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.

Generalisations about beer culture opinion

QUICK POST: One Practical Thing


This morning another conversation about the price of craft beer broke out on Twitter, as it does every three months or so.

This time the prompt was an article by Will Hawkes for the Guardian on progressive breweries and inclusiveness:

Women are increasingly taking the responsibility for shaping the beer world. Writer Melissa Cole and brewer Jaega Wise have driven the campaign against using sexualised images of women in beer marketing…. There’s [also] a growing sense that the beer world needs to make it easier for customers to drink its products. Leading the way is Ride Brewing Company in Glasgow, where the taproom is fully accessible to people with disabilities. Head brewer Dave Lannigan says his experiences have influenced this stance. “I am officially disabled through loss of hearing, so have personal experience of being excluded,” he says. “We are just keen to make a difference, no matter how small.”

(Someone did great work on the headline for that story, by the way.)

This prompted food writer Tony Naylor to Tweet the following:

Lots of good initiatives here but if craft beer wants an inclusive working class audience it needs to have a serious conversation about the race to establish the £5 pint as standard. What would you drink if you were skint? Idea: £3 Pint Project. 12 breweries in, say, Greater MCR take turns each month to brew a £3 pint/ get it stocked in loads of good bars/ to see what’s possible stylistically. Now THAT (& even £3 is expensive if you’re skint), would be a positive move.

We think that’s quite an interesting, provocative suggestion and, indeed, made a similar one ourselves in 2012. He’s certainly not saying all beer should be £3 a pint, or that £5 pints should be banned, or are a great evil — just that some deliberate, disruptive gesture on price might shake things up a bit.

But whether it’s a practical suggestion or not it did make us think of something beer enthusiasts and commentators could be doing more often: making the effort to highlight good value beers.

Big, rare, strange craft beers naturally attract a lot of coverage because they’re different and come with some sort of story, but that can add up to a sense that (to borrow CAMRA’s controversial phrase) they are ‘the pinnacle of the brewer’s art’ and that if you’re drinking anything else, you’re slumming it. Why bother? Really, you should sell an organ or two, or skip your lunchtime avocado feast to cover the cost of the upgrade. (Remember, nobody has any money these days.)

So, instead of moaning about expensive pints — or at least as well as doing that — make a point of flagging great ones you’ve found at £3 a pint or £2 a can.

It doesn’t have to be an essay — just a Facebook post, Tweet or passing mention in a post on another topic. But essays are good too. Food critic Jay Rayner has just shared a piece defending his writing about expensive restaurants but one of the best things he’s ever written was about a Polish restaurant in Birmingham with main courses at under a tenner.

Of course nobody should pretend to like beers they don’t, or hold back from writing about expensive beers that really get them excited, but if there’s a readily available, affordable beer you really do enjoy, take a moment to tell the world, without apologies or caveats, and without expecting a medal for your bravery.

Beer history

Sucker juice of 1953

The Queen, 1953.
“One would like to get a round in — who’s having what? And four bags of scratchings, two dry-roasted and a couple of pickled eggs?”

On 25 November 1952, the following story ran in the Guardian:

There is to be a special strong beer for the Coronation, it was announced by Mr F.J. Bearman, chairman of the panel of beer judges at the Brewery and Allied Traders Exhibition… ‘Almost every brewery in the country is brewing a Coronation beer. Its gravity will be about .60 compared with .33 for the average beer to-day,’ he said… The Coronation beer will be bottled and… cost about 2s 6d a nip bottle.

There were outraged responses to this news from both puritans — ‘The brewers are assuming that the British people will need double-strength beer… to celebrate the Queen’s solemn act of dedication to the service of God’ — and presumably from drinkers, as the brewers were accused of profiteering from the Coronation.

The Brewers’ Society stated yesterday: ‘Any suggestion that brewery companies will be making big profits from Coronation ales is completely unwarranted. These special brews are uneconomic to produce. They involve changes in the brewery routine, special labels, and sometimes special bottles… The demand for them is very difficult to predict. The purpose in brewing them is to give people something special in which to drink the Queen’s health.’ (Guardian, 4 December 1952.)

Several months later, the brewers were fully on the back foot, and having to explain why they wouldn’t be giving away free beer in their pubs on Coronation Day: ‘What brewers have to pay in tax alone out of sums for licensed house improvement would pay for seven or eight pints of free beer for every adult in the country’. The same Brewers’ Society spokesman also pointed out how difficult a ‘free beer’ scheme would be to administer: some drinkers might be tempted to claim six free pints in one pub, then move on to another and start afresh, and then another… (Guardian, 21 May 1953.)

Today, brewers are still asked to defend the prices of their limited edition, specially packaged, ‘event’ beers, and they still rely on similar sounding arguments.

buying beer london pubs

How Much for a Pint of Foster’s!?

In the Blitz-like spirit of fellowship that enveloped the Olympic park in Stratford during the Olympics, we found ourselves sharing a tiny table at Tap East with a lovely, chatty middle-aged couple. Conversation turned, naturally, to pubs, at which point they dropped this bombshell:

“We were in a pub in Greenwich the other day where they’d put the price of Foster’s up to £5.90 a pint for the tourists.”

Astounding, spiv-like behaviour, if it’s true, but good to hear that punters refused to play along:

“They had to drop it again when there were complaints and they had no customers for two days.”

From what we observed, the places in London which were quietest during the Olympics were grotty, money-grubbing tourist traps. Everywhere else seemed to be doing a reasonable trade for the (soggy) dog-days of August.