Chainpub Encounter

Our mission to visit every pub in Bristol means we’re going to interesting places we might otherwise give a miss, like The Old Post Office in Fishponds.

It looks, sounds, smells and acts like a branch of Wetherspoon, but isn’t, which is fascinating to us. It’s clearly part of a chain but unlike JDW pubs the brand isn’t blazoned on the building’s front or mentioned anywhere else that we could see.

“This is a daft question but… which chain is this pub part of?” we asked the person who was serving us.

“It’s not Wetherspoon’s,” they replied instinctively, even though that wasn’t what we’d asked. “Everyone thinks that but it’s actually part of a company called Stonegate. I’d never heard of them until I started working here but it turns out they’re huge. Great to work for, too — fantastic benefits and training.” (All this offered freely and apparently sincerely without any additional prompting.)

It’s true — Stonegate is a big company, running almost 700 pubs and bars from behind the cover of several well-known brands such as Yates’s, and Slug & Lettuce. The Old Post Office is part of their Proper Pubs sub-brand: “Our Proper Pubs are the perfect place to enjoy a quiet drink, grab a mid-week bite, get together at the weekend or enjoy the best sports coverage around.”

The pub itself isn’t lovely — too plastic for our taste, lacking even the distinctiveness of decor Wetherspoon pubs generally shoot for, even if they don’t always score. Nonetheless, it was absolutely crammed with families sharing meals, and groups of football fans arranged in various odd ways around their tables so that they could see the TV screens. It felt, as the cliche goes, like a pub truly serving its community — buzzy and informal, but smart with it.

The beer range wasn’t as titillating as a typical Spoons either with a smaller range of interesting bottled beers and no novelty guest ales. Instead, there were five pumps for Sharp’s Doom Bar, Fuller’s ESB, Harvey’s Sussex Best, London Pride and Wadworth 6X, with the last two tagged as Coming Soon. If you’re going to have a line-up of old-school brown beers, though, Harvey’s and ESB are good choices — enough to get us a little bit excited, anyway. Sussex Best wasn’t quite at its most thrilling but was still very good — quirky, dry, a little leafy — but the ESB… Well, that’s where we had a problem.

The member of staff who pulled it saw at once that it wasn’t right, forming no head at all. “It might be the glass,” they said, and tried with another. This time, it was not only flat but also hazy, and obviously so.

“Don’t worry, just make it two Sussex Best instead.”

But at this point what we assume was a manager got involved, apparently the final arbiter of whether a beer is off or otherwise. He said firmly, even sternly, “No, it’s meant to be like that,” and rushed away.

Now we know, and you know, that ESB is not meant to be hazy or headless, but the member of staff pouring the beer had clearly been put in a tricky position. So, chalking it up to experience, we broke the deadlock and agreed to take it, bearing in mind that it seemed to be a mere £2.40 a pint and, cosmetics aside, tasted acceptable, if a touch sweet and subdued.

Sitting outside on the patio watching the traffic go by we couldn’t help compare this experience to our recent experiences in Wetherspoon pubs, where the slightest complaint seems to trigger a full apology and a replacement without hesitation. We wouldn’t want to draw any conclusions based on one visit to a Stonegate Spoonsalike, and one fumbled transaction, but it’s certainly a first mark on the scorecard.

Disclosure: we sold a copy of 20th Century Pub to someone who works at Stonegate the other day.

QUICK ONE: One Function of a Pump-Clip

Handpumps at a Bristol pub.

A huge, gaudy, distinctive pump-clip is the speculative pub-explorer’s friend.

For benefit of readers from Mars, pump-clips are the badges displayed on handles in pubs. They barely existed until about 50 years ago but now they’re ubiquitous, increasingly ornate, and increasingly huge.

Which, though some may scoff, is great for people like us whose favourite way of finding pubs is wandering about with feelers twitching.

In Topsham the other week, researching our Devon Life column, we saw a pleasant looking pub but with only limited time before our train had to make a snap decision about whether to pop in. From the street, through glass, across several metres of floor-space, we could recognise the brands on offer and see that they weren’t terribly exciting. Without stopping, we were able to make a quick decision to push on somewhere else instead.

Equally, though, there are times when we’ve slammed the brakes on because one of us has subconsciously registered a hit in the database: wait — was that the clip for Rooster’s Yankee back there in The Union? (They’ve never had it on again since; it was glorious.)

In lieu of pubs displaying a list outside, which is ideal, a bank of pumps visible from the street, with bold clips on display, is the next best thing.

And brewers: if your pump-clips are generic, or inconsistent within the range, or lack a visual hook, you might want to bear that in mind next time you review the designs.

News & Nuggets Special: Open Season

Mostly out of nosiness we’re always pleased to see brewers being honest and this week, with new year’s spirit in the air, has seen a bonanza.

First, though we missed it, there was this reflection on profit-per-cask of ale from Ade at Wishbone Brewery, based in Keighley, West Yorkshire:

We know Landlords feel pressure to sell beer at competitive prices, we also often wonder where the fairness is in the profit share between beer-making and pint-pulling as it often seems that pubs demand the lion’s share in comparison to what the brewery makes. (Includes brewery profit at approx £25 per cask)

Brewery Cask per pint including VAT (Blonde) = £1.20 (approx)
Pub served pint including VAT (Blonde) £2.70 to £3.20+ (estimate)
@ £3.20 per pub-pint that is £146 per cask profit for the pub.


Cloudwater growth chart 2015-2017.
SOURCE: Cloudwater

Then there was the Cloudwater blog post which, quite apart from the hot potato cask issue, also gave a top level run down of the brewery’s financial position (sales, growth, margins):

There’s another standout commercial difference I noticed on my trips to The States in these past couple of years – many of the breweries we hear and get excited about manage a staggering amount of direct retail, leaving UK breweries lagging way behind.  From West Coast breweries turning anything between 50-85% of their beer over in their own tap rooms, to East Coast breweries selling 100% straight off the canning line at retail value, the margins our American peers and friends are making are both impressive and powerful… So it’s without apprehension that I’ll say that by focusing on opportunities we have now, and will work to develop in 2017 to maximise the margin we make, we’ll put ourselves, and every business in our supply chain too, in an ever stronger position next year.


Kegs and casks behind the Free Trade Inn, Newcastle.

That prompted Steve at Beer Nouveau, a man who never shies away from providing detail, to go all in with a numbers-heavy post detailing the costs of producing, and profits from, casks, kegs and bottles of the same beer. He concludes with an intriguing suggestion about the purpose of draught beer, as a kind of marketing tool:

Putting your beer out on cask or keg doesn’t make you much money. We’d be looking at less than £500 a month. That would be my wages. Would you expect anyone to work 60 plus hours a week for that? But as breweries we have to put beer out on draught because that’s generally where the majority people first see and try it. And those first impressions are what are vital to us, because if someone likes our beer on draught, they’re more likely to buy it in bottles or cans. And that’s where we start looking at making a living wage. So as brewers we have to strike a balance between getting out names out there, and getting our bills paid.


Macro shot of 1p pieces with The Queen's profile.

Finally, today, we have a frankly worrying post from Dave Bailey at Hardknott — another brewer who has always worn his heart on his sleeve, for good or ill. Cynics might read it as asking for special treatment or pleading for pity-purchases but, based on our dealings with him, we’ve no reason to doubt Dave’s sincerity when he writes…

It seems to us the only thing that might help us to make a go of it would be to sell our home, downsize and in so doing release some capital. I’m going to be honest, this scares the living shit out of me, not least of which because although we will release capital our house is really efficient and low-cost, our bills are low, should we move into a draughty house we might see bigger bills, which we cannot afford on our non-existent earnings… Our house is on the market, and I’m hopeful that we will find a buyer this year. Our plan requires that we move and so I can no longer hide the fact that a move out of Millom is essential. I understand it is possible to find some quite nice caravans and this sacrifice will be worth it to save Hardknott. What if even that doesn’t get us on an even footing?


With our amateur historian hats on we’re going to file these posts away — they may well be vital evidence in a Where Did it All Go Wrong/Right analysis in a decade’s time. In the meantime, it’s worth reflecting on that common theme of the price of cask ale — is there anything we can do as consumers to convey the message to the Trade that, while we don’t want to be exploited, we wouldn’t object to people like Dave earning enough that they don’t have to live in caravans?

The Flat, Warm Pints of London Town

Illustration: a flat pint.

I didn’t realise I’d missed London’s characteristically headless, lifeless, lukewarm pints of beer until I had one on Friday.

It was brown, weary-tasting, with barely a fleck of scum on the surface, and yet… I kind of loved it.

I’m not saying this kind of thing is good, or that I wouldn’t have preferred something with a bit of condition given the option, but confronted with it in that moment, it resonated with my homesickness like the stink of a hometown factory.*

For many Londoners, perhaps less so now than it used to be, I’m sure this is actually a preference: no space wasted by mere froth, maximum possible booze for your cash. I remember friends from my sixth-form college and Leyton Orient supporting days grumbling if they were served even slightly foamy pints: ‘What’s going on ‘ere — are we up Norf or summink?’

I didn’t say when I Tweeted about it but the pint in question was at the usually very reliable Royal Oak in Borough, our favourite London pub these days. I stayed drinking there with friends until we got booted out so it can’t have been so bad.

But that’ll do me for a while — back to cool, properly conditioned beers with proper heads now, I think.

* Not an abstract example — Bailey grew up under the foul cloud of British Cellophane and gets sentimental when he smells anything similarly disgusting.

Questions & Answers: Why No Hand-pulls on the Continent?

‘How come the cask hand-pump system didn’t develop in mainland Europe? Or am I missing something?’ Jordan (@timelytipple), Berlin

Instinctively, we thought, yes, Jordan’s right — you don’t go into a bar or the local equivalent of a pub in France, Belgium, Germany or points east and see someone pulling on a handle to draw beer from a cask into the glass. In Cologne and Düsseldorf you might see a cask on a counter with a trickle-tap on its side, or a grand and gleaming keg font, but not this:

Gaskell and Chambers beer engine.
SOURCE: Advertisement in the Licensed Victuallers’ Yearbook, 1937.

But then we paused — was this always the case or are we, and Jordan, making the mistake of assuming that how it is now is how it’s always been?

Continue reading “Questions & Answers: Why No Hand-pulls on the Continent?”