Tuesday, 9 December 2008

What makes a great pub?


I know that there will be plenty of you will disagree with me on this one. I will of course make broad sweeping statements here that will have many, many exceptions. I think though, it is an interesting question worthy of airing.

I would say, without doubt, the best pubs are freehouses. This is a non negotiable point in my view. It is just not possible for a tied house to do everything that I want from a pub. There will be an element of predictability in the beer range and rarely anything at all from a good microbrewery. Generally there will be ties in other areas of the business such as bottled beers, wines and spirits which will limit customer choice. There will be a product range which generally leaves me feeling cold. I like to see things that I have never seen before when I visit a pub, not the predictable range of mass marketed products I can get down the supermarket for a fraction of the price.

Now I know Tandleman and Tyson will jump in and tell me how good the tied houses are around their neck of the woods. I will certainly be disappointed if they don't comment. But while tied houses can be good, the best of them are never as good as the very best free houses. Tied houses are a reality though, despite some of us, me included, wanting to put an end to it, I rather think it's a futile struggle.

It is possible to make a tied house very good, not the best but putting on a good show. The best example in my view, that I have visited recently, is Jeff Bells pub of Stonch's blog which gets a mention here. I hope Jeff doesn't mind me using his pub as an example, but having visited and talked to him he clearly is working the ties he has to his advantage. When I was in there I had two good beers. He had Timothy Taylors on, which I can get easily anywhere, but two others of a reasonably interesting rarity for me. I believe he chooses carefully off his list to give good variation for his customers. My only complaint was the lack of use of a sparkler on northern beers.

The key though to a great pub is the right ambiance. This is affected by so many things. Lighting, furniture, temperature, decor, music and hosts welcome; a thing that Jeff Bell clearly works very hard at. The ambiance is also affected by the customers themselves. This can be a difficult ingredient for the publican to get right. What I find is that for me, the more pleasant clientele are generally to be found in the freehouse. The tied system normally encourages a volume style of trade. The landlord, be it pubco or regional brewery are looking to maximise barrelage and so marketing and promotions are on a sell more save more basis. These pubs tend to push the higher profile, mass produced and mass marketed products such as "cooking lager" and "Alcopops" that are associated with, in my view, less savoury clientele and "binge drinking".

In discussions with a friend of mine who runs a highly regarded pub we shared our experiences of "regulars" affecting the ambiance in the pub. In my friends case the existing customer base sat right in front of the handpulls in a way that was intimidating to new customers. Effectively staking their right to be sat exactly where they were. Eventually this group had to be banned for the pub to progress. This is one of several pubs I hold in high regard, where they are completely and proudly free of tie. The lack of any mass produced products make this type of pub very special. Lager HAS to be properly lagered rather than some fast fermented thing that is effectively a light mild just gassed up and chilled to death.

Another great freehouse closer to me has the most wonderful ambiance due to it's refusal to serve any mass marketed products. Keeping out the "cooking" lager reduces the mass brand conscious types that are, in my view, the source of the social problems facing the pub industry. The sense of belonging to the establishment is so much appreciated by the regulars that they positively welcome all comers to peruse the array of handpulls, and if Continental fizzy is your thing then you are directed to the discreet gassy stuff that might contain many true pilsners or lambic fruit beers.

Clearly some of the smaller tied houses are suffering. Looking at the reports from the Pubco inquiry that is currently getting going there seems to be some worthy grilling being given to the pubco's. Jeff Picthall has provided some links. It is my belief that the tie is not good. It may help some regional breweries to survive, but this is at the expense of small community pubs being able to be flexible. I have tried to take a balanced view here but I believe that the disadvantages of the tie far outweigh the advantages.

For me the tie restricts the abilities of smaller community pubs to be flexible and limits the customer base to a bland, one size fits all, mass produced, mass marketed and go large style product range. It encourages volume consumption by the methods of promotion brought down from the pubcos and breweries.

Yes, phasing out the tie may well result in some regional breweries failing. But why is that a problem? We have more new microbreweries springing up all the time. Loosing Tetley's for instance is no bad thing. There are so many newer beers around and many more to come, I expect. If that is the price to pay for better pubs then I'm all for it.

I have found myself damning the tied system here more than I intended to. My intention was to support the freehouse. I maintain that the best pubs will always be freehouses. So why then is it that the industry is stating that it is the freehouses that are more likely to close? I think the main reason is because when they could, the pubcos bought up the more viable properties leaving the rubbish to the free market. Although I have no firm data to hand, the number of free houses as a proportion of the overall number of pubs has been falling for many years. This has to be a concern for the beer drinker.

The pubcos and the regional breweries alike are only interested in money. Yes sure, I am too as a pub owner. But I also care about what I'm selling. Pubcos and big breweries alike only really care about money for the shareholders. They may own the precious rights to the brand of beer that you grew up with, but they can't all live forever.

We must remember one thing, and if the rest of what I have said does not ring true, then I hope these final words you can agree with. We need to do something fast about our pubs. With so many closing we need to rethink what we are doing, and rethink fast. This is happening with the pubco inquiry, but as Nick Bish has pointed out “evolution” and not “revolution” is required and that any dumping of the tie overnight would be "cataclysmic".

I just hope it is not too late for many pubs.

9 comments:

Velky Al said...

I like the scheme which Everard's have introduced whereby they sub-let some of their pubs to smaller micro-brews, thus giving them a valuable outlet, for example one of the pubs I visited in Oxford was an Everard's pub sub-let to the White Horse Brewery.

However I think the American system is worth considering as an alternative (and I assuming here that I have understood the system correctly), whereby a brewery can not be a distributor or own pubs.

I wonder if the tie could fall foul of anti-trust and anti-competition laws in some way?

Woolpack Dave said...

I like the sound of the Everard's scheme, but I don't think it's common.

My knowledge of competition laws is almost non-existent, so it would be foolish for me to comment. I have a vague notion that there is an EU exception that allows the British tied system Jeff P seems to know about it.

Velky Al said...

I sometimes wonder why Britain bothers with the EU, given we have exceptions for this, that and next thing.

Damian said...

What about child-friendly policies?

Woolpack Dave said...

Damian,

It's down to style, Some pubs need to be child friendly, some are better not being. Personally I don't mind children in a pub providing they understand it is an adult environment. If the pub becomes a kindergarten I think it's a problem.

Tyson said...

Interesting as always, Dave. Whilst Tandleman lets his apple strudel digest, I’ll jump in with my twopenny worth. Where to begin, though? I’ll just have to dive in and work my way round! Also I think you were writing more as a publican whilst I’m looking at it as solely as a customer. With that caveat, let the fun begin...

Firstly, I don’t think the tie in itself is inherently bad. Obviously it has been abused by pubcos, but as you know, they have many bad practices that frustrate and hinder landlords. And customers. In my mind, however, there are clear distinctions between non-brewing pubcos, and regional brewers who own pubs. Certainly there is no case at all for pubcos to be able to enforce the tie. This is where the vast majority of problems lie. They are the ones who have grown fat and bloated. If they want to treat pubs as merely property chattels, then they should be treated as mere landlords who are entitled to rent and nothing else. How the pub tenants earn that rent is nothing to do with them and the government should remove the tie from these pubs. Also, as we all know, pubcos such as Enterprise etc are far too big and limits should be placed on how many they can own.

Now to the family and regional brewers. Take Hydes, for example. They own about 80 pubs. I can’t see a problem with someone brewing and wanting a guaranteed outlet for their product. Pubcos screw suppliers on price and then screw tenants, before finally screwing the customer with high prices. On the other hand, operators such as Hydes offer cask (and other drinks) at reasonable prices, often at the heart of communities. But my liking for them isn’t borne out of sentimentality-yes they do have historical resonance, but they offer a good service and have done for many years. Jeff P tried to tar the Family Brewers with the same brush as the likes of Punch etc. His example was ill judged as Tandleman pointed out. Not only are Greene King not a member of the IFBB, but the vast majority of them aren’t even PLCs’ but limited companies. Indeed, one of the largest regionals-Sam Smiths-aren’t even a limited company! Hardly corporate stalkers. I agree losing Tetley is no biggie. I’m all for the breakup of the national brewers. But then again, they didn’t own any pubs, so are not strictly relevant to the issue of the tie.

Locally our brewers are family owned and have family members running them. Are we to throw out the baby with the bathwater? It’s regionals such as Everards and Batemans, with their fixed rent scheme, I think that are showing us the way forward.

“For me the tie restricts the abilities of smaller community pubs to be flexible and limits the customer base to a bland, one size fits all, mass produced, mass marketed and go large style product range”. Maybe for the many pubco keg houses, but not in the Manchester brewers pubs I visit. In them I see the opposite of what you portray, with a good mix of people and beer that people come back to drink time after time. A worry for me is what will happen if the tie is removed from the family brewers. Ok we lose some beers but there are others out there as you say. The problem is we’ve lost pubs selling cask (that I and others like) and gained...? Some of these pubs may start selling some good beer, but there’s no guarantee that they will. Or even that they will have cask on. So on that basis alone, I reject the universal removal of the tie. I just don’t think it will benefit me, and drinkers like me.

Thinking long and hard about it, I can’t agree with your portrayal of the advantageous ambience etc of the freehouse, either. Yes I agree that the very best free house will beat the tied pub. However, although I visit freehouses a lot, my experience is that they mainly lack the rapport and ambience you find in a good tied pub. They are the ones with transient customers (and staff), so that even though they may have a good product range, they’re only good for visiting and don’t really do it as a “local.”

I’m with you 100% as to pubcos buying up freehouses. That can be the only reason, as you say, as to why freehouses are (seemingly), more likely to fail. However, I treat these figures with some suspicion, as I’ve not seen the data they’re based on. It’s awhile since I did O level maths, but there seems something odd about the claims that the pubcos make. We know that freehouses only make up a very small percentage of pubs. Now if there are 5 pubs closing a day, then logic dictates that the vast majority of these must be pubcos-something they deny. And yet, according to my records 100% of the pubs closed locally have been pubcos. Am I in another dimension? I think not...

Hopefully I’ve given you some idea as to why I think the tie can be a good thing-in certain, very precise circumstances. It’s a complex area that does need airing. I often think that if so many of the freehouses hadn’t been bought up, then we wouldn’t need this debate, as there would be plenty of scope for all.

Now where did I put my sparkler...

ps I don't think the American system can teach us anything. Unless its how bad things can be WITHOUT a tie.

Brewers Union Local 180 said...

Ooooooh...

I think this American concept is best discussed over a lovely game of croquet. Beverages will be provided.

Woolpack Dave said...

Tyson,

Thanks for your very interesting comments. I'm still trying to get to grips with what I can learn from the Americans. There is good and bad I think.

I'm very busy here in snowy Oregon, brewing beer using imperial units. lbs and ozs and very undersized pints and gallons.

Hopefully I'll come up with some conclusions of my own soon.

Damian said...

I believe that I agree with you. One objection I have, obviously not with your pub, is that many pubs do not have a discernable style. Many pubs lack character and offer a very limited set of services of its customers. I have been turned away from such characterless pubs because I had a child with me. He actually wants some crisps and a drink. Thankfully, there are many of places to soak up the unwanted offers of service for cash. This utlimiately leads to more pub closures.