Tuesday 3 December 2013

Beer on the menu

Sam Smith’s are probably unique in the entire history of British brewing in the extent to which everything sold in their pubs, even down to the crisps and peanuts, carries their own branding. In the past, when tied houses were the norm, there was much more branding than at present, but even then most pubs would have some bought-in products. Now, when the idea of selling an own-brand lager or keg stout is highly unusual, they really stand out from the herd.

They have recently produced an elaborate four-page laminated “Drinks Menu” to display in their pubs, and I have managed to obtain a copy. I don’t have a working scanner, but these two photos – Page 1 and Pages 2 and 3 – are readable enough. The fourth page deals with wines, liqueurs and spirits.

In total it lists twelve different draught products (only one of which is cask) and fifteen bottled. I have to say I wasn’t even aware they brewed a 3.7% ABV keg Best Bitter until I saw this document, and the 4% Double Four Lager is a relatively new addition, presumably to bridge the gap between the 2.8% Alpine and the 4.5% Taddy. They must be the only brewery producing three different keg beers at 2.8% to take advantage of the lower strength duty relief.

While steering well clear of the C-word, great emphasis is put on authenticity and tradition, stressing that all of the beers are “brewed solely from authentic natural ingredients without any chemical additives, raw material adjuncts, artificial sweeteners, colourings, flavourings or preservatives”. No “chemical fizz” here, then. Most are fermented in Yorkshire squares and most are suitable for vegans.

Sam’s are often criticised for only producing the one cask beer – Old Brewery Bitter. I remember them also offering two more – Tadcaster Bitter, which suffered from the perennial difficulty of selling a weaker bitter alongside a standard one, and Museum Ale, which some liked but most drinkers found hard work. In the past they have also sold cask 4X Best Ale (i.e. light mild) and Old Samson strong ale, but I don’t recall either of them.

They might improve their image if they produced a second cask beer, and many of their pubs certainly have the throughput to sustain it, but it’s difficult to see what would prove a strong seller with their predominantly traditionalist clientele. I’d like to see the return of Tadcaster Bitter, but I fear it would suffer the same fate as before. Maybe the best option would be a premium bitter of around 4.5% ABV that was a little paler and hoppier than OBB and would fill an obvious gap in their range.


  1. One about that familiar stalwart "Golden Ale", formerly known as light bitter or pale bitter before it got trendy. Summat more down with the kids than sweetish brown bitter or fizzy lout.

  2. That's exactly what Tadcaster Bitter was, but it proved very difficult to shift when, if you went in a Sam's pubs and asked for "Bitter", you invariably got OBB.

    Robinson's seem to do OK with Dizzy Blonde, while Holt's struggle with their IPA.

  3. I saw these in London a couple of weeks ago. Don't recall seeing prices on them.

    The lass in the Cheshire Cheese told me Stingo is something like £15.00 a pint bottle!

    PS Lees doing very well with MPA - a blonde beer.

  4. Yes, I'm not often in Lees pubs, but you are right about MPA. I remember them suggesting when it was launched that it had something of the old Boddingtons about it.

    So maybe "Tadcaster IPA" is worth a try...

  5. After getting stung for £6 for a pint bottle of the Winter Welcome Ale on my last visit to the Cittie of Yorke, I'm glad they said they were out of stock when I foolishly asked for a Stingo

  6. I thought it was better the first time when you called it "Stilgoe" ;-)

    Incidentally, you never see the Sam's bottled beers in major supermarkets, which you certainly used to do, but the Bottle Stop in Bramhall has a fair range, and at reasonable prices too.

  7. So despite Sams rock bottom prices the tip is to ask "How much is..." before ordering a posh fruity bottle beer? Ta for the heads up. Don't like surprises at the bar of the "jesus wept, how much?" after I've ordered.

  8. I was hoping you'd miss the Stilgoe gaff Curmudgeon :)

    The Sam Smith prices in London aren't really rock bottom these days but yes the bottle prices are ridiculous.

  9. I have noticed this menu in my Local Smiths, the Captain Kidd down in Wapping. They have expanded their beer list, and their decent bottled beers are always pricey £5.50 for their core range.

    The beers are decent, but every time I go down, there I am conscious of the fact that I can get something like Kernel IPA/Export Stout or any number of other superior beers for the same or less money.

    I have seen (in the past year at least) that they had a second bitter - Sovereign Bitter.

    I think their policy has always been to tread water with the cheap beers in the hope that some of a group trade up to the drinks with better margins.

  10. Can't stand the OBB, its like Doom bar, far too sweet. tastes more like sugared ovaltine than beer. I tend to stick to the Mild or a bottle of the ale range if they're not too expensive.

    Shame there isn't a Sam Smiths within 50 miles of me really.

  11. There is in fact quite a disconnect between the pub prices of Sam Smiths draught products (very cheap) and their bottled beers where keen pricing is ceratinly not the order of the day.

    By the way if that's what pyo thinks of OBB he/she has clearly been drinking it in the wrong pubs. When properly kept it has a very satisfying dry finish and is a worls away from Doom Bar.

  12. Perhaps it was badly kept. The couple of pints I have had have both been revolting though.

  13. Glad keg stout is unusual. The few times I have tried it is invariably chilled to within an inch of it's life (and thus flavourless), fizzy, and thin. Not really the point of stout!

  14. Oh, pretty much every pub has keg stout, but it's generally Guinness, not the owner's own brand.

    @pyo - obviously not every beer is to everyone's taste, but IMV OBB is a quality, well-made product. Maltiness is a bit out of favour at the moment but, as JC says, it also has an underlying dryness, it isn't a sweet beer.

  15. I'd agree that well kept OBB-harder and harder to find these days-is a decent drink. We know they aren't going to change anything, but there is definitely room in their portfolio for a premium Bitter.

  16. They do change some things, though - their swift move to reduce all their weaker keg beers to 2.8% obviously shows someone has an eye for a commercial opportunity.

  17. David says: The Sam Smith prices in London aren't really rock bottom these days but yes the bottle prices are ridiculous. "

    I don't know about the bottle prices but where in London can you get a pint of bitter for less than 5 pounds? However, I tend to go for their wheat beer. Again, where in london can you even find a wheat beer? If you can, it is in a bottle for much more than the Smith price.

    Samuel Smith has preserved loads of trad London pubs - such as the Cheshire Cheese (haunt of Kipling and Yeats and Dowson in the 1890s) and the Princess Louise in Holborn.

  18. " don't know about the bottle prices but where in London can you get a pint of bitter for less than 5 pounds?"

    Even in London, everywhere.

  19. Graeme: I must admit I haven't seen bitters being sold for more than £4 in London. I have seen Peroni and other "premium" lagers for a fiver, and plenty of people paying it!

    If I'm looking for a cheap(ish) pint in London I find myself choosing Wetherspoons over Sam Smiths purely because they offer a wider range of ale, and I can just about cope with the 'Spoons atmosphere.

    I agree wheat beer can be hard to find in London and at least with Sam Smiths you know you're guaranteed a pint of it. And they do keep excellent care of their historic properties. It's just a shame you've got to pay through the nose for their more exciting beers.

  20. I've found Sam's wheat beer to be the most likely grog to taste slightly off. Some of the pricier draught beers get little turnover.

    Cloudy wheat beer at £3 a pop is not supped by most of Sams value punters. The OBB tends to be okay but sometimes suffers from that "buttery" quality which I gather is an off flavour. The sovereign bitter is nice enough if you like it a bit colder and blander. The Taddy lager is a refreshing cold fizz with a good turnover and nicer and cheaper than most mainstream louts if your in the realms of pub prices. Not tried any of the 2.8% stuff, maybe when I'm on the dole or summat.

    For wheat beer in mainstream pubs at a bob or two cheaper, Spoons have either one or two in bottles which is a safer bet. Among the craft and CAMRA type multi beer pubs, check out the bottle menu. I know of one place where the bottles are £2.80 but a draught pint is nearly £4.

  21. Cask OBB is very susceptible to going off if it's not sold quickly and a lactic infection is common - hence the buttery/milky taste. As Curmudgeon said, it's not usually a sweet beer but sweetness is caused by not enough cellaring. OBB doesn't have the secondary fermentation that it used to have but it's so common these days for pubs to sell beer as soon as it drops bright. Another bonus is that OBB is possibly the only beer left that's exclusively sold in wooden casks.

  22. A well laid out and informative leaflet put out by the brewery; others please follow suit!

    I don't often get the chance to drink OBB these days, as it must be 25 years or more since Sam's last supplied the free trade in this part of the country. Their beers were relatively common in West Kent, back in the early 1980's, but now a trip to London is necessary to obtain a pint of Sam's. I have to agree about the lactic taste; possibly the company's insistence on wooden casks doesn't help here?

    Sam's have proved excellent guardians for a number of classic London pubs; the aforementioned Cheshire Cheese, Cittie of Yorke and Princess Louise all spring to mind.

    The company have a policy of not dealing with major supermarkets or national off-licence chains, but are quite happy to deal with independents. We discovered this when we had our Beer Shop, and for us, this was a big plus. I found them a good company to deal with, and for off sales, at least, their wholesale bottle prices were very reasonable. We stocked the entire range, including the Melbourn Fruit Beers, and the bottles used to fly off the shelves. Given the distance involved between Tadcaster and Tonbridge, we had to take a pallet load, but given what I have just said about the popularity (and quality) of their bottled beers, this was not a problem.


Comments, especially on older posts, may require prior approval by the blog owner. See here for details of my comment policy.

Please register an account to comment. Unregistered comments will generally be rejected unless I recognise the author. If you want to comment using an unregistered ID, you will need to tell me something about yourself.