Wednesday 27 April 2011

Keg Watch

We bought our pub in February 2004. It had been closed over the winter, we realised that being located, at the top of a remote Lake District valley, winter opening was unlikely to be profitable. As we eagerly relished the challenge of dusting off the cobwebs and filling the cellar we realised there were a number of empty casks and kegs which had not been collected by breweries. They were a little in the way but we knew they belonged to someone. Sure, some were owned by big multinational brewers, and there is a temptation to disregard the value of these containers. None the less, they all have value and the owners deserve care to be taken with their property.

During this time I became aware of Keg Watch. It had been suggested that I could call them in and all the containers would be taken away, as if by magic, and repatriated with their owners. I’m not naive and I enquired about the funding for the Keg Watch scheme. Apparently, once Keg Watch have the containers, they are at liberty to charge the brewery for the service, apparently without any checks on the necessity for Keg Watch to be involved. If the brewer does not agree to the charge he doesn't get his casks back - that sounds a little bit like theft to me.

I decided that I owed it to the brewers to continue to look after the casks for around 6 months. In that time many breweries did drop by and collect their casks. Some other breweries we contacted and gave them the opportunity to collect. I believe some indicated that they were happy for Keg Watch to clear up the matter. The remainder of unclaimed casks amounted to around a third of the original number. We eventually called in Keg Watch who removed what was left.

We recently made a delivery of beer to a rural pub in Kent. Being the other side of London to our brewery this was quite a trek, as London is already a very long way from Cumbria. However, we had arranged a full van to go to the capital and it was a nice little trip out for us Northern country folk to get into the city and try some great beers; you see, places like Euston Tap, The Rake Bar and many other places in the smoke are still something special to us. A beery trip to London with the excuse of delivering just about makes it viable.

It was all getting quite interesting. The pub in question had asked us to do a meet the brewer night for which we would send a whole pallet down ahead of time, a much more financially viable option. We would then fill the van with more beer for London, dropping off on the way to the meet the brewer night. We were even on the point of arranging a further pallet to be delivered north of London. We could bring many more empties back in the van at a later date and the whole arrangement was looking very viable.

Sadly, the tenant of the pub we were due to attend for the meet the brewer left very suddenly. The pub closed with very little notice just as we were about to send the pallet of beer. We were very fortunate that the beer twitter world alerted us to this fact very quickly indeed. Of course we did not send the beer and quickly rearranged the trip to London so that we could maximise on deliveries already arranged with other very good customers.

We delivered to The White Horse at Parsons Green and the Utobeer warehouse for The Rake as well as The Southampton Arms in Kentish Town and The Land of Liberty Peace and Plenty in Rickmansworth. A diverse and spread-out collection of some of our favourite outlets. They are all very good to us and take very special care of our casks.

We knew that we had casks in Kent at the aforementioned sans licensee; the remote country pub that was undergoing a change of management. We had been given reliable information from other brewers that our casks were still in the beer garden so we undertook the approximately 2 hour diversion to collect. We expected to rock up and spend a while sifting through a significant number of containers looking for our own.

On arrival the pub was a hive of activity but the beer garden was strangely empty of any casks whatsoever. Keg Watch, it seems, had been and scavenged everything completely indiscriminately.

Our journey was wasted. Not only was our journey wasted but Keg Watch had taken our casks and we would, it seemed, have to travel some distance to recover them.

It seems that the pub owner wanted the backyard clear of casks before the new lessee took up residence but was not prepared to put in any effort finding out if the rightful owners were going to collect themselves. We had spent time trying to find out if our casks were there, who was going to be taking over and what the overall situation was.

We believe that Keg Watch were far too hasty in recovering the containers and those concerned at the pub too lazy to find out who owned what. It isn’t difficult, the casks have the brewery phone number on them.

It has left us with a very bad feeling about both Keg Watch and the pub in question.

I would ask that all pub operators consider the grief that is caused by calling in Keg Watch too soon. I also believe Keg Watch is far too hasty at collecting without allowing breweries to make their own arrangements. My sceptical reaction is to believe that Keg Watch reward their agents too easily for recovering casks that don’t really need to be recovered.

It is difficult for the small brewer as Keg Watch squarely avoid blame. They point the finger at the pub expecting the brewery to be too scared to round on the pub operator in fear of upsetting a potential customer.

I believe Keg Watch do a good job at preventing container stealing when bigger breweries are involved, but I also believe there are insufficient controls in place for avoiding the small brewer like me from facing unnecessary costs and wasted journeys. It has to be remembered that we deliver all our casks and we know exactly where all of our casks are. We know all our customers and their premisses.

The closest Keg Watch originally offered to move our own property was their depot in Warrington, which is a 5 hour round trip from here and a likely cost of £70 of fuel. We had already been to try and pick up our property where we believed they should have been and failed to see why we should have to make this extra journey.

Once we pointed out the reality - the fact that the casks were in no significant danger of theft; the property was only under a short closure for refurbishment and was well attended with personnel, it was agreed that the casks should be returned to us at no further charge.

Having talked to many brewers it seems that it is not an unusual practice for pubs to call in Keg Watch as soon as there is a change of ownership, often without any attempt being made to contact the breweries. This practice then entitles Keg Watch to charge for a service which was never required in the first place.

Although Keg Watch have agreed to return my casks without charge I am deeply concerned that the eagerness of Keg Watch is costing small brewers like me a significant amount of money. There are no requirements for Keg Watch to prove that there was a necessity for the containers to be picked up.

I hesitated to publish this post as Keg Watch have cleared up this particular incidence. However, there seems to be no intention of ensuring it does not happen again to me, and it is certainly happening to a number of other breweries I know.

If you are a brewer and are unhappy about the actions of Keg Watch I would be very interested in knowing, I believe action needs to be taken against this money making racket.


Mark Seaman said...

As new kids on the block, not something that we have had to deal with, but I appreciate your flagging this experience up.
We too know who has our casks and would not want some third party fiddling around with them with the prospect of being charged for a "service" unrequested and not required.
Mark - Revolutions

Neville Grundy said...

Is this legal? Can you really charged for a service you didn't ask for? Do pub owners have the right to hand your property over to a third party without consulting you? Surely the PubCo is responsible for the charge as they called in Keg Watch, even though other measures were available to them, like phoning you.

I can understand that with a change of licensee they might want to get a pub clear, but handing your property to someone else doesn't sound right to me.

There are lots of things in pubs that don't belong to the PubCo, such as cigarette machines and pool tables. I wonder how the owners of those items would react if the PubCo offloaded them onto a third party who charged a return fee.

If you can get free legal advice, it might be worth checking these points.

StringersBeer said...

For the smaller brewer, KegWatch is probably more trouble than it's worth. But we're automagically opted in via SIBA?

Unknown said...

Nev, I believe the legality of it is dubious. However, as Stringers points out, signing up for SIBA inadvertently signs a brewery up for Keg Watch - the brewer has to proactively opt out, which then gets difficult when wholesale agents become involved.

There is also a Kings Clothes effect in play here "What do you mean you don't trust Keg Watch? We prevent lots of container theft" That is their cover story, but for me it doesn't stack up.

Keg Watch are only required because the big brewers and some notable wholesalers of microbrewed beers (I could name names, but won't for now) do not give a diligent
action when it comes to collecting empties. Many wholesalers cannot report back to breweries where they have delivered thier beers. This is completely inexcusable. I know this because many microbrewers and pubs alike complain about it.

This is why I keep very tight control of where we deliver.

I believe this to be a big can of worms, and to be honest I've been waiting for the day Keg Watch crossed me.

I've been advised to change the last paragraph of this post - I believe so strongly that the last paragraph is true that I'm letting it stand.

Anonymous said...

Hi Dave,

Try drawing up an agreement with wholesalers and your publican customers where it is made clear that when they are in possession of your property, they are responsible for it. It's a big call, but the good wholesalers and pubs out there will have no problem in honouring such an agreement.

This means a good, clear cask-tracking system and a set amount of time in which the cask is classified as been lost/misplaced. If this occurs, the cost of the cask then needs to be paid by the party that lost it.


Eddie86 said...

We're very fortunate to have a friendly brewery down the road with a brewer happy to store random empties which don't get back to the right place and offer a free alternative to kegwatch.

I've never been tempted to call in kegwatch - in an industry that (in my limited experience) is very chatty and friendly it doesn't really seem necessary.

As you point out though, for bigger breweries it probably works well.

Unknown said...

Hi Kelly, how are things on the other-side of this rock we all live on?

Your idea has merit, however, as far as I know what you propose is far from standard in the industry. Many Microbrewers just want to get their beer out there and will risk far too much to make that happen. In turn the wholesalers have no incentive to ensure they themselves recover the casks as Keg Watch charge back to the brewer, not the wholesaler. This could be a big change that would help the microbrewing industry; if Keg Watch charge the party that sold the beer to the pub rather than the poor brewer.

Eddie, I believe I have been to said brewery, they are shining examples of how friendly and chatty our end of the beer industry is.

It must be remembered that Keg Watch was formed by the big brewers for the big brewers and they are very happy to load the microbrewery sector with unessential costs whilst hiding behind a thin veneer of inappropriate morality.

Unknown said...

Oh, and another thing (this issue won't leave my head) microbrewers are far more likely to deliver to more respectable pubs. The big brewers are the ones that operate massively in the more volatile and sleazy sector of the pub market. As my story here explains, most microbrewers are in far more fear of incurring Keg Watch charges than they are of having casks stolen.

Neville Grundy said...

I do understand the point that Stringers is saying about being committed to this when you join SIBA - but can you be obliged to sign up to something if it's illegal? I don't know whether this practice is legal or not, but if it isn't, I don't see how you can obliged to accept it.

The sale of beer is (logically) dependent on you leaving a valuable piece of property in someone else's hands. I should have thought they'd have a responsibility to return it to the owner or his/her agent, not pass it on to someone who has no legal right to it at all. A comparison would be if you hired a car, and absolved yourself of your duty to return it by passing it on to a third party. I'm sure Avis would be delighted to hear that a car hired in Cockermouth is available for them to collect in Warrington.

Perhaps a simple contract between you and the person you pass casks to might be the way forward. Perhaps micros should have their own trade organisation and do this collectively.

Unknown said...

Nev, what I have learnt is that it may be academic as to the legality of the situation. I am almost certainly going to get my casks back without further expense to me, mainly because I am tenacious when I believe I have been wrong footed.

I don't believe I should have had to upset so many apple carts to get my casks back.

I am concerned that Keg Watch is not fit for purpose with respect to the microbrewer. Our trade organisation is SIBA, for better or for worse, and it is my intention to follow this through via that route.

In the mean time I need to collect the feelings of like minded brewing members of SIBA and put our case.

Neville Grundy said...

Fair enough. Best of luck to you.

Jeff Pickthall said...

Libel laws apply to blogs and libel suits can be very painful and costly.

Unknown said...

Jeff, I totally understand and appreciate what you are saying. I'm very mindful of that risk.

However, to prove liable surely there would have to be proof that I was wrong? - I don't believe I am wrong.

Brewsters Brewery said...

Hi Dave, We are unhappy with aspects of their system, even more so recently, we have several instances where casks that are not out of control but have ended up coming back by Kegwatch. One brewery even repatriated 18 empties from a swap via Kegwatch costing us over £100. Transport by Palletline would have been cheaper. The spa-track system which throws up a collection note after 28 days is too quick especially as a lot of the information on the system is out of date. We even have had occasions where they have collected casks from Tradeteam in Stretton while we have been dealing with Tradeteam on a weekly basis.
Overall the intention is good but the execution is lacking.

Unknown said...

Hi Brewsters,

Your experience of casks being picked up from depots where you are attending regularly is a common story.

I believe that the contractors that pick up the casks are paid per cask they pick up irrespective of the need for them to do so.

Also, your experience of SPA-track having major issues that prevent you being able to get to a cask before Keg-Watch do is also not an uncommon complaint.

Birkonian said...

There is a similar problem with deliveries to Wetherspoon pubs. My local brewer sorted out the paperwork for direct delivery, refused to budge on price and thus was happy to do business. He soon gave up though. The manangers would keep him waiting for up to half an hour to unload 'because they were busy' and also had no regard for the ownership of casks. The result was that when Wetherspoons own wagon delivered it would hoover up all the empties regardless of who they belonged to. Getting then back was a thankless task.