At its annual general meeting, held in Liverpool, UK, members of the Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA) yesterday voted against proposed changes to its membership charter. The motion—which was voted down by a margin of just three votes at 66 to 63—recommended raising the membership threshold from its current 200,000hl (~170,000 BBLs) to 1% of annual UK beer production as measured by the British Beer and Pub Association, currently 437,340hl (~373,000 BBLs).
Had it been passed, the motion would have allowed both Fuller’s and St. Austell, two of the UK’s largest independent breweries, to have joined the trade body, which currently represents 830 independent British breweries. Larger UK breweries such as Greene King and Marston’s, along with the likes of Coors and Heineken, would still be too large to join the association.
WHY IT MATTERS
Perhaps the turnout at the AGM itself was indicative that things weren’t going to go SIBA’s way. Each of SIBA’s 830 brewer members is eligible to vote at the annual meeting, yet only 129 votes were cast. Taking to the stage before the vote to voice his distrust in the organization, Heavy Industry Brewing’s Tom McNeill stated that the association is “being run from the top down,” and that it doesn’t have its smaller members best interests at heart. He also blamed the poor turnout on many SIBA members being unable to take time off from their respective breweries because staffing wouldn't allow for a small brewery to shut down for a day.
In another case made against the motion before votes were cast, Hardknott Brewery’s Dave Bailey—who had already been urging members to vote against the motion via his blog—took to the stage to announce that his brewery would brew just twice more before closing down, though he did not state a timescale for said closure. Bailey, who established Hardknott in 2005, used the platform to blame much of his brewery’s failings on SIBA.
“This organization is against small independent brewers...SIBA does not speak for the little guy,” he said addressing the crowd at the AGM. “I am closing down my brewery because it is no longer making sense.”
Before votes were cast, SIBA Chair Buster Grant—also head brewer at Brecon Brewing in Wales—made a passionate speech about the importance of SIBA being an inclusive organization, one that represents British independent brewers both large and small. For Grant, the organization opening its doors to some of the UK’s largest independent breweries—Fuller’s, for example—would help to achieve that goal. It was impossible not to notice his sense of disappointment when he read out the result of the vote. Grant’s now muted tone was a world apart from the confident speech he gave imploring members to move in favor of the motion before votes were cast.
“It was disappointing that the members voted against adding the new Membership Criteria into the SIBA Members’ Charter,” Grant told GBH after the AGM. “This criteria reflects the members feedback we had received over the last 18 months, but the board will now consider its next steps."
Before the AGM, Tom Bott, SIBA Director for South East England and co-founder of London’s Signature Brew, had sent an email urging members to vote in favor of the motion.
“Representing the smallest members is very important to SIBA. After all, they make up the majority of the membership,” he wrote in the email. “It is, however, worth stressing that for some time we have been The Society of Independent Brewers as opposed to the Small Independent Brewers Association.”
He went on to stress the “valuable work” Fuller’s had done in the region to aid smaller brewers, whether through technical help, infrastructure support, and aiding with access to market through its estate of 400 pubs. For now, however, Fuller’s will remain outside of the association’s membership.
This is something that will no doubt disappoint its Brewing Director John Keeling, who spoke about the importance of being a part of the wider British brewing industry in a recent GBH podcast episode. Fuller’s also recently collaborated with the soon-to-be-defunct Hardknott as part of its Fuller’s & Friends series. As for SIBA itself, it must now ponder how to best balance the interests of its members while exploring new ways to be open toward the growing number of independent British breweries.
SIBA’s U.S. counterpart, the Brewers Association, historically made the opposite decision, raising its threshold for members to six million BBLs, allowing the likes of Yuengling under its tent as many larger brewers were acquired, with a focus on independence rather than size. Meanwhile, the emergence of smaller associations such as the Sour and Wild Ales Guild (SWAG), along with now-fractioning state guilds in New Jersey hints that, as in the UK, America’s smaller brewers do not feel represented by these bodies, even if they do benefit from the resources available.