QUICK ONE: Tinnies in the Pub

Stella Artois advertising c.2007.

Some might regard the sale of canned big brewery lager in pubs as a bad sign but there is a definite silver lining.

This year, we’ve been making a special effort to break routine and go to pubs that, for one reason or another, we’ve ignored or avoided in the past. (Which, by the way, has been great fun.) As part of that, on Friday, at a loose end between trains in St Austell, we went to the first pub we came across on exiting the station — The Queen’s Head Hotel.

Some context: St Austell is a working town rather than a tourist destination, dominated by the brewery up the hill with its slick Hicks’ Bar, but oddly lacking a destination pub at its centre. We’ve tended to end up in the over-large, over-bright White Hart on previous visits because we could at least see inside. Often quiet in the evenings, the town is even more so in November and early December.

The Queen’s Head is an old building with two entrances and, though lacking partitions, indicates the lingering class divide with soft furniture and carpeting. All the action was around the bar and the pool table where regulars of various ages, all male as far as we observed, were chatting and joking with the young woman behind the bar.

There was cask ale on offer, and it was in decent condition, but we were surprised to see how many people were drinking pint cans of Stella Artois, straight from the tin. There is one obvious reason for that choice: it was £2.60 a pop, whereas the going rate for a pint of draught lager is more like £4.

For beer folk, this might seem like bad news, even a bit depressing — what hope for breweries if people don’t want or can’t afford to drink the beer they produce? And it does feel a bit like the pub has given up — the equivalent of turning up for work in your pyjamas.

But here’s that silver lining we promised: doesn’t this say something quite hopeful about the institution of the pub?

Given that you can buy Stella at the supermarket for the equivalent of about £1.30 a pint — exactly the same product, served in the same way — why would you pay even as much as £2.60? The pub, even one that isn’t all that special, is adding value.

People have to go out once in a while to be with other humans, and the pub is still the best place to do it.

19 replies on “QUICK ONE: Tinnies in the Pub”

For me the question is why Stella cans were on sale; was the draught lager off, is it a tied house, etc?

If people are drinking Stella straight from the can in a pub, what’s to stop them buying it at half price in the supermarket and smuggling it in with them? It’s not as if anyone is going to say, let alone be able to prove, that they didn’t buy it there.

That’s true of all sort of packaged products, e.g. bottled Budweiser. Distinctive look in this case, though — a tall pint rather than the supermarket 440ml. Plus the customers and the management seemed to be quite cliquey.

Not sure if they still do it, but in the past I’ve seen cans of LCL Pils (formerly brewed by Federation, now supposedly by Thwaites) on sale in some Robinson’s pubs in Stockport.

Also some pubs selling pint cans of Strongbow.

It’s usually a sign that the pub is within a year of closure, one last throw of the dice to try and compete on price whilst making enough margin to keep the lights on.

The trouble is that a) the “nice” customers tend not to want to drink in places that attract the can-drinkers so you kill the higher-margin trade and b)the can-drinkers’ mates (who previously drank draught) get a taste for cans and then that’s when they ask themselves why they are coming to the pub to drink the same product that they could buy from a supermarket. So then they are less frequent visitors (if at all) and the pub shuts.

The pull of the pub is strong – but not that strong.

Agree with that. If a pub has to rely on canned Stella drinkers the writing is on the wall.
If the pub is a tenancy then I would be amazed if Stella cans are on the buying list. If a free house, better products with a higher potential margin are not hard to come by.

Hmm. Bit worried we’ve dobbed them into Enterprise, now, but it wasn’t hidden — fridge full of the stuff and cans being openly consumed.

Almost certainly bought out of tie – if they are doing it that openly they clearly don’t care. If they are tied, they wouldn’t be able to do it at that price. If they are free it would seem a very odd choice of product and price margin. My guess would be that a bill was due and they went to the cash and carry and filled the fridge and hoped they could sell it cheap before anyone noticed….

A quick check of Facebook suggests they’ve been advertising Stella at £2.60 and San Miguel at £1.60 for some months but dispense isn’t specified. Do hope we didn’t get the wrong end of the stick. (But don’t think we did.)

From my experience, I’d say that pubs selling cans is sufficiently commonplace and above-board that it’s unlikely to be just something done off-the-books by struggling tenants. And of course more and more pubs are now selling “craft cans”, albeit not at bargain prices 😉

If you poured a pint can of Stella into a brim-measure pint glass it would underline just how much drinkers of draught beer are short-changed on measures.

It’s also an interesting question why lager and cider are sold in pint cans, but not, to my knowledge, any ales, which you might have thought had more appeal to traditionalists.

The pint tin seems to generally be used only for booze popular enough to sell in a number of sizes. Might undermine the price premium brewers get from the 500ml brown bottles as well.

It’s not so much a price premium – the small guys are struggling to contain costs on bottles as it is, bottling in small runs adds ~50% to the cost of cask, they’re making very, very little money on those 4-for-£5 kind of deals you see. So going from 568ml to 500ml helps hit the retailers’ price point a little bit.

It’s not the “can-iness” per se, it’s the combination – obviously selling 330ml of Beavertown at £4.50 is a very different game. The fact that it’s cans of Stella in particular, the fact that it’s an all-male crowd on a Friday, that the atmosphere is described as cliquey – I can think of half a dozen pubs locally that went down that route just before they shut the doors for good. There just isn’t enough margin there to keep the lights on, at least not long-term.

It’s a bit different selling cans of smaller lines like cider if you can’t justify buying kegs, it’s when your main line is a can, that’s when the warning lights come on.

I have seen some microbreweries doing 568ml bottles, can’t think of any offhand – tends to be the small guys who bottle their own by hand, the big bottling lines are geared to 500ml. And of course Newky Brown is 550ml, and Magners & Bulmers are 568ml bottles. But you can certainly get 568ml cans of Bud, Stella etc from supermarkets. It may be a bit heretical, but I actually quite like 440-500ml as a serving, sometimes a pint is just a wee bit more than I want, particularly if it’s fizzy, but that’s a debate for another day!

As an aside, my eyebrows raised at lager in St Austell being £4 on draught – in the NW that would be firmly premium territory, the likes of Kronenbourg or the more obscure Freedoms. Cooking lager would typically be £3.30, and around £3 in the kind of place that the Queen’s Head sounds like.

Stella is brewed under licence in the UK while Urquell and Budvar are both imported so they do have a premium attached. The former is ubiquitous — more or less pub and bar sells it — while the two Czech beers are still relatively hard to find in pubs in any format.

It’s the two litre bottles of Tesco Value cola bought for a quid and being sold as a mixer that’s invariably gone flat that pisses me off.They think because you’re horsing that and a load of Jack down some bird’s throat all night to get her pissed enough for a nosh that you won’t notice.It’s a bleedin’ liberty.

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