london pubs

Samuel Smith pubs are not cheap

It takes a long time for the reputation of a pub to turn around, and that can work both ways. For example, many people still believe Sam Smith pubs are good places for cheap beer in London.

We’ve been aware of their prices creeping up for years.

As we recall, the posh bottles went first. Oatmeal Stout and Taddy Porter were the choice of those in the know, and always cost a bit more.

But when they went up to £6, £7, £8 per bottle, it was clear things were changing.

The bottles eventually shrank, too, changing from famously fat full pints to 330ml tiddlers.

Then, on a recent trip, we paid around £7 for a pint of Pure Brewed Lager, and almost £6 for a pint of Old Brewery Bitter.

Again, we know, that’s sort of what beer costs in London in 2023. Fair enough.

When people on Trip Advisor are still advising tourists to go to Samuel Smith pubs for good value food and beer, however, there’s clearly a mismatch between reality and reputation.

We might also be more relaxed about these prices if we felt they were covering the costs of a good pub experience but…

Dirty glassware. Glum service. Grim atmosphere.

Evidence of a death spiral, perhaps?

We enjoyed one of our several recent visits to Samuel Smith pubs despite all of the above, because the building and location were somewhat magical.

It felt, though, as if the management were doing everything possible to test our goodwill.

At least the beer was good, though, right? Right? 

Well, no, not really, even allowing for the fact that it’s always had a mixed reputation.

We used to like Pure Brewed Lager. Now, it seems sweet and (ironically) cheap.

And though we’ve never been huge fans of Old Brewery, its limited charms are even harder to discern without the befuddling glamour of a bargain price.

There are, in theory, cheaper beers available, such as Taddy Lager, but they often seem to be unavailable in practice.

Go to the pubs if you like. Enjoy them, and the beer, if you like. But don’t tell anyone they’re great value in 2023.

Because these days, they’re more like Angus Steak Houses than Merry Olde Inns of England.


A pint of beer has to work harder these days

Here’s the problem: when a pint of beer costs more, and you’ve got less, you don’t have much tolerance for duds.

When a pint of dark mild cost pennies, perhaps you didn’t object to being given slops every now and then.

But if you’ve gone to the pub intending to drink, say, three pints, because that’s what the weekly budget will permit, you want each one to be at least decent. Perfect, really.

At the same time, people running pubs or breweries might hope that they’ll be cut a bit of slack. These are challenging times all round, with energy prices, staff shortages and poor quality blue roll.

Beer businesses are popping out of existence, or getting mothballed, left, right and centre.

Is now the time to be pernickety about beer quality, full measures and service standards?

Well, it’s never the right time to be a dick about these things, but it’s also perfectly reasonable to expect a £5+ luxury – that’s what a pint has become – to spark joy. Pubs which can continue to provide that will do better business in the coming months.

One option is to reduce the range rather than risk a dip in quality.

BBC Wales ran a story yesterday, which we briefly mentioned on Mastodon, about a pub which has reduced its beer range as a cost-reduction measure:

“Taking off three or four brands will make the cooler system a bit more energy efficient… I don’t want to restrict the choice, but customers would prefer the pub to still be here in December, January and February having a smaller choice, than have a larger choice and possibly not being here in the new year… I’ve got to do it for the longevity of the pub.”

Some cask ale enthusiasts have been arguing for years that pubs ought to do this. Three great ales are better than five slightly tired ones. And a single cask hand pump, serving decent volumes of one beer, is better than none at all.

If we walk into a pub and it’s got one great beer on cask, we’re certainly happy. A decent pale-n-hoppy, a proper plain stout, Butcombe bitter on form – that sort of thing.

We think we’ve seen this happening in various pubs in Bristol.

One pub, The Swan With Two Necks, had only one cask ale on a Thursday night a couple of weeks ago.

It was, as it happens, cask mild. And very good too.

opinion pubs

People think pubs are ripping them off

“I personally believe pubs/bars have priced themselves out of business.”

When you spend a lot of time talking to people who like pubs, and are sympathetic to their situation, it’s startling to come across a statement like that.

And this from the same conversation:

“The key question is why can Wetherspoons sell beer at £2-3 a pint, and some pubs sell at £6? It’s not just about landlords’ rent.”

We spotted those on LinkedIn in comments from an accountancy firm MD on a post from an insolvency expert – so these are people who understand business and can do sums.

We can hear publicans groaning from here.

In the context of supply chain issues, rampaging inflation and staff shortages, let alone the long-term structural problems caused by the pubco model, how much control do most really have over the price of a pint?

That’s not to say, of course, that some people don’t do quite well running pubs. We find ourselves thinking of a businessman who owned several pubs in Cornwall and would turn up for inspection in a huge Range Rover with personalised plates, gold cufflinks flashing.

It’s perhaps no wonder his customers got the impression that running a pub might be a nice earner and occasionally grumbled about the price of a pint.

As one pub landlord said to us a few years ago, “Even if I did have a Ferrari, I wouldn’t let my customers see me driving it, know what I mean?”

In general, though, it is fair to say that by the time you’ve covered the very cost of selling a pint in most settings, your margins will be pretty slim.

That’s why so many pubs try to compensate with food, the margins on which might give them a little bit more for manoeuvre.

Well, that is, until food also started going up in price.

“It cost me £110 to take my wife and two 7-year-olds to the pub for tea on Friday. Who can afford to do that often?” asked another commenter in the LinkedIn chat above.

For a while, pub food had an advantage: because it was allowed – no, expected – to be heartier and less fancy, it could fill a gap in the middle.

A decade or so ago, a Sunday roast in a pub might cost, say, £8-10, and you’d expect to pay less than a tenner for fish and chips. In fact, researching this on Twitter, we found someone in 2012 expressing fury at having paid £13 for fish and chips in a pub.

Now… those prices have barely changed. Because (a) those prices are almost hard-wired in people’s brains; and (b) nobody has any money.

Unless you’re confident that you’ll be able to continue to attract well-off customers, and the rest can go hang, putting up prices is a bold move.

So, what’s gone? The publican’s margin.

It’s helpful in this context to give people running pubs chances to talk openly about the challenges they face.

Tom Kerridge’s BBC documentary series did a good job of highlighting the gap between drinkers’ ideas of a fair price and the reality of many pubs’ accounts.

Pieces like this, in which a pub landlady talks about impossible fuel bill increases, can also be a reality check.

Perhaps what we need is more publicans to be more open about how they work out the asking price of a pint, if they feel able to do so.

Yvan Seth, who works as a beer distributor, had a go at this back in 2014, including a snappy infographic.

We’d certainly be happy to share more information on this if anyone feels like sharing with us privately.

Generalisations about beer culture marketing opinion

Price as substitute for quality in unfamiliar territory

“In the absence of information, people tend to take a price of the unfamiliar product as a signal of its quality, so high prices do not diminish the quantity demanded very much. When information is provided, the signalling content of the price diminishes. As a result, demand becomes more elastic. In particular, informed consumers see no reason to pay more for the new product given that it has the same ingredients as the familiar one. The effect of the information is thus to encourage more people to switch from the substitute product to the target one at low prices, and vice versa at high prices.”

That’s an extract from an academic paper (PDF) on the behaviour of purchasers of medical products in Zambia, but you’ll encounter versions of this argument everywhere from self-help books on how to sell! sell! sell! to articles in the business press.

The conclusion often drawn is that, perhaps counter-intuitively, if you price your product higher than the competition, many consumers will assume yours is better and worth the extra money.

Conversely, if your product is too cheap, it might seem suspicious: “Hmm. What’s wrong with it?”

Does all of this also apply to beer?

Twenty years ago, we were certainly aware of the aura that surrounded Premium Lager, and Pete Brown has written memorably about the damage Stella Artois did to its brand by reducing the price.

But drinkers these days have lots more information to go on, from beer style to ABV, from hop varieties to brewing location. All or any of these might override price in the decision making process.

And, of course the actual relationship between price and quality in beer is complex: there are lots of bad expensive pints out there, and some really good ones that are relatively cheap.

Our suspicion is that price might be a proxy for quality in situations where none of the brands are familiar, and the only other information is price; or (as this paper suggests) where the choice is between broadly similar products under the same brand name: Carlsberg, or Carslberg Export?

With all this in mind we find ourselves once again thinking about the Drapers Arms, where not only is branding held at arm’s length but also the price structure is flat. As a result, we’ve probably tried a greater variety of beer there than anywhere else, even allowing for the fact this is where we do most of our drinking by default.

opinion pubs

Cash or Cashless, the Problem is ‘Only’

Both cash-only and cashless-only are barriers, and both tend to be driven by the needs of the business rather than what works for customers.

We got talking about this in the pub last night because of a poll from the Beer O’Clock Show:

The arguments against card-only have been piling up for some time:

  • it excludes the poorest in society
  • it discriminates against older consumers
  • it plays into the machinations of global tech giants
  • it contributes to the tracking and influencing of our behaviour.

But on the ground, in daily life, we very much understand the appeal of paying by card in pubs, bars and bottle-shops.

It saves us having to wander round suburbs or industrial estates looking for cash machines, and makes it easier for us to manage our various bank accounts and budgets, with every transaction recorded and reported.

And not taking cards can be excluding in its own way. One publican in a cash-only business recently told us they’d been thinking about getting a card machine purely because they were aware of constantly turning away young people who expected to be able to use cards. About half of them were willing to find a cash machine and come back, but the rest just moved on down the road.

A lot is made of the cost of processing card payments but depending on the size of the business, cash can be just as expensive to handle, and certainly less convenient.  It can require extra staff-hours for counting and banking, and needs transporting, either at considerable cost (secure pickup) or risk, with a member of staff walking to the bank with a sack of readies. (I’ve managed cash-heavy concerns and write from experience. – Jess.)

The presence of cash can also make premises more vulnerable to crime or, rather, advertising total cashlessness can be a good way to deter it.

And some of the objections cash-only businesses have to cards seem to use to be a hangover from a decade ago when banks charged a lot more for the service, and when people who paid by card in the pub were amateurs and freaks.

It used to mean five minutes of faffing around with signatures and pin numbers, holding up the line. Sometimes, there’d also be another minute or two of trying to get up to the limit for paying by card without an additional charge – “What are your most expensive crisps?” Nowadays, it’s a quick one-handed tap and done, and its people fiddling with coins and waiting for change who seem to cause a delay.

Fundamentally, though, we bridle at the idea of businesses doing only one, or only the other, because it’s convenient for them, rather than offering both with the convenience of their customers in mind.