While the author does allude to the notorious Royton New Year’s Eve sacking story, he does perhaps gloss over some of the heavy-handed and almost feudal management practices of chairman Humphrey Smith.
However, I think he gets the essence of Sams’ pubs spot-on, especially the “warm, brown embrace”:
Some of the above might suggest that Sam Smith pubs are not a very female-friendly domain. But I know numerous women who are more than comfortable within Sam’s warm, brown embrace, knowing that these are places inhabited, for the most part, by gentlemen. They attract precious few "blokes", only the occasional "guy" and, god forbid, no "lads".By and large, as I wrote here, Sams’ pubs are still proper, traditional boozers, where beer is to the fore, drink and chat predominate, banter passes round the room and extraneous distractions are kept to a minimum. At their best they can be busy and boisterous in a way that many Holt’s pubs once were, but which is increasingly rarely seen nowadays. I wouldn’t want every pub to be like a Sams’ pub, but they add much needed variety and distinctiveness to the pub scene. Their pubs seem to have been largely immune from the wave of closures that has blighted the pub industry in recent years – there may have been a few in their Yorkshire heartland, but I can’t think of a single Sams’ pub around here that has closed its doors for the last time.
Sams’ are also respectful custodians of their pub estate, rarely carrying out insensitive knock-throughs, and indeed a few years back they actually reinstated some internal walls when refurbishing the Boar’s Head on Stockport Market Place. The Blue Bell in Levenshulme, which the local branch of CAMRA voted as Pub of the Month earlier this year, received a very smart and tasteful makeover a couple of years ago.
Because it doesn’t fit in to the modern trend towards ultra-hoppy beers, some drinkers can be rather dismissive of Old Brewery Bitter, but in fact it is a well-made, high-quality beer in a distinctive Yorkshire style. The same is true of Sams’ keg range, and of the bottled beers which are highly regarded as exports in the USA. There are also few other tied estates where you will routinely come across a cloudy German-style wheat beer on keg. But don’t make the mistake in a Sams’ pub of thinking the bottles will be as cheap as the draught – they’re not by a long chalk.
Today Sam Smith’s have a reputation for remarkably cheap prices, but this was not always the case. My recollection is that, twenty years ago, their prices were fairly typical of the general range of independent family breweries. If anyone was cheap, it was Holt’s. However, one year Humphrey Smith decided to freeze his prices with the exception of passing on duty increases, and kept this up for about ten years, only eventually relenting a couple of years ago. The blogpost I linked to mentioned OBB being £1.43 a pint in the Boar’s Head – it is now £1.80, which is still cheaper than anywhere else in Stockport, but showing a 26% increase in less than three years.
Over the years, Sams’ have acquired a number of high-profile properties, including many in London and the Boot and Falcon in Chester and, a few decades ago, many of their pubs had a slightly genteel atmosphere. You can still detect signs of this in some of their more rural estate but by and large it has been very much eroded by their low-price policy. It’s also a pity that they don’t seem to be actively looking for new pubs to add to their estate, as I can think of quite a few locations, for example Hazel Grove near Stockport, where a Sams’ pub would probably work very well.