pubs real ale

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.

7 replies on “Chainpub Encounter”

interesting, isn’t it. Poorly cleaned lines? Beer past it’s BBE or just delivered and not stillaged for long enough? A pub which is too quick to pull beer in response to random punter (not you obvs) complaints is a nightmare for brewers. As is a pub which keeps poor beer in service so that brewers don’t know there is a ptoblem. I tried to return a sour hazy beer to the bar of a brewery owned pub recently. It’s supposed to be like that was the response (it really wasn’t), but I was given a grudging replacement. Looking around the bar I started to spot abandoned glasses 75% full of hazy beer. All of those punters had left bad beer in the glass and walked out to another pub. If the managers can’t understand that bad beer is bad for business, someone has to make them see sense. Naming the pub in question is actually doing them a favour. As you said, they were keeping the Harveys properly

My experience of the chain I’d say “all the charm of wetherspoons, without quite matching the prices”

There’s a pub in Durham just like that – everything from the name (local worthy you’ve never heard of) to the layout to the decor to the menu has Spoons written all over it… except that it doesn’t have Spoons written all over it! I’m not surprised to find it’s Stonegate. Never drunk in there, though – too many alternatives (an actual JDW’s, Sam’s, the Head of Steam…).

That said, they’re obviously a company with many faces. A pub near where I work (i.e. student central) has recently been done up in an odd but mostly effective old-school-pub-but-a-bit-crafty style (upholstered bench seating, tiled floors, menus on brown paper), with a similarly bet-hedging range of a couple of hand pumps and a couple of decent keg taps. Even the food faces both ways – good burgers (craft), without added extras and fairly cheap (pub). I thought it was independent, and was quite surprised to see ‘Stonegate’ on my till receipt.

I knew of Stonegate long before I’d been in one – they started out with about 300 pubs that M&B offloaded to private equity after the smoking ban/financial crisis and have aggressively expanded since then, most recently they tried to buy Revolution Bars. The ones I’ve been in have obviously been “chainy” (nowhere more so than in the pre-packaged food) but rather more pubby than the average Spoons IMO. The only indication of the company I’ve found is in small type on the back of the wine lists.

Interesting to see the beer offer in a West Country, they obviously programme against the local tied houses, I had previously thought that Tribute on the bar was one of their defining characteristics based on what I’d seen elsewhere in the country. They clearly have a big corporate deal with Snozzell, so it might be worth seeing what’s in their bottle fridges….

Also notable is seeing the new Pride branding in the wild for the first time…

It is sociologically fascinating that ‘Proper Pubs’ branding can now represent an aspiration towards Wether-ness.

For years the received wisdom was that Spoons were the absolute antithesis of proper pubs. How times and perception change.

Stonegate have actually taken over one of the three large Wetherspoons pubs in Central Reading. I wandered in there a few weeks ago, and it was only when I observed the limited and extremely unimaginative beer line-up that I realised that something had changed. As a beer-snob, I won’t make that mistake again, bit I expect they will do OK amongst the town-centre crowd, looking for a reasonably priced lunch and a pint with little taste.

The Bowling Green, which we visited on our recent trip to Leicester, is a Stonegate pub. We were well fed with straightforward food, and the beer, while not the most adventurous range in the world, was fine – and it’s in the 2018 GBG. It clearly works in that location.

Stonegate have taken over a fair number of ex-Wetherspoons pubs, although this wasn’t one – apparently it was an It’s A Scream in a past life.

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