Tuesday 2 June 2009

More can mean less

I have no doubt in my own mind that the acquisition of pubs from the big pub companies by the family brewers is overall a good thing. It enhances choice and competition in the beer market by consolidating the strength and market power of the “second tier” below the international and national brewers. Even if there are hundreds of beers available, there isn’t much real competition or diversity if the top three players have 98% of the market.

However, at times this can lead to a reduction of choice on a local basis, as pubs offering a range of guest beers are turned into independent brewery tied houes. This complaint is reflected in this posting on the CAMRA forum about the Ring O’Bells in Frodsham, Cheshire, which has been taken over by J. W. Lees. Inevitably, as the pub companies are selling off their better pubs in a desperate attempt to raise money, those offering guest beers are more likely to go than the keg-only crapholes.

But I often feel that pub company outlets offering guest beers are just following the latest fad anyway. Very often the guest beers are expensive and poorly-kept, and confined to higher-strength brews, while the pub’s “cooking bitter” remains keg Tetley’s or John Smith’s. I am not saying this is the case with the Ring O’Bells, but there are relatively few pub company outlets around here that have much to be said for them on the beer front.

Change is an inescapable feature of life, and it’s always going to inconvenience some people in the short-term, but there’s still plenty of choice of beer in Frodsham, and I’m convinced that this is, taking a wider view, a change for the better. In the long term, a pub will have a much more certain future selling high-quality cask beer in the hands of an independent family brewer than a pub company following every short-term gimmick.

Incidentally, I did a lot of drinking in the Ring O’Bells in my youth, when it was a Greenalls tied house offering just Mild and Bitter, but haven’t been in for years.


  1. Greenall Whitley. I thought time had healed that particular wound but you've reminded me of it again. Mind you, unless I'm mistaken, they did both a light and a dark mild, the dark mild being quite pleasant.

    It's a wonder I like beer after starting off on Greenall's.

  2. Martin, Cambridge6 June 2009 at 10:07

    Good point Curmudgeon. I personally would prefer a town with a variety of different tied houses selling consistent quality bitter (say, Robbies, Holts and Sams with the odd free house),to a town with low-turnover micro beers with odd names.

    The CAMRA fixation often appears to be choice within a single pub - how many different beers do you really need within one pub anyway ?

  3. Totally agreed, Martin - competition and choice should primarily exist across the range of pubs. It doesn't need to apply within individual pubs.

    The car market is not made less competitive because Ford dealers don't sell Vauxhalls.

    If I lived in Frodsham I would be happier with a tied house selling a fine, distinctive beer from a local independent family brewer than a pub company outlet selling an unpredictable range of guest beers.

  4. I managed to pay a visit to the Ring O'Bells today. Amazingly, Shirley Wroughton-Craig, who was in situ when I was a seventeen-year-old, is still the licensee. Her ex-husband Tim, I find out, is the father of Daniel Craig of James Bond fame.

    The beer range was Black Sheep Bitter, Taylors Landlord and Lees John Willies', so no ordinary Lees Bitter.

    Still has its cosy, rambling multi-roomed interior and still (regrettably) gives the impression of being dominated by a clique of well-heeled regulars.


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