Saturday, 26 November 2011

Worth passing a few pubs for?

I grew up in an area of North Cheshire dominated by Greenalls, and so in the 1970s it made a refreshing change to head off a few miles to the south where, around Tarporley, there was a cluster of four Robinson’s pubs. And from time to time we would visit Chester and make a beeline for the Olde Custom House, one of the very few pubs this side of the English border selling Border beers from Wrexham.

At University in Birmingham, the city was dominated by a duopoly of Ansell’s and M&B, so the handful of Davenports pubs were an attraction, and a bus trip to the Black Country to sample Batham’s, Holden’s and Simpkiss was a virtual pilgrimage. Even finding a Banks’s or Marston’s pub in the surrounding areas (then two separate and very different companies) was something of an achievement.

After that, I worked in Surrey for a while, again an area dominated by two of the then Big Six, in this case Courage and Ind Coope. But the county was surrounded by a number of well-respected independent brewers – Young’s, King & Barnes, Brakspear’s and Gale’s (all now closed) – whose tied houses either spread into the edges or started not far beyond the border. Fuller’s had virtually no presence outside London in those days.

It was also very much the case back then that the tied houses of a particular brewery had a distinctive house character. Young’s pubs tended to be big, a bit posh, traditional and comfortable, with plenty of dark wood, whereas Brakspear’s were often small and Spartan with bare wooden benches and whitewashed interior walls. Around here, Holt’s pubs were noted for their busy, basic and boisterous atmosphere, often in an environment of some architectural splendour.

But times have changed, and over the past twenty years one of the most significant changes to the British pub scene has been the wholesale removal of brewers’ identities from pubs. It has to be questioned whether today there is any cachet gained from linking a pub with a particular brewery. The beer enthusiast is likely to be found in a multi-beer outlet working his way through fifteen different golden ales tasting of lychees, while looking down with scorn at the neighbouring Robbies’ house and its boring brown beer. While Robinson’s and Lees have been busy buying up pubs from the pub companies in the last few years, in general their main objective has been to acquire establishments with the potential to develop the food trade, not showcases for their beers.

It certainly does still have a cachet for me, as in any given area the tied houses of a family brewer are likely to my mind to be better run, more “pubby” and have better-kept beer than pubs belonging to pub companies. But, in the overall pub market, does being identified as “A Bloggs’ House” now give a pub any kind of USP?

The one exception to this is Sam Smith’s, who ironically don’t even paint the name of the company on their pubs. They have a very definite, even somewhat eccentric, policy of low prices, all products bearing their own branding and a no-frills, traditional atmosphere. It doesn’t always work, but at their best Sam’s pubs are examples of what good pubs are all about. In the London area, where they have a number of pubs, they must stand out from the general herd even more than they do here.

(And for those too young to remember, “Worth passing a few pubs for” was an advertising slogan used in the 1970s for, of all things, Younger’s Tartan)


  1. The best pubs round here (Southampton) are owned by pub companies. But I think that's just because we don't have very good family brewers around here.

    Fullers pubs are the best of them, though several of them have been renovated and lost a lot of character as a result. And the beer is reliably good, if a little bit brown and boring.

    Hall and Woodhouse on the other hand position their pubs very much as food pubs, and aggressively remove any character from then. And the beer's not great.

    Wadworth's do most things right, it's just a shame that their beer is so nasty.

    I see these as local issues and if I was visiting a different area I'd definitely go in brewery pubs. Robinsons pubs I have had some very good experiences of.

  2. "Wadworth's do most things right, it's just a shame that their beer is so nasty."

    It's many years since I've been in a Wadworth's pub, and you rarely see their beers in the free trade around here, but there was a time when they were one of the breweries that you'd travel miles to visit one of their pubs.

    Nasty, or just distinctive and not to your taste?

    6X was one of the beers that defined the initial real ale revolution, but maybe its malty, bittersweet taste, almost with a sour edge, is out of fashion nowadays.

    I have had 6X in bottle recently which I thought was very good.

  3. Afraid I agree with Mark on the subject of Wadworth's beer, although I accept it could be a matter of taste. Their beer just tastes a bit sulphury to me. Shame because in all other matters (good pubs, wooden barrels, dray horses etc) they are thoroughly admirable.
    Back on topic, I think there is still some sort of cachet attached to brewery-tied pubs, although this usually applies to smaller breweries with not many pubs. Down here we have a few pubs owned by small breweries such as Bristol Beer Factory, Hop Back and Bath Ales and these are all good, with lychee-tasting beers conspicuous by their absence, thank God. Can we nail this "boring brown beer" thing? Some brown beers are boring (I'm talking Doom Bar here) others are excellent.
    Finally, glad you remember The Olde Custom House. I was born and brought up in Wrexham and remember Border beers fondly. My first ever pint in a pub was Border Mild (30p!) and I'm pleased to say the Plassey Brewery outside Wrexham has started making it to the original recipe.

  4. My first ever pint in a pub was Border Mild (30p!) and I'm pleased to say the Plassey Brewery outside Wrexham has started making it to the original recipe.

    That's interesting. I tasted a series of Plassey beers a while ago; unfortunately I was tasting a series of Conwy beers at the same time, and the Plasseys suffered badly from the comparison. I'll have to try their beer again if I get the chance.

  5. It struck me a while back that it's now much more difficult to decide whether to try a new pub - as you have no idea what the approach to beer is until you get to the bar. When they were tied houses at least you knew which brewery you'd find inside. Nowadays, they only seem to mention Carlsberg, Fosters or Smirnoff.

    Re. Sam Smith's in London, there's the common theme of the downstairs saloon and upstairs lounge - not for all of them, but quite a few.

  6. Martin, Cambridge27 November 2011 at 00:02

    I've always thought Robbie's pubs had a particular character - slightly shabby and old fashioned but likely to have a lived-in feel and a good range of characters. The smoking ban and some smartening-up over the last decade seem to have eliminated much of that quality.

    As you say, Sam's pubs in general still retain a particular feel, being quite close to the traditional view (perhaps of tourists) of what English pubs are like. Some of their houses in North Manchester are incredibly shabby though.

    A few of the smaller family breweries, such as Donnington in the Cotswolds, do still have a certain common feel, even if it is old fashioned and musty !

  7. @Phil
    Never tried the Conwy beers so can't really comment on the contrast with Plassey. I've only tried the standard Plassey Bitter and obviously their Border Mild, both of which I thought wrere eminently drinkable. I can't speak for their other beers.
    I hear they have started brewing the old Wrexham Lager, which was the first lager brewed in the UK. My home town has a lot to answer for...

  8. @Martin, Cambridge
    Love Donnington pubs and Donnington's beer!

  9. A lot of Donnington pubs were done up in a distinctive style in the 60s or early 70s including a certain amount of knocking-through, bare stone walls, faux-rustic wooden seating with wavy edges and tables made from converted casks. The Black Bear in Moreton-in-Marsh used to be an example of this.

  10. 6X when in perfect condition is a nice pint, though it's never going to be one I'd go out my way for. But it's very often not worth drinking even in their own pubs.

    All their beers have a distinctive sulphury taste. In 6X, where this is balanced with lots of malt, this is not unpleasant, but in their other beers, it's not nice at all.

    Henry's IPA: not much malt, not much hops, lots of sulphur. I'd call that nasty. I accept that this is my personal taste, but I'm struggling to see how anyone could like it.

  11. I spent my formative drinking years in the Custom House in Chester under the benevolent eye of landlord Ken and his wife Jackie, and remember the Border beers with fondness, though it also provided a welcome chance to drink Marstons Pedigree in a town dominated by Greenalls and Whitbread, though I seem to remember a few Tetleys and Burtonwood houses as well. When I was much younger (about 10) my teacher took her class on a trip to the Border brewery where her husband worked - unsurprisingly I seem to remember being much more interested in the cherryade and cream soda they made than the beer ! The variety of pubs and beer in Chester is much improved now and its well worth a visit, though the Custom House itself has lost a lot of character.


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