There were two different SIBA BeerX shindigs happening in Liverpool simultaneously last week.
The first was a vibrant, successful trade show and beer competition celebrating an industry that is at its peak, with new brewers cropping up every week and bringing fresh ideas to an already buzzing beer scene, and a growing number of suppliers keen to help them turn their dreams into reality.
The second was a tense, doom-laden gathering of an organisation at war with itself.
It’s often difficult to reconcile the two. At a broad level, like at last month’s Craft Beer Rising, many of the conversations I had on the exhibition floor were along the lines of “things are tough, there’s gonna be a shakeout,” even as large crowds were flocking to try the latest most hyped brews.
Forced to question
Hearing the same sentiment expressed again several times on my first day at BeerX, I was forced to question it in the evening at H1780, the newly relaunched Higsons brewery masterminded by former Caledonian Brewery MD Stephen Crawley.
The multimillion-pound project incorporates a brewery, bar, restaurant and function rooms in an old industrial building in the heart of a regenerating district of Liverpool which is, frankly, far cooler than any part of over-hyped, over-expensive east London.
The whole place screams of optimism (and convinces me that the solution to any problem with attracting customers in the pub industry can be solved by freshly baked sausage rolls).
The immense, optimistic buzz and the all-pervading sense of growing pessimism in beer seem to contradict each other, yet both are true, both well-founded.
At a specific level, a similar theme played out at SIBA’s AGM on the Thursday morning of BeerX, which was, for the second year running, bitter and acrimonious.
Here are two opposing points of view:
One: SIBA exists to fight for independent brewers. A lot of its work involves lobbying parliament to preserve or even improve the progressive beer duty scheme that lit a fire under small-scale British brewing when it was introduced in 2002. The bigger SIBA is, the more brewers it represents, the more clout it has to fight its corner.
Two: SIBA was formed as the society for small independent brewers. About half of its members brew less than 1,000hl. There are other trade organisations that represent the interests of bigger brewers. SIBA should focus on its original remit of representing those who have no other industry body speaking for them.
Passions run high
I’ve tried to state these two conflicting points of view as neutrally as I can because, having done so, I think it shows that there is a great deal of merit to each one. As a non-member who is not a brewer, I find myself swayed by both arguments.
But passions run high in this industry, and unfortunately, reasoned argument can become clouded by recrimination, insults and conspiracy theory. To accuse, as some did, the organisation whose main aim is to protect progressive beer duty (which makes small-scale brewing economically viable) of being in league with multinational brewers and actively working against the interests of small-scale brewers is risible.
To suggest that SIBA’s board is made up of employees of big breweries themselves (I’m sure many of us are sick of seeing chairman Buster Grant’s Brecon Brewery advertised in every commercial break on TV) is laughable. Tin-foil-hatted claims such as these only serve to undermine the position of the people making them, which is a shame because, behind them, there’s a good point to be made.
SIBA’s struggles – just like CAMRA’s current travails – are growing pains, born of success. Knowing people on both sides of debates like this, it’s obvious that all believe they are doing the best for the future of the organisation and its members.
As craft beer grows – which it will continue to do – does the increased scale and money involved mean it necessarily has to lose the friendliness and openness that make it so unique?
Maybe it’s inevitable. But a lot of us in this industry left jobs that were full of a*******s to come and work in something that was more human, open and sociable.
If that disappears, we might as well all go back to the crappy jobs we came from. At least they were better paid.