Mashing in

Charlotte Cook, on pushing for change when change falls out of fashion


Sometimes it's hard to think of something positive to write about. I’m very lucky that I can use this column to talk about the exciting things happening in beer, positive initiatives and people doing great things to make beer a better place. This month though, I’m struggling to see the positives. 

This is in part due to the Depp/Heard trial. Wherever you sit on the spectrum of support, it’s undeniable that this case has changed the way that people perceive others and how they treat them. It’s emboldened some and cowed others, and somehow a defamation trial taking place in suburban Virginia has become one of the most potent cultural events of the decade. 

How does this link to beer? Well, as we’ve seen, there has been a great deal of outcry over the past year about working conditions in breweries and the wider hospitality industry. In the past few weeks, some of the breweries that were implicated in the first wave of reporting have reneged on their initial promises not to pursue those who broke the stories and held them to account. A year after the fact, they are demanding the stories be removed and have deleted their own posts expressing contrition for the actions of those accused. 

Clearly, we shouldn’t be able to go around spouting off about whatever and whoever we want to. This just stands in stark contrast to the reaction a year ago when people couldn’t wait to share their outrage and demand that everyone do better. We seem to have moved back from the sense of shock and support to complacency and blame, where people are bored of the conversation and want to move on. 

We seem to have moved back from the sense of shock and support

This speaks to a wider complacency and lack of accountability in these industries. Currently staff in bars and restaurants are working 80-hour weeks, unable to attract new talent to hospitality, even when they raise wages and increase benefits. That people don’t want to do these jobs any more is concerning for us all. As brewers we need knowledgeable staff to pour our beer, and we also need committed workers in breweries to make sure all the cleaning and packaging is done to the highest standard. 

People often think that packaging roles in breweries are entry level positions that lead to the hallowed land of the brew kit. I do not agree. The packaging role is incredibly important, and the staff putting beer into kegs and cans need to be as skilled and well trained as the brewer making the wort or the cellar staff monitoring the fermentation. To pretend that certain roles in this industry are less important or easier than others is unfair, and contributes to the maligning of some jobs and industries, which simply doesn’t reflect reality. 

For a long time, we have seen these roles as disposable, short-term things, there as a stepping stone to greater things, lacking an intrinsic value, and thus a low paid and low status job. The thing is, looking after beer isn’t straightforward. You need it at the right temperature at the right time, you need to be very careful of oxygen and only add in ingredients or processing aids at precisely the right spot in the process. 

We need to make sure our bar staff are well trained

Similarly in the pub, you don’t just whack the keg on and forget about it until it runs out. Temperature is key, so is sanitation both of the keg and the beer lines you pour through. Believe it or not, a dirty beer tap can take a pint from perfection to deeply flawed in a matter of seconds. I cringe every time I see bar staff storing their beer taps in soda water overnight, but they don’t do this out of a desire to ruin the beer, it is because that’s what they were told to do and don’t know why it’s wrong. Beer taps should be stored in cleaning solution overnight and lines cleaned very regularly, and not doing this can seriously damage the beer. 

Lots of people who go out for a pint simply don’t care about this though, they want the booze and if it’s a bit different to last time then that’s not such a big deal. Luckily the spoilage organisms in beer won’t make you unwell, unlike in food, but that doesn’t mean we should normalise not looking after beer. We need to make sure our bar staff are well trained and that they care about the beer. Complaining that no one wants to work behind a bar won’t solve this, but treating people with the professional respect that they deserve will. Being expected to work long hours for pennies isn’t a business model I subscribe to, and no matter how much people tell me to “stick to beer” I can’t sit quiet. 

Is it right to drink a beer from a company we know has bad labour practices, or to complain that you can’t get Heineken because the workers are striking? The entire industry is a system and while individual choice inevitably plays a role, there can only be real change with collective action and organisation. To achieve this, the industry and consumers need to keep listening and not succumb to apathy or boredom, and as tired as I am, I’ll continue to keep shouting.

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