The Great Age of Steam

Beer signs at the Head of Steam bar in Birmingham.

We’ve been intrigued by the growth of the Head of Steam chain of beer bars for a while and Phil’s recent post prompted me to go out of my way to drop into the Birmingham branch while traversing the Midlands.

Founded by Tony Brookes in the North East of England in 1995, the original proposition of Head of Steam was that the pubs (with bottled beer, flavoured vodka, and so on) would be near city train stations, occupying railway property. In 1998 there were branches in Newcastle, Huddersfield and at Euston in London.

In 2009 when regional giant Cameron’s took over, with backing from Carlsberg, there were seven pubs in the Head of Steam group. There are now 15 bars, mostly in the Midlands and the North, with more on the way.

Based on my experience in Birmingham, the approach is to try to convince you you’re stepping into an individualistic place with personality and taste, not a Craft Pub Chain Concept. The signs are all ther, though: distressed and mismatched furniture, walls that’ll give you splinters, but with all the crucial bits kept conveniently wipe-clean.

Vintage pub seating and wooden walls.

There’s an off-the-peg Eclectic Playlist, of course — breathy indie switches to quirky ska and then, inevitably, to Africa by Toto — delivered through a state of the art Hospitality Background Music Solution.

And the food looks like standard pub grub disguised with a sprinkling of kimchi.

Now, all that might sound a little sour but actually I didn’t dislike the place at all.

There was an interesting selection of beer, for starters.

I was also impressed by the very chatty bartender who for all his patter knew when to pitch a recommendation and when to just pour.

As I was on a tight turnaround I only had a couple of small ones — Horizon by the Shiny Brewing Company, which didn’t touch the sides — hazy, refreshing, tart, and bitter; and an imported German lager, ABK, which struck me as pretty decent, too, in a literally nondescript way.

Cameron’s also spent some of the refurb money on ensuring there are plug points at practically every table which in this day and age is a not insignificant factor in deciding where to go for a pint in a strange town.

My first instinct was to say that it isn’t the sort of place I’d generally choose to go again but actually I had to concede that it made a good pit-stop while changing trains, being less than five minutes from New Street.

Then I found myself going a little further: if I lived in Birmingham, I reckon I’d probably end up there quite a bit.

I can imagine it appealing to non-beer-geek friends and family with its cleanness, friendliness, and vast range of drinks.

And I can certainly deal with the whiff of the corporate when there’s a cage of Orval and Westmalle to be enjoyed.

The Inevitability of Chains

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?