Some thoughts on the moral economy of beer
I was at the Great British Beer Festival at Olympia as it kicked off last Tuesday afternoon. I’ve been at nearly everyone since I attended the Covent Garden beer festival in 1975 as a mere youth [albeit I was over 18 even then]
There is no question, as a well-known beer writer with a beard noted to me on Tuesday, that it is an institution. Here gather many of the great, good and the, blimey where can I hide, of the beer world to review how life is going on.
There was even at the announcement of the Champion Beer of Britain results by an obscure musician called Bruce Dickinson a resounding but rarely heard cry of ‘Bring Back Roger Protz’. Mr Protz was certainly there ready to be brought back at any moment.
Of course many will grumble-including myself- that the beers leave something to be desired these days. Those from the US and Europe generally are amongst the very best available. Those from the UK are a much more varied range. Nothing dreadful certainly, quite a bit excellent, but perhaps too many that are just a little bit dull.
I note social media calls from Des de Moor and others for there to be fewer UK brewers represented at the GBBF with more of the beer range from each. In other words, take the very best brewers from an area and showcase them.
It is also frankly a nonsense that renowned breweries such as Kernel make merely a fleeting appearance at the GBBF [porter in bottle] because their excellent beers are not available in a format that pleases CAMRA.
The present set up though is really down more than anything to the democratic way in beers are chosen to appear at the Festival. If David Cameron’s Big Society no longer exists then the GBBF remains a shining example of the genuine British tradition of volunteering.
Anyway, a wider point.
On the Monday just before the Beer Festival I was in the British Library researching for a chapter in a book I’m writing [I know, and I’ve signed the contract] on the moral economy. Out of interest I was also having a quick look through Richard Boston’s 1976 book, Beer and Skittles, which is based on a series of articles he wrote for The Guardian on beer in the mid-1970s. The two areas collided in my mind.
Boston argues that the early actions of real ale campaigners demonstrated that what happened in the world of beer and pubs did not have to be dictated by the State or big business. Drinkers could make their voice heard too. He also noted that Fullers ESB was the strongest draught beer available in the UK, which is no longer the case, even though ESB is just as strong as it ever was.
The concept of the moral economy, developed by the late historian EP Thompson in 1971, is to suggest a customary and traditional way of looking at things in relation to a market economy. The moral economy does not aim to replace a market economy but to temper it with a framework of laws and obligations.
Thompson uses the term very specifically in relation to eighteenth century food riots. These certainly took place but the aim was, particularly in times of dearth, to regulate both price and quality of, for example, bread via reference to laws and practices which ensured that things were done fairly and without profiteering. The aim was not to riot but to threaten to do so in order to avoid having to.
The same criteria applied to the price and quality of that other staple of life, beer.
There were Assizes of Ale as well as Bread and the aim was to check the quality and price of the product and regulate it.
Thompson was very wary about extending the use of the concept ‘moral economy’ beyond his specific usage. Nevertheless it has been widely used and argued about by historians in recent decades.
I think there is an interesting case for understanding the Great British Beer Festival as an annual gathering of those who take a moral economic view of the beer world.
When it comes to pubs, beer prices and the range of beer production there is an expectation that this is guided to some extent by a legislative framework. There is also a sense that matters are influenced by local campaigning, whether over pub closures or promoting new breweries.
The classic mix of the moral economy- legislation which can be pursued, and the impact of local protest and pressure- is certainly there.
Of course no one expects riots over beer [though historically some have taken place]. But the idea that organised action can temper the actions of the market in the interests of consumers, while understanding that the market itself is of fundamental importance, is very much a moral economy.
A moral economy of beer suggests not a beer revolution, then, but a market for beer that is much better balanced towards the interests of the consumer.
I cannot agree however with Charlesworth and Randall editors of a collection of essays from a conference on the moral economy which was published in 2000 that the moral economy is a ‘Heineken’ of a concept, reaching parts others can’t.
Moral economy is historically about research into markets and protests around them and politically now and then about political action to address perceived or actual imbalances in fairness in the way the world goes on in terms of markets, taxes and essential goods. It is not a branding exercise, not even if the beer brand is more desirable than Heineken