EP-295 James Calder of Society of Independent Brewers

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In today’s episode I’m talking to James Calder, Chief Executive of the UK’s Society of Independent Brewers.

SIBA, as it’s more commonly known, plays a similar role to the American Brewer’s Association, representing the interests of around 800 small British brewers who vote on how the organisation supports the industry and lobbies the government at its annual conference and trade show, BeerX.

Founded in 1980, its greatest victory came in 2002, when alongside CAMRA it successfully campaigned for the introduction of Small Brewers Relief, granting brewers of less than 5,000hl a year a 50% reduction on Britain’s notoriously high alcohol duty. It was well timed, coming a few years before the craft beer revolution took off, and since the policy came into effect more than 2,000 breweries have opened from a base of barely 400.

Despite this, and over forty years of fighting for the interests of small business, SIBA doesn’t have a very good reputation. Brewers are mostly split between ambivalence and active dislike of the organisation. Some saw it as a puppet for mid-sized breweries with different issues and very different agendas to small brewers, while others took exception to SIBA’s commercial side – a wholesaling business called Beerflex. While it was founded to give small breweries better access to large pub chains, it also meant the body was actively competing with those not part of the scheme.

When Calder was promoted from head of public affairs to chief executive in 2019 he was all too aware of SIBA’s issues, as well as the fact that SIBA membership was shrinking as a result. But before he could test, finalise, and enact his plan to revitalise the organisation he was hit by a triple whammy to crises – the prospect of a no deal Brexit, COVID-19 and finally, a part-reversal on SIBA’s finest hour – Small Brewers Relief.

Instead of turning the ship around, Calder has spent the last 18 months fighting fires that refuse to go out. But during this time he’s made sure that SIBA is more transparent in its dealings – regularly updating people outside its membership about the work being done. As a result, its day-to-day work in fighting for more freedom and financial support during lockdown has impressed many in the industry of late.

There’s a lot of work for Calder and his team still to do in building SIBA’s reputation and supporting its members through Brexit, SBR reform and COVID – but in this wide ranging conversation he’s keen to point out that there’s a bigger vision yet to come.

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