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The Problem With Local Giants

If we have to live under the benevolent dictatorship of a big regional brewer, we’re happier with St Austell than we would be with some others.

Across the range, the character of their beer appeals to us, being generally clean, bright and fruity. Tribute, we maintain, is a remarkably interesting beer for a brewery to have as its flagship, with German-style malts and American hops much in evidence.

In Roger Ryman, they have a head brewer who was raving about hoppy American beer before it was cool and who, alongside ‘standards’, has slowly built up a range of interesting specialities.

Their pubs in Cornwall are also, on the whole, well run, and we rarely, if ever, come across a bad pint, suggesting healthy levels of investment in infrastructure and staff training.

But they are not perfect.

With almost 300 pubs, St Austell control a good chunk of the market in the West Country, and the chances are slim of finding anything other than their beers in most small towns or villages in Cornwall.

What we would like to see, though we hold out no great hope, is St Austell’s managed pubs stocking at least the occasional beer from another UK brewery — ideally, something interesting, but we’d take London Pride just for a bit of variety every now and then.

After all, they benefit from exactly these kinds of arrangements elsewhere in the country, with pubs from Plymouth to Plaistow increasingly likely to stock St Austell Tribute as a ‘guest ale’.

28 replies on “The Problem With Local Giants”

Agree. I was in Fowey over New Year. I have a love/hate relationship with the pubs there for exactly the reasons you state, i.e.

a) A decent pint is guaranteed, because almost all pubs will have well-kept Tribute and Proper Job on tap.

b) But burger all else.

A fortunate find, in the shadow of St Austell, was the Rashleigh Inn on the beach at Polkerris. Free of tie (it would appear), the highlight was that River Cottage beer from Skinners.

The thing about St Austell Brewery pubs is that you know exactly what you’re going to get, and I think they do a decent enough range to keep everyone happy, particularly if you avoid the old standards and go for their bottled range.

It would be lovely if they had a bit more competition so there was more choice, but unless you’re lucky enough to live close to pubs that brew their own, such as the Star Inn in Crowlas and the Blue Anchor in Helston, a lot of the time the St Austell pub ends up being the only decent pub in town – Tyacks in Camborne being one example. If more free houses were willing to a) take a risk on local independent breweries and b) keep their ale properly (so many don’t) then St Austell pubs selling nothing but their own range of ale wouldn’t be so much of an issue.

That seems like the real issue to be honest.

Maybe in an are where the local big regional is good / has a good reputation locally, discriminating-but-not-geeky drinkers will be happy to stick with their stuff, so there isn’t such a big market for good free houses to tap into. Whereas domination by someone like Greene King tends to drive a lot more people to beer-geeky free houses. It’s a case of good being the enemy of great.

There are probably loads of other factors at play, though – I’d guess tourism, historical accident and the feedback loop between lots of local microbreweries and interesting local free houses are all involved as well.

Could it be a size thing? Greene King has recognised that there are advantages in allowing its licensees to stock guests, and so has Fuller’s, though in both cases I believe it’s only from a list compiled by head office, and presumably at head office’s prices too. But maybe St Austell thinks it is too small to carry the extra SKUs.

You might be right — St Austell is still small and has a ‘family’ feel. Fifteen years ago, they were struggling, so probably still in defensive mode despite their increasing clout.

I’m guessing too that there isn’t as much competition on the ground as there is around London.

Quite a few breweries but not many making beer as good as St Austell’s, and hardly any own their own pubs.

You can’t get anything but Adnams within 20 miles of Southwold, which is great as a visitor but must get a bit boring for locals.

The identikit Greene King pubs that swamp the eastern half of the country are generally dreadful, but they do at least allow the occasional one to pretty much go it alone. Go into the Free Press or the Alex Arms in Cambridge, you could easily not even notice they were Greene King.

Shame they can’t take this approach to all their pubs.

“Greene King has recognised that there are advantages in allowing its licensees to stock guests, and so has Fuller’s, though in both cases I believe it’s only from a list compiled by head office, and presumably at head office’s prices too”

In the case of GK, it’s not just that there’s a list compiled by head office – in fact it’s almost always from breweries that are owned by GK and normally ones that have had their production relocated to Bury St Edmunds.

This winds me up to a frankly irrational degree – if they want to use their local monopoly to sell more beer then I guess it’s their prerogative, but it seems pretty slimy to do so while creating the illusion that they’re offering the consumer more choice than they actually are.

Good point. I’ve definitely seen non-GK brews in pubs around me in London – one in particular takes quite a few local ales – but as you say, GK does also put out a bunch of brands that masquerade as being from someone else. Indeed, in the pub that takes local London ales, the deputy manager didn’t even realised his “Noble craft lager” was a GK brand until I told him.

GK’s guest/FoT policy varies more and more… they’re getting better (man, I hate admitting that…) They still have their shady breweries-we-bought-and-shut-down line-ups of “guests”. But they introduced “proper” guests quite some time ago. Going back at least 4 years I’ve seen “normal” GK pubs with beers on from some other brewers, off the top of my head: Osset, Wolf, … I don’t go in GK pubs enough to remember really – but there have been “real” guests around for a while, although the beers on the list are “safe” (aka lower risk).

Then there are pubs that are also permitted pretty open selection to run beer festivals. I recall being very happy at the Victoria in Hitchin to visit their fest and find Red Squirrel and Darkstar amongst others (I think Red Squirrel had supplied the fest, I know they distribute Dark Star).

Then there are the real gems – The Alex in Cambridge has been mentioned, he’s 50% free-of-tie. The Orange Tree in Baldock has been phenomenal – from zero to N.Herts Pub-of-the-Year in 18 months. The new landlord there has since negotiated up to 9 handpumps FoT (only 3 tied IIRC).

I think the current “[r]evolution” in brewing and beer standards in the UK is opening up a few eyes even at the bigger brewing/pubco level. Does it help that the Greene King monoculture in villages around Cambs/Herts/etc leaves a dangerous gap in the market? One that could potentially be filled by FoT “micropubs” and community purchased pubs. Got a two or three GK pub village? A micropub enters the fray: wet-led GK pub shuts. (Basically what happened here in Willingham – the less-good GK place is on the market, and I hear it may be bought by the GK tennants of the better GK pub. Lose-lose to GK.) Or one GK pub is shut, but retained under the growingly popular “community pub” model: other GK pub suffers badly.

OTTOMH, you’ve got:
Belhaven (still a separate brewery but owned by GK)
Hardy and Hansons brands (normally Olde Trip, plus Rocking Rudolph at Christmas)
Ruddles County
Westgate Brewery brands (normally Fire Side)
Morland brands (normally OSH)
the Noble Craft Lager
plus a few GK ones that don’t mention the name of the brewery and have differently styled branding (eg the St Edmunds Bitter)

I’m always surprised that this doesn’t annoy CAMRA more, to be honest. It seems like an obviously bad thing for consumer choice and hence for beer in general…

Weren’t the Beer Orders meant to stop this sort of thing? Makes me grateful for the variety we have in Lancashire. I’d hate to have no choice other than Thwaites up here.

Last time I saw St. Austell here was last year. The White Cross in Lancaster had Trelawny on.

I agree with the suggestion.

It’s always puzzled me why a company as ‘secure’ as StA don’t allow guest beers.

Having something ‘foreign’ on the taps for a change would renew the locals’ interest in beer and anything that does that must be good for the whole industry. StA could – if they wanted – make a small profit on the scheme, if they said to their tenants “yes, you can have some guest beers, but you must buy them through us.” That doesn’t seem unreasonable to me, for a tied house. StA could doubtless negotiate a rock bottom price, and add some mark-up.

Or why don’t the mid-sized breweries set up partnerships with other similar breweries and do product swaps? So as someone else’s brews come into StA’s houses, theirs go into someone else’s estate. Again, to me, it appears everyone would gain.

With the beers StA themselves brew, why on earth are they windy of a little competition on the bar?! I know which would get my vote, and money, in the end, because as you say, they do some cracking beers.

They even run a beer distribution business based in Devon. Guess their response would be: ‘Why should we?’ Saw another regional brewer in a different part of the country liken the demand for guest ales to a customer walking into Pizza Hut and demanding McDonald’s.

Increasing customer choice and satisfaction?

Selling more beer – albeit not brewed by them – makes a profit for them and their tenants.

To distort your comparison a little: would it be like a customer walking into McDonalds and asking for fish & chips? Oh, wait, they do sell f&c (more or less). Presumably because they know customers want to buy them, and they sell enough to make it worthwhile.

At least the beer is good now. My memories of Cornish holidays 20 years ago are of some great St A pubs, but a lot of pretty terrible Tinner’s Ale.

Did you see the piece by Roger Ryman/Jeff Evans we linked to on Saturday? Would seem to support your findings.

The pressure needs to come from consumers. Particularly in the brewery-run houses, if the customers press the case with the staff, the message should get back. CAMRA local committees could do similar when touring the brewery, visiting as a group to the houses, etc. Today, there are other options -other pubs (there are always some) but also off-license sales, even wine sales. A regional or any brewery shouldn’t have to do this, I agree (I mean in any compulsory sense) but it may see its long-term interest as doing so. The best way is to select products that are rather different, say a good lager from Europe, a good APA, a northern creamy-style beer, a porter – something that stands out. It will help bring the people who will still patronize the regular offerings. This is why Fuller, a very savvy company, has done this IMO.

Gary

I’ve the very same relationship with Black Sheep – it’s everywhere near me and while I only ever buy a Riggwelter or an Imperial Russian for myself, visiting friends proclaim how “lucky” I am to have them. I’d swap a Sheep for an Austell anyday though and maybe just need friends with more refined palates

My only beef with StA is not enough of their pubs sell HSD or Black Prince, or 1913. Other than that, give me Tribute over Doom or Betty any day, and Proper Job is superb.

Forgot to say the idea of a national guest like London Pride would have my support too. Most things from the Fullers stable would be welcome, but there are a myriad of choices.

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