All tied up?

A significant number of real ale drinkers want to drink beers that are new to them. The latest Good Beer Guide seems to have moved towards venues that are focused on ever changing line-ups of beers, with the days of ‘1 or 2 beer’ pubs seemingly on the wane. As a result of these factors, are there important business implications for the success of tied pubs where the owners insist on only their beers being sold?


Old school tie


Comparing two of the pubs in my village, one is a Marston’s house operating a strict tie, albeit ranging across all of the plc’s brands. The other is a Star Pubs and Bars (Heineken) pub with a regular local guest ale from the Peak District or Sheffield. Two very different strategies. Both keep their beers equally well.


Five licensed premises in view, freehouse in GBG

The Cask Report 2015/16 reported that around 20% of real ale drinkers would choose either a brand that they’d heard of, but not tried before; or choose one that they’d not seen before but liked the look of. The micro pub lovers perhaps? Middle-aged geezers need excitement, on the real ale front, as I see it. (I can’t find these data in the later Cask Reports but I suspect it’s unlikely that these percentages have gone down since the 2015/16 survey.)

My suspicion is that if the Cask Report survey was weighted by volume or value, this percentage would be even higher. A further gut feel is that these drinkers are much more likely to be active CAMRA members completing NBSS scores and voting for drinking venues for the GBG. (This could of course be completely inaccurate prejudice from me.)

So at least 20%, probably more, of real ale drinkers are on the look out for some thing different. A sizeable chunk of the market even with out my skews coming into play.

As Star put it in their website Support pages. “Research shows that our Foundation (their own Caledonian and Theakstons beers with other big brands available all year round) and Favourite (well known brands available for a minimum of 13 weeks)  ranges have higher rates of sale, as drinkers like familiar brands at the bar, but it’s also important to offer variety…” (Words in italics are mine.) Their third tier of choice is Guest Ales, available for approximately 4 weeks. Their logic seems to be match the range to the survey in order to please all real ale drinkers (and in my view to give the pub a free house look and feel).

Marstons on the other hand seem to have a long established view that they know what is required. In their submission to the House of Commons BIS committee in 2011, “It is exceedingly rare for any of our licensees to consider this range (i.e. from their own breweries) to be inadequate for his or her customers. Not only are we keen to sell our own cask beers but also there is limited demand for a ‘guest beer’ provision from our licensees.” (Again words in italics are mine.)They’re hardly likely to ask if they can’t have it, I would have thought.

Anyway, this policy seems to continue in Marston’s tenanted pubs, whatever the tenancy agreement selected, with few high volume exceptions (e.g. Smith’s Tavern, Ashbourne). With their sizeable number of breweries, I suspect they hope that many drinkers looking for real ale excitement will be convinced by their other breweries’ ‘non-Marston’s’ beers. I’m sure other tenanted estates follow a similar strict tie approach particularly the ‘family’ brewers.


Good to look at, best tied up

The issue of not offering real ale excitement is exacerbated if there is a long-held view amongst some CAMRA members that the tied pub is somehow inferior on the beer front. For lovers of hearsay, and the less well known boy band, The Anecdotes, there are plenty of views around.  In terms of evidence the various branch guidelines give some clues.

For example, in their GBG/Pub of the Year guidance of 2009, the CAMRA Tendring branch offered the following, “Keep your ear to the ground and get to know what is going on, freeholds are generally better than tenanted or managed pubs…”. (This was section was removed from later guidelines.) Strangely, Telford and East Shropshire CAMRA in their POTY 2016 guidance say, “..the fact that a pub is a tied house mustn’t be held against in any way.” To my mind it seems odd to have to write that to active members, unless there is the opposite view.

My limited evidence (other evidence is welcome in the comments) suggests that tenants of pubs, where the brewery owners operate a strict tie, have an uphill battle in the real ale world of today. Some 20% of real ale drinkers crave more excitement than they are able to offer and it’s also likely that they will struggle to gain prominence in CAMRA award and GBG listings. Perhaps a strict tie, as far as a significant number of real ale drinkers are concerned, is now detrimental to the performance of these pubs and their owners?