Friday 4 October 2013

The warm, brown embrace of Samuel Smith

There’s an interesting article in the Telegraph entitled In praise of Samuel Smith pubs.

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.


  1. If you're gonna waste money in pubs, might as well waste it in Sams as you get more for your hard earned quid.

    Stick yer £8 pints of craft bollocks. Old Brewery or Taddy lout gets you nicely pissed for buttons.

  2. Watching an old episode of "Morse" recently, I noticed the empty Sam Smith's Old Brewery Bitter bottles on his coffee table.

  3. Yeh, well Nev, in The Killing 3 Sarah Lund necks a bottle of Carlsberg and she craps all over Morse.

  4. You sure? I think I'd remember that.

  5. Good old Morse. He knew craft before we started calling it craft.

  6. What is the problem with Holt's pubs these days? Why aren't they busy any more? I never rated their modern pubs, but they had some real, unspoilt Victorian gems in their estate, don't people frequent these places any more?

  7. Holts have suffered from the general decline of the pub trade, especially in working-class areas, and I would say, given the nature of their clientele, have been disproportionately affected by the smoking ban.

    They have disposed of some bottom-end pubs and made attempts to take their pubs upmarket, with varying degrees of success.

    But they've lost their reputation for consistently cheap beer, and indeed some of their upgraded pubs are now no cheaper than others in the locality. They no longer have the USP they once enjoyed.

  8. Cooking, I did the tour of the Carlsberg brewery in Denmark and it had a massive collection of booze from around the world. It was rather spoiled by a massive number of 'Pong in a bottle' bottles but then the Danes are a very tolerant bunch.

  9. Well, for me Sams, or at least their pubs, is a bit of a love-hate thing. Sme are excellent (the Blue Bell being a notable example) but some do attract the lower end of what you might call the "traditional Holts drinkers" - go into one of their Stockport pubs late afternoon and it's usually full of elderly drunks, and not all that welcoming.

  10. Oh dear, pub full of blokes who have been drinking. Whatever next?

    And plenty of Spoons are much the same, of course.

  11. The greatest ever TV detective wasn't all that discerning either

    "I'll drink anything." - Columbo, Publish Or Perish

    and Columbo is the best of them all.

  12. Well, dumpy pubs or traditional wet led if that's yer preferred term are price led and the main market is elderly drunks most of whom are skint, wanna get drunk, rant about immigrants and appear a tad averse to a bar of soap.

    If you wanna pay more than £3 you can booze with a more prosperous class of piss head. You pays yer money and all that.

  13. Martin, Cambridge5 October 2013 at 22:01

    You're spot on about Sam's appeal to women; in their pubs in Bispham, Glossop and Rochdale this year I've seen a real cross-section of society enjoying their excellent beer (and lots of crisps). Most Sams pubs I go in are basic but attractive drinking houses, and I don't know if their food trade recovered from the move to ping-food a few years back. I haven't recovered from being charged £4 plus for a small bottle of their cherry beer last year.

  14. There's been a huge retreat from the excesses of the microwave-only menu - seems that even Humph learns his lesson. Now you get normal, straightforward pub food which varies from pub to pub.

  15. Professor Pie-Tin5 October 2013 at 23:16

    So what you're saying is that a brewery continues to conduct its business in a way that it has always done.
    And people continue to like their beers and their pubs as they have always done.
    Running a successful business is a simple old game when you think about it.

  16. Stuck in the 60's in my view - not a clue how to run a decent pub. Only Sams could open a pub with a river view in affluent Durham and run it as a crappy male boozer on a sink estate....

  17. Ah yes, back to the 60s when pubs were busy and sold twice as much beer as they do now. A terrible time.

  18. "Yeh, well Nev, in The Killing 3 Sarah Lund necks a bottle of Carlsberg and she craps all over Morse."

    Sorry, no idea what this means.

  19. Whatever your view on Sam Smiths pubs , personally I find something quite reassuring about them :no tv,no music,no fruit machines ..just conversation and beer at a good price.Most are multi roomed and have a lived in well worn and loved conviviality about them.Personal favs are Queens,Stockport.Grapes,Heywood and Nellies,Beverley.

    1. I've worked and socialised in one of only two Sam Smith bars in Scotland. My whole family have eaten and drank here for many years. We enjoy the fact that we can converse with each other without shouting above loud music. Everyone know you and if your a visitor we'll make you more than welcome.

  20. re your poll, you have to consider that a lot of people live nowhere near a Sam Smith's establishment. My nearest is an hour's drive away. I would have to be very bloody dedicated to drive there for a pint.ailedocr 191

  21. Well, they are fairly well spread out across the country, as this map shows, so it's unlikely that someone would never have been near one unless they scarcely ever travelled anywhere.

    And they do have these things called trains, you know.

  22. I was in the Boar's Head on Stockport Market Place late lunchtime today, and have to say I didn't get any of that "elderly drunk" vibe. Yes, it was a mainly maie clientele, and mainly over 50, but not in any sense threatening, and with numerous women too. No children either, unlike some of their less busy competitors.

    A classic pub atmosphere, IMV. Maybe if more pubs offered Sam's prices, they would have more customers.

  23. Maybe you're one of the elderly drunks giving out the vibe?


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