Wednesday, 03 May 2017 21:30

The price of a pint, the Assize of Ale & the moral economy of beer

The price of a pint, the Assize of Ale & the moral economy of beer

Keith Flett continues his series with an article on the price of a pint in the capitalist marketplace.

The Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) pressed Chancellor Philip Hammond to cut duty on beer by 1p a pint in his March Budget in a further bid to keep the price of a pint down. Beer duty has been frozen for a while. Hammond, whose image is not exactly a man of the people, in fact reverted to the more usual device of raising beer prices by RPI inflation. If you’ve been for a beer recently in a pub you’ll probably have noticed that adding 10p a pint or so.

Mr Hammond aside there is a general recognition of the contribution to employment and the economy that beer and the selling of beer in pubs makes and the impact of undercutting in supermarkets of beer prices.

To illustrate that point, I can buy a can of Stone IPA, brewed in Berlin at 6.9% (they are a US brewery but a German base ensures the beer is fresh in Europe) in Marks and Spencers for £2.49. Were I to buy that in a pub it would cost up to double the price.

The price of beer has been a significant issue in the history of Britain. Until the beginning of the 1800s the cost of a pint of beer was set by law and governed by an Assize of Ale. The law took account of the price of raw materials such as malted barley and allowed different prices for beers of superior quality. It was enforced by ale tasters or ale conners who had the difficult task of tasting beer from brewers. They checked particularly for beer quality and price.

Brewers who transgressed were subject to fines and ultimately if probably rather rarely to physical punishment. The holding of Assizes of Ale was patchy but the principle was underwritten by the idea of what E.P. Thompson called a moral economy. Beer was a staple of the poor person’s diet in pre-industrial England along with bread, which was also subject to price control by an Assize. Water was not safe to drink and lower strength or table beer was the standard liquid consumption.

In the two hundred years or so since the rise of market capitalism and the decline of the Assize of Ale the price of a pint has continued to be a key issue. The State has occasionally intervened directly but more frequently consumer pressure was the important thing. Beer in the public bar, frequented by working people, was less expensive and working men’s clubs (women were allowed in at weekends as guests) also sold beer cheaply.

After World War One the Government did set up a State brewery in Carlisle with associated pubs that sold beer at a regulated price and strength. It was eventually sold to Theakstons. It was though a successful experiment that might be a template for a time when the untrammelled market does not rule all.

In 2017 however CAMRA’s move to slightly reduce the price of a pint of cask beer is part of a much wider debate about what a realistic price for beer should be. The point that the same version of a beer in keg or keykeg and cask can vary a good bit in price (in favour of the former) has reached the letters page of The Guardian.

The assumption is that because ‘craft’ keg beer is often a fair bit pricier than cask beer then brewers must be ripping drinkers off when it comes to keg prices. No doubt some are. It would hardly be a capitalist market place if this wasn’t happening to some extent.

Yet it is far from the real story about beer prices. Obviously for those on a limited income, pensioners, those in low paid jobs or unemployed a cheap pint is important. The alternative is to suggest that only the well to do should drink beer. This important point is far too easily overlooked. Wetherspoons can be criticised for squeezing brewers' profit margins to the bone but if it means someone with little money can afford a pint it is not wholly bad, at least for the drinker.

2017 started with a flurry of blog posts from well known ‘craft’ brewers about beer prices and in particular cask beer prices. Wetherspoons aside, there is a race to the bottom in some areas of the cask beer market. Poorly made beer is sold to pubs at discount rates to undercut competition. The pubs themselves may or, as frequently, may not pass the cheaper cost on to customers in terms of the price of a pint. It does make business life tough for those brewing good quality cask beer.

The well-regarded Manchester brewery Cloudwater announced that it was stopping production of cask beer and focusing instead on keg and can production. It is a relatively small brewery and it made business sense for them to do so. Some of the underlying reasons however led into the price of a pint debate. Making beer for casking or kegging involved the same amount of effort and the same cost of ingredients. The work required to put a beer into cask and despatch it is arguably a bit more than that needed to produce it in keg format and certainly in cans. Yet the expectation is that the cask version should be priced lower than the keg, even though the keg price is the one that accurately reflects the cost of production.

Other rather larger brewers such as Siren in Berkshire and Tiny Rebel in Newport - now a regional sized brewer - confirmed their commitment to cask however. There are several reasons for this. Firstly in many cases the market is for cask beer not keg craft beer. Think pints of relatively low strength bitter rather than a half or a third of a pint of a high strength hoppy beer. Secondly because as Siren underlined it depends how you do the accounting and what you want to achieve. They look at their profit/loss on brewing across all formats from cask to keg and bottle. The margins on cask are very tight but balance out across the whole production. They were clear why they do that too. For them cask beer reaches areas of the pub market that their keg isn’t going to. New drinkers are introduced to their beer, and if they like it, may then start to seek out the breweries other products.

In short the price of a pint is a matter of as much complexity as it was when the Assizes of Ale sat in judgement on such matters. An attempt to impose a moral economy of beer as opposed to a political economy where profit dominates all is surely in tune with the mood of the times. Profit should not dominate the quality of the beer produced and the price people have to pay for it, even if we accept that if brewers don’t make money they certainly won’t produce beer until we manage to move to a socialist economic order.

With the Assize of Ale if the quality and price of beer were not to the standard expected, remedial action followed. It was a way of controlling the market that took account of the market but didn’t allow brewers to take advantage of it or drinkers to suffer because of it. Putting people before profit when it comes to a staple like beer is as important to the daily lives of many as making sure companies pay their taxes.

Perhaps it is time to bring back the Assize of Ale?

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