Saturday, November 11, 2006

Campaign for Real Freedom

Local beer writer Ronald Atkins wrote a series of articles entitled ‘Campaign for Real Freedom’ for the journal ‘The Independent Imbiber.’ The following is an edited version of the piece that appeared in the October/November 2002 issue.It provides a valuable historical background to the current dispute.

Earlier articles under this heading, published in 1998, were inspired by the epidemic of pubs being swallowed by large chains and having their choice of beers cut back as a result. The second article described how the epidemic had affected me personally, with the sale of the local Beard's chain to major Suffolk brewers/pub owners Greene King.

In my part of Sussex, the aftermath of the Beard's sale was business as usual. Greene King were quoted in the local press as opting for minimal change beyond making more of their own beers available. I was told by a Greene King spokesperson that the view was, if it ain't broke, why fix it?

However, the article foresaw long-term dangers. The logic of Greene King spending over £14m. (a figure of £17m. has since been suggested) on around forty pubs that were not at the time selling substantial quantities of their beers pointed to freedom of choice being eventually curtailed. We are now seeing a policy on precisely these lines being put into practice.

From the start, the range of non-Greene King beers was restricted to those authorised by Suffolk: Beards tenants who had been allowed to pick and choose from wholesaler's lists were particularly affected. Now, the matter has boiled up over the removal of Harvey's beers.

To give a brief historical perspective, Harvey and Beard were the two surviving breweries of Lewes, each with a small tied estate. When times became hard for regional breweries in the Sixties, it was agreed Beard would stop brewing and allow Harvey's beers into their pubs, an exclusive agreement that, over the years, became relaxed as some Beard's pubs drew from an increasingly wide portfolio. However, Harvey's Best was invariably part of the mix and this continued into the first three years of the new ownership.

During that period, Greene King claim there has been a large swing from Harvey's to their own beers. I don't doubt this. With freedom to do as much in-house promotion as they wish, it is no surprise that sales of Greene King's beers have soared. Harvey's beers, though, are popular throughout the area. While some ex-Beard's pubs have removed them since the takeover, one would imagine the demand in the rest of the estate remains at a level sufficient to justify their continued availability.

Greene King's new policy came to the general public's attention towards the end of August, thanks to one of the regulars at the Kings Head in Chailey, who got press coverage when more than 130 people signed his petition protesting at the imminent removal of Harvey's from the pub. Confirming that Harvey's would disappear from all the others, the managing director of Greene King's Pub Partners did what would appear to be an historical rewrite.

"We bought the pubs....and went round and told each and every tenant that we would be withdrawing Harvey's within six months", he claimed in the Sussex Express issue of 30 August. "Now we are and it's only people from one pub who are upset about it."

[But in] the next issue of the Sussex Express, the front-page headline celebrated the survival of Harvey's in those four Lewes pubs where it was on sale.

A different spokesperson from Greene King now claimed 'We have no plans to withdraw Harvey's from any of our Lewes pubs for the foreseeable future simply because we sell Harvey's so well in the town."

One suspects the decision taken over Lewes stems from the competitive element. Apart from it being Harvey's home town, there are enough good pubs selling their beers to tempt away any ex-Beard's regular who wishes to stick with them: this cannot be done so easily in smaller villages with just one pub.

Breweries, including Greene King, that allow even a limited and authorised range of guests do not force them on their publicans; they are meeting a demand - small, perhaps, but sufficiently important - for something different. Many licensees would love to be given the chance of stepping slightly outside the tie; they invariably have customers that, for whatever reason, refuse to drink the house beers, and a guest ale might be the way to keep them coming back.

An insight into problems faced, not just by landlords but also by quite substantial breweries, can be gleaned from reading between the lines of the Greene King-Harvey affair. "We are withdrawing Harvey's because it is a rival", was the original excuse. Fair enough, except that many Greene King pubs in this area continue to sell non-Greene King beers.

Coincidentally, there has been a spate of rumours, some quoting large sums of money, about Greene King allowing landlords to retain Harvey's provided they accept a rent increase. This gives extra meaning to the remark quoted earlier that "discussions are continuing".

Add it all up, and you get a tale of a pub company concerned about maximising their profit margin on sales of a particular product.


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