Saturday, November 26, 2011

Worth passing a few pubs for?

I grew up in an area of North Cheshire dominated by Greenalls, and so in the 1970s it made a refreshing change to head off a few miles to the south where, around Tarporley, there was a cluster of four Robinson’s pubs. And from time to time we would visit Chester and make a beeline for the Olde Custom House, one of the very few pubs this side of the English border selling Border beers from Wrexham.

At University in Birmingham, the city was dominated by a duopoly of Ansell’s and M&B, so the handful of Davenports pubs were an attraction, and a bus trip to the Black Country to sample Batham’s, Holden’s and Simpkiss was a virtual pilgrimage. Even finding a Banks’s or Marston’s pub in the surrounding areas (then two separate and very different companies) was something of an achievement.

After that, I worked in Surrey for a while, again an area dominated by two of the then Big Six, in this case Courage and Ind Coope. But the county was surrounded by a number of well-respected independent brewers – Young’s, King & Barnes, Brakspear’s and Gale’s (all now closed) – whose tied houses either spread into the edges or started not far beyond the border. Fuller’s had virtually no presence outside London in those days.

It was also very much the case back then that the tied houses of a particular brewery had a distinctive house character. Young’s pubs tended to be big, a bit posh, traditional and comfortable, with plenty of dark wood, whereas Brakspear’s were often small and Spartan with bare wooden benches and whitewashed interior walls. Around here, Holt’s pubs were noted for their busy, basic and boisterous atmosphere, often in an environment of some architectural splendour.

But times have changed, and over the past twenty years one of the most significant changes to the British pub scene has been the wholesale removal of brewers’ identities from pubs. It has to be questioned whether today there is any cachet gained from linking a pub with a particular brewery. The beer enthusiast is likely to be found in a multi-beer outlet working his way through fifteen different golden ales tasting of lychees, while looking down with scorn at the neighbouring Robbies’ house and its boring brown beer. While Robinson’s and Lees have been busy buying up pubs from the pub companies in the last few years, in general their main objective has been to acquire establishments with the potential to develop the food trade, not showcases for their beers.

It certainly does still have a cachet for me, as in any given area the tied houses of a family brewer are likely to my mind to be better run, more “pubby” and have better-kept beer than pubs belonging to pub companies. But, in the overall pub market, does being identified as “A Bloggs’ House” now give a pub any kind of USP?

The one exception to this is Sam Smith’s, who ironically don’t even paint the name of the company on their pubs. They have a very definite, even somewhat eccentric, policy of low prices, all products bearing their own branding and a no-frills, traditional atmosphere. It doesn’t always work, but at their best Sam’s pubs are examples of what good pubs are all about. In the London area, where they have a number of pubs, they must stand out from the general herd even more than they do here.

(And for those too young to remember, “Worth passing a few pubs for” was an advertising slogan used in the 1970s for, of all things, Younger’s Tartan)