Village pubs – do they make a community?

After a stroll through Rutland on an October ‘summer’s day’ we arrived at Seaton, a picture-postcard village not far from the magnificent Welland Viaduct with its 80 or so arches. The George & Dragon at Seaton is a modern day perfect village pub – good food, excellent beer (malty Bateman’s plus a local Grainstore ale) and well aware of its community role. Whilst food’s important to their success they are very happy to see people who just want a pint.

The pub’s got the builders in to add bedrooms but that didn’t interrupt normal service and a very friendly welcome. Of course like any successful village pub it knows its business model has to combine the local village folk as well as attracting customers from further afield. It’s a good base for a walking weekend – plenty of footpaths including the now dinosaur-free Jurassic Way.

Whilst enjoying my pint of Bateman’s XXXB I thought about the role of a pub in a village. The CAMRA ‘What’s Brewing’ for November 2014 carried an article from an academic researcher (‘Just like beer, pubs are good for you’) suggesting that, “simply speaking, opportunities for communal initiatives would be extremely reduced, if not inexistent, in these parishes without pubs.”

I’m all in favour of pubs in villages and no doubt a well-run pub is a positive factor in attracting some in-comers as are shops and schools. However I’m always wary of research where the analysis ‘shows’ the results the researchers want to hear, i.e. pubs make a village community and therefore we should legislate accordingly. A strong correlation between the presence of pubs and community activity does not necessarily mean that pubs are the determining factor in community cohesion. Is there anything else that drives community activity and delivers business to a pub? I think it’s people that make the difference.

Many villages, particularly in commuting distance from major towns and cities, have become an escape route for the affluent middle class. For example, the presence of ‘Wealthy countryside commuters’ and ‘Better-off villagers’ in CACI’s Acorn consumer segmentation shows how the older affluent groups use villages as an alternative to the suburbs. These affluent demographic groups have a high propensity for eating out and  community activities – fuel for both community cohesion and financially successful village pubs. (NB I used to work for CACI.)

Like bank branches (see the latest government requirement to ignore financial viability), pubs and community cohesion depend on the local population in term of its size and demographics. In my view, the idea that pubs provide the magic ingredient for a successful village, or any other community, is merely a comfort to those who want to preserve any pub whatever the circumstances. As Bill Clinton’s campaign strategist, James Carville said, “it’s economy, stupid”. If the right people aren’t there in numbers it won’t work – preserve it and they will come doesn’t work.

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The Strathmore Challenge – a walk via the breweries of England

For those of you who have asked about the 300 miles walk in September 2015 for a rough outline please click here or look at the image below. I’ll be blogging en route (e.g Day 1 twisted ankle, caught bus, went home) when I can get wifi. I am walking between the start at The Strathmore Arms at Holwick near Middleton-in-Teesdale and the finish at The Strathmore Arms in St Paul’s Walden near Hitchin – the only pubs of that name in England.

The Stroll

A bit of a stroll

And to all who’ve asked…yes I have read The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry – it would have been a good story if he’d have visited more pubs and breweries.

Absinthe makes the heart grow fonder

A week away in Madeira got me thinking of desert island beers – what would I want washed up on the shore in perfect nick. That’s what fizzy lager and dodgy local spirits does to a man, you start hallucinating about favourite beers of the year. Of course, it’s not just the beer – the people, the journey and the pub all add up to the perfect pint.

For me it was a summer stroll across the Hertfordshire countryside to The Strathmore Arms and their ever changing roll-call of beers. Good company on the walk, decent weather and a thirst to be quenched set the tone for an excellent session. When the locals, with a glint in their eyes, told me my choice wasn’t much cop I guessed the American Red from Liverpool Craft might be worth a try. I’ll leave others to pontificate at RateBeer but on this day its caramel taste and refreshing bitterness was fine by me. So far it’s my beer of the year edging out Marlow’s excellent Rebellion IPA at the Cross Keys, Abbeydale’s treacly Brimstone at The Three Stags’ Heads and Harvey’s Best at the late lamented Gunmakers. (Thoughts welcome on your beers of the year.)

As I’ve written before, I’m a beer drinker looking for traditional bitter rather than trying to chase summer blondes. Strange then that my favourite is from a small brewery playing the ‘edgy’ craft beer card. Is this a forewarning of how the beer landscape might look in a few years? Who will be the winners and losers?

For those of us who remember the 1970s and 80s, the pubs of the independent family breweries (IFBs) were often the oases in a desert of tasteless keg – they were our real ale heroes, Young’s in London and Adnams in Suffolk. Could we be heading to a beer future where we only have our memories of those days and their beers? The production efficiency of new craft breweries, the issue of Progressive Beer Duty and a matter of taste may bring the downfall of some who kept the real ale flag a-fluttering.

Those of us from outside of the Shoreditch beer vibe still go weak at the knees when we catch sight of an old-fashioned tower brewery – to many it seems the epitome of an independent family owned brewery. For years it’s been a guarantee of local pubs with a decent pint. The likes of Hook Norton, Harvey’s and Samuel Smith’s have moved with the times but they retain a marketing image founded on traditional values. Surely on that basis, independent family brewers are set up for years of success? Maybe not.

On a tour of Thornbridge’s highly efficient beer factory on an industrial estate outside Bakewell we were told that the next batch of stainless steel would give them more capacity than Adnams on a much smaller footprint. Whilst many traditional brewery buildings are fitted-out with the latest equipment it has to be difficult to achieve similar sterile efficiencies in their often listed buildings. Chances are that a new craft brewery can achieve a much higher production capacity relative to floorspace compared to many traditional brewers.

These infrastructure disadvantages are overlaid with the issues of the capacity limits in the Progressive Beer Duty regulations. According to Adnams, the small craft brewers are at a duty advantage of £55 per barrel compared to the IFBs producing in excess of 60,000 hectolitres. The government’s assistance to small brewers has disadvantaged the brewers that gave real ale a chance of survival.

It’s a difficult world – the family brewers are less efficient due to history, they’re suffering a financial disadvantage and then we come to taste. The growth in the beer market is in part due to those drinkers who want innovation, new tastes and individuality. Whilst many of the IFBs have started their own microbreweries (for example, Thwaites’ Crafty Dan) and one-off brews, they struggle to achieve the ‘edginess’ offered by the market positioning of the craft breweries. The IFBs will live or die by their traditional beers sometimes cherished by an older demographic. And in my view, for some IFBs such as McMullen, Palmers  and Robinsons, the blandness of their regular beers don’t offer enough to get today’s punters through the door. Between them there’s many a decent pub but that’s no longer enough.

So next time you’re knocking back a beer from the new craft kid on the block spare a thought for the heroes of the battle for real ale survival. Old infrastructure, tax disadvantages and a struggle to stand out from the crowded world of craft beer could mean we lose some brewery gems, or at best they go down the  pub-only road travelled by Young’s and Brakspear.

The Burton Snatch – marketing triumph and brand failure

As a Burton-born boy I now view from a ‘down south’ distance the marketing triumph that is Marston’s Pedigree and the corporate failure to manage the Draught Bass brand.

I grew up in a Burton world where roads were criss-crossed by the spider’s web of brewery railways, pubs seemed to be on every street corner and more than a few blokes had taken advantage of drinking beer at work. I thought every town had a smell of spent yeast and Marmite. And the joy of a summer holiday job with free beer in the canteen. It wasn’t just the workers – I remember having to carry a case of beer up to the Bass board meeting for ‘tasting’.

Time moved on and drinking choices in town became clear – Ind Coope’s Burton Ale, Marston’s Pedigree or Bass. Whether it was the choice of pubs or the taste of the beers, it’s lost in nostalgia but I’d hope I’d been able to recognise that Burton beers are not all the same. Pedigree to me is so sulphurous you might be drinking water from a volcanic lake, Burton Ale was too much for a session but Draught Bass was the business.

As I’ve said before it’s just my taste but if I’d had to predict a beer capable of national success as real ale became mainstream it would have been Bass. A great brand in the UK and abroad, perfect for a session and a superb traditional bitter taste. In Burton it even had a tower named after it – until Coors rode into town.

Where is it now? It’s a stand back in amazement moment when you see it on a bar. Too many times recently I’ve stared wistfully at that Bass triangle on the outside of a pub only to face the inevitable Doom Bar inside. It’s easy to say it’s not the same Bass taste anymore but there’s still a hint of what might have been when it’s gently supped. (Congratulations to the Shoulder at Barton for keeping a very good pint.)

From a business perspective Marston’s has done a superb job on placing Pedigree as one of the key contenders for a real ale national treasure. Its sponsorship of England cricket hits the perfect demographic, the advertising pulls gently on nationalistic heartstrings and then there’s the taste (oh well you can’t have it all). They started with product, some regional brand-strength and a growing market and they’ve achieved wonders.

On the other hand InBev had the national (even worldwide) Bass brand – the perfect session product for the only growth market in town and they’ve failed completely and utterly. On the AB InBev website Bass is categorised as a lowly ‘local champion’ and without a hint of irony they note that “the brand has had an incredible pedigree (my italics) for centuries”. The marketing maestros probably don’t even realise it is brewed by Marston’s these days.

Since it’s you that’s asking I’ll have another gin dear

My grandad ran a couple of Marston’s pubs, the Fir Tree Inn in Arley (formerly a mining village in North Warwickshire) and the New Talbot in god’s own Burton-upon-Trent. whatpub accurately describes the Fir Tree… a large pub on a pointless roundabout. I’ve thought about my childhood memories of the pub whilst reading the BoakandBailey book BrewBritannia on the rebirth of British beer. Their otherwise excellent tale of the rise of Grotney’s Red Barrel and tasteless lager and the decent beer fightback lacks a vital explanation as to why many punters happily turned to keg. Shock horror, it was better quality and more reliable.

My dear old grandad took the bucket of beer slops at the end of every night and poured them back in the barrel topping it up with a bottle of lemonade to give it a bit of fizz. The slops were free and the lemonade was cheap because, sorry Marston’s, he used to go undercover to the local pop factory to avoid paying the brewery’s prices for soft drinks. The result for my dad and many of his generation was that a drop of real ale never touched their lips after the arrival of keg. Dad struggled to understand why I’d ever want to drink something that was subject to tampering by the landlord. I suspect my grandad was not alone in his dodgy practices but he had to make a penny or two.

Grandad’s other business ideas for money making in the pub were ‘white-labelling’ and target marketing initiatives well ahead of their time. It was customary amongst the regulars to ask Sam if “he’d have one with them” – the offer of a free drink in your own pub. His response “thank you I’ll have my usual” and he’d pour, from the gin bottle behind the counter, a measure of the finest tap water.

When I visited the Fir Tree as a child I wasn’t allowed to go the other side of the bar and much to my annoyance I couldn’t have a lollipop from the jar behind the bar – they weren’t for me. What I was allowed to do was to stand on a tin box of Smith’s crisps and engage the old ladies in the snug – pubs in those days were of course omni-channel venues. My script from grandad went along the lines of… smile, say hello Mrs Jones and then ask her if she’d like another gin. Of course the cherubic marketing message triumphed and she responded with “since it’s you that’s asking I will – tell your grandad”. So it was my fault that gin sales rocketed amongst the old ladies of Arley – guilty as charged mi’lord.

Back to the annoying jar of lollipops. Many years later it was explained to me that the sweets were for little Eric. My grandad was never prosecuted for serving after hours but always had lock-ins, except on those nights when the local bobby turned up ‘unexpectedly’. Little Eric was the local copper’s son and he could come to the ‘offie’ window and get a free lollipop whenever he desired. That’s called community policing of the ‘old-school’.

Grandad was educated at the university of life – I think he awarded himself a MBA with merit.