and Quality scheme (FSQ) as a “£300 box-ticking exercise” and argued that by allowing Star Pubs & Bars (a tied estate owned and operated by Heineken) to sponsor​ its Beer X conference, SIBA was failing in its duty to protect and promote small independent breweries.

Speaking about the FSQ scheme, Dunkley said: “At heart, this scheme sounds like a very good idea: to help SIBA members attain and maintain a level of quality in their production that pubs, bars, wholesalers, supermarkets and drinkers can be assured of.

“But there’s a bit of a sting in the tail. Without participating in this scheme, SIBA members can also not participate in BeerFlex.”

In response to criticisms of FSQ, SIBA chief executive Mike Benner said that overall feedback to the scheme had been “very positive”.

“FSQ was created to provide a stepping stone for small businesses to be able to demonstrate diligence on quality and compliance at a time when official inspections are typically neither regular or frequent,” he said. “It is a timely reminder that the Food Standards Agency reports this week that 45% of people are concerned about food safety in UK restaurants, pubs, cafés and takeaways.

“The feedback on the FSQ standard has been, on the whole, very positive from enrolled brewers and it is a practical, ongoing system of improvement that is benefiting hundreds of SIBA Members across the UK. The scheme has been welcomed by Beerflex customers as retailers increasingly demand quality audits from suppliers.”

Beerflex: What price is fair?

BeerFlex is a direct distribution system that SIBA has negotiated with pub companies to allow smaller breweries a route to market. But Dunkley criticised this scheme for failing to negotiate a fair price for brewers selling their beer to pub companies and suggested the costs of joining SIBA were disproportionate to the benefits of membership.

“In January 2017, [SIBA] negotiated a reduction of £3 per cask on the price that breweries would be able to charge,” he said. “In a time of rising costs, the small brewers’ industry body negotiated a reduced margin for its members selling to pubcos.

“For a small independent brewery to sell its beer into a large pubco, it has to join SIBA (price starts at £150 per year), join FSQ (£300 per year) and join BeerFlex (more costs), and then sell its beer at a price dictated by the pubco,” he continued. “I honestly can’t see how this is not a £300 box-ticking exercise, and it’s not surprising that SIBA members aren’t happy, with some using wholesalers more than delivering direct through this scheme.” 

Benner, however, hit back at claims that SIBA was responsible for smaller margins for its members selling into pub companies, describing the BeerFlex scheme as “a creative approach to building viable access to market”.

“SIBA’s Beerflex is a practical means of creating a route to market for many brewers that they would not otherwise have,” he said. “Ideally, we would all prefer a market that is totally free, but that is not the reality. SIBA’s Beerflex has a number of pub company customers and we promote flexible and ethical pricing to help ensure a sustainable supply chain.

“We do not set the prices for Beerflex; we facilitate access by informing our members what is on offer from pub operator customers and members must then decide if they wish to supply. This has worked successfully for hundreds of breweries and helped bring local beer to thousands of tied pubs.”

In December 2017, SIBA announced​ it had bought a controlling interest in Flying Firkin distribution, one of the Campaign for Real Ale’s recommended nationwide wholesalers.

Dunkley was also critical of this move, claiming that in order to use Flying Firkin, breweries have to be certified by FSQ, and hence “instead of supporting all small independent brewers, SIBA has now removed a route to market for a lot of them”.

Benner admitted that to trade with Flying Firkin, breweries needed to be enrolled by FSQ or an equivalent recognised standard such as Safe and Local Supplier Approval (SALSA) or British Retail Consortium (BRC) by December 2019.

Beer X sponsorship deal under fire

On the subject of Star Pubs & Bars sponsorship of SIBA’s Beer X conference next month, Dunkley said: “In the past few weeks, Heineken has started to properly take hold of its new tenanted estate, with reports​ of tenants being told to remove beers from breweries such as BrewDog because the brewery is refusing to pay rental to use the dispense equipment over the bar.

“Now we’re starting to hear that tenants are being told to remove handpulls from their bars because they don’t fit the criteria that Heineken are imposing on its Star Pubs & Bars estate – local ales are no longer supported in these pubs.

“How SIBA can justify having Heineken as a main headline sponsor at its annual exhibition after its assurances that nothing will change have been shown to not be worth the money they’re written on is beyond me.”

Dunkley concluded: "[SIBA] has removed a route to market for non-members, are taking money from pubcos intent on dropping cask from local breweries, and are risking further reducing choice for drinkers while also increasing profits for pubcos at the expense of brewers and drinkers alike.

“[I] really can’t see how they can claim to represent the interests of independent breweries.”

Benner, however, refuted claims that Star Pubs & Bars was reducing the presence of independent breweries in UK pubs, and reaffirmed SIBA’s commitment to securing the best possible deals for its members.

“The sponsorship has nothing to do with Heineken beer and everything to do with opening up routes to market for independent craft brewers via the Star Pubs & Bars chain,” he said.

“Star Pubs & Bars is offering opportunities to breweries to run pubs in its estate and is promoting this to brewers at BeerX. It is worth pointing out that, via Beerflex, Star Pubs & Bars is buying more SIBA member beers than ever before and this is increasing from month to month.

“These are challenging times for Britain’s small brewing businesses and SIBA exists to represent our members in trying to ensure there is a sustainable marketplace that works effectively to bring the best of British beer to meet the demand of consumers.”

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