— Craft Beer London (@CraftBeerLondon) September 25, 2012
Brewdog’s string of bars, The Craft Beer Company and the Pivovar empire are all expanding at a rate of knots. Every day, it seems, brings a launch party or details of a future opening. And every time a new bar opens, it seems to fill up, so why wouldn’t they keep opening more?
‘Decent beer pubs’ (diplomatic turn of phrase…) have often been part of, or turned into, chains. There was CAMRA Investments, in 1975; and, in 1979, the Goose and Firkin brewpub was such a huge success that David Bruce would have been daft not to open another, and then another, until, in 1995, there were more than forty Firkins around the country. Even JD Wetherspoon began life as a single pub in North London, also in 1979, making it to seven pubs by 1983 – growing at about the same rate as the ‘craft beer’ chains we’ve mentioned above.
Is it always bad news when a pub becomes a chain? We’re optimists and believe it is possible for a small chain to retain whatever magic it was that made the ‘seed pub’ successful. Often, however, it is the personality of one person (or perhaps a couple of people) that makes a business what it is, and that can easily be spread too thinly.
And, with chains, the temptation to compromise seems inevitable. CAMRA Investments was cut loose and became ‘Midsummer Inns’, under the leadership of former CAMRA chairman Chris Hutt; in 1981, he came under attack for disregarding CAMRA’s ideals when the pubs in the chain began to sell lager and keg bitter, and introduced fruit machines and juke boxes. Sounding rather like those he had laid into in his book The Death of the English Pub in 1973, Hutt defended this decision on the grounds of ‘customer choice’ – it was what the punters wanted, he argued.
Then there is an even bigger temptation: why not sell the whole bundle off, perhaps to Whitbread or Mitchells and Butlers, and take a well-earned early retirement? How long does the ‘decent beer’ last under new ownership? In what peculiar ways is the ‘brand extended’?
There’s another risk, too, as David Bruce discovered when Whitbread launched their own ‘fake Firkin’ brewpubs in the early eighties: chains are easy to imitate, at least superficially. Did anyone else notice the spate of ‘gourmet burger’ chains that sprang up in London c.2005, often with worse burgers, chips and beer, but at the same price?