Friday, 13 January 2017

The Sam's factor

I’ve sometimes been accused on this blog of being an unpaid cheerleader for Samuel Smith’s Brewery. Now, I don’t think that’s entirely fair but, as with any other blogger, I give praise where praise is due. There’s much to criticise in the beer and pub world, so any positives deserve to be highlighted.

It’s not primarily for the beer, although Old Brewery Bitter is a distinctive, high-quality product that is much underrated. Given a free choice, I’d probably marginally prefer a pint of Lees Bitter or Robinsons Wizard or Unicorn, amongst beers widely available locally. And Sam’s single-beer cask range is a limiting factor, although it has to be recognised that the vast majority of real ale drunk is beers in the gold-to-copper colour spectrum and within a strength range from 3.5% to 4.5% ABV.

It’s not really the prices either. I’m not on the breadline, and to be honest paying an extra pound a pint for a few pints each week is not going to make much difference to my finances. I’d still go to Sam’s pubs even if their prices were on a par with the competition. But it has to be said that the low prices encourage custom, and a busy pub is always more appealing than a deserted one. And, particularly in their more rural pubs, the low prices produce a wider spectrum of customers.

No, what really makes the difference is the pubs. What I’m basically looking for in pubs is to be able to enjoy a quiet drink and chat in comfortable surroundings, and Sam’s deliver that much more reliably than any of their competitors. There’s no TV football crowding out everyone who isn’t interested, and no blarting piped music played for the benefit of the bar staff. I can’t recall a single example of a high-level posing table in a Sam’s pub, while bench seating and comfortable chairs are the norm.

While plenty of Sam’s pubs serve food, you never get the overwhelming concentration on dining that makes anyone just wanting a drink feel out of place. And, while there’s no general ban on children, you don’t tend to come across too many infants screaming and running amok. Yes, a well-kept pint is important, but I don’t really want to go chasing after a slightly better beer or a wider range in otherwise uncongenial surroundings.

In towns like Stockport, there’s still a scattering of other pubs of a generally traditional character that offer an alternative to Sam’s, even if they don’t tick every single box. But, in the more rural areas such as North and Mid-Cheshire, they really stand out as beacons of proper pubdom amidst a sea of gastro dining. For example, in the large village-cum-small town of Holmes Chapel, there are three pubs. One is a recently-refurbished, characterful Sam’s pub, the Swan. The other two are an Ember Inn and a modern Robinson’s pub that has been even further modernised to produce an atmosphere overwhelmingly centred on food. Even setting aside the prices, there’s no comparison as a drinking venue.

It was very noticeable on New Year’s Eve, when, together with Martin Taylor and our two guests from the USA, Dave and Dick Southworth, we had a lunchtime wander around Stockport, that Sam Smith’s Boar’s Head was standing room only before noon, when most of the other pubs in the town were quiet. So they must be doing something right that appeals to a large number of people. And some of them, by the look of it, were even under thirty!

It may be a mischievous suggestion, but one thing that would significantly improve the quality of my life would be if Sam’s took over my local pub, stopped reserving tables for diners, and kicked out the piped music and TV football. I think they’d get more customers, too. But it’s not going to happen.

42 comments:

  1. I agree with you on Sams and in connection to the whole pricing debate I think the low prices whilst popular with us cheap skates do signal to some that the products are of a lower quality than they actually are. Some see a £1.90 pint of bitter and wonder whats wrong with it. But that's the vagaries of perception, marketing and value signalling.

    Be interesting what happens with Sams when the next generation takes it on. I've spoken to a few tourist Americans over the years in various Sams pubs who have sought the brand out due to liking the expensive premium bottles imported into the states and been surprised at the budget pricing of the pubs in England.

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    1. And then been surprised by the non-budget pricing of the bottles in Sam's British pubs!

      Sam's were not always particularly cheap; they only became so when Humphrey decided to freeze the pre-duty price of the beer for several years in the 2000s.

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    2. That's not at all true. Sam's were holding prices back long before Humphrey took over - I can remember them boasting about it in 1983 - but Sam's became noticeably cheap long before even that when the mainstream vertical market brewers decided to add a retail margin to their products at the point of sale in their managed estates, effectively doubling their margins over a very short time period. Sam's don't have that retail margin.

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    3. My memory from thirty years ago is that Sam's, while not as expensive as the Big Six, were on a par with the generality of independent brewers. Back in those days it was Holts who were known for being much cheaper than the pack.

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    4. I seem to remember that OBB cost about 40p a pint in 1983 (I was 20) and Holts was definitely cheaper. They have same attitude to stealing an extra margin.

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  2. Sam's pubs look smart to me, helped by the lack of unnecessary signage and impressive renovations. I enjoy their beer, though it rarely leaves the impression it did 20 years ago in Sinclairs (before the latest move).

    Martin Taylor

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    1. Sam Smiths pubs used to have beautiful signage, but it all went when Humphrey Smith decided that secrecy was better after an appearance in the Sunday Times Rich List,

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  3. We really enjoyed the OBB in the Boar's Head. The beer, the pub and the company made for a memorable experience. If I lived in Stockport, I could easily see myself sitting there at 11 AM on many days. We also thought Wizard and Unicorn to be excellent ales. The mistake I made at another pub was having a Hartley XB rather than a Wizard. I learned my lesson.

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  4. "Old Brewery Bitter is a distinctive, high-quality product that is much underrated."

    It's one of those beers that, I think, is rated about right. There aren't many who dislike it -- is Tandleman an exception? -- but it doesn't have many out-and-out fans either. I'm not sure I find it very distinctive, most of the time, to be honest. The odd pint in the odd pub is extraordinary -- slightly funky, like Harvey's -- but I generally find it fairly one-dimensional, and it can sometimes be weirdly syrupy sweet. It's certainly good value but if it's not rated in general, I don't think that can be put down to snobbery over the price. It is what it is.

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    1. Don't agree. Many people seem to dismiss it as "cheap, malty swill" whereas in my view it comfortably stands comparison with the other widely available "ordinary" bitters in the area.

      OK, it's not Harvey's or Batham's, but it's still a good beer.

      And it's distinctive. What else is similar - Black Sheep Bitter, maybe?

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    2. It is eye wateringly sugary sweet - more so than any other beer I have ever tried, far beyond even Doom Bar - its ok if you like that kind of thing, but I imagine its a bit of a marmite beer. If you have a very sweet tooth, you might find it palatable.

      Sam Smiths are funny brewers, their draught beer is cheap but pretty bloody crap, frankly, but their bottles are more expensive, but as good as anything brewed in this country.

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    3. Well, there you go - I'd say, while not heavily hopped, it's a distinctively dry-tasting beer.

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    4. It's extremely sensitive to cellar time. Give it a a proper conditioning - remember that? - it loses the sweetness and the malt comes through in spades.

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    5. I did not find the OBB in the Boar's Head to be overly sweet. Maybe my taste buds are shot, but I could have stayed there all day drinking it.

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  5. I could not agree more with your comments Mudgie. We went into the Boar's Head at opening on Tuesday. There were at least 8 people waiting to go in. The staff knew everyone but us and they treated the customers like friends. There was a feeling in the pub that was welcoming to all. It was really nice to see people reading papers, chatting and staring off into space. The beer was great in my opinion. Each time we went back we found the same feel to the place. Queen's Head as well. I think there is something special about the pubs. I will seek out more Sam Smith's pubs in the future.

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  6. I wonder if there is a distinct North/South divide with Sams'? Over the years I must've been in virtually all of their London pubs and the clientele seems to consist entirely of loudly jabbering suited wankers and confused groups of tourists sitting down and waiting for a table service that never comes. Some of the most distinctive and historic pub buildings, but certainly not the everyman places where locals go for a quiet pint. But then it is London. I wonder why they bother with an estate down here, unless it's more about sitting on an ever-more-lucrative property portfolio?

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  7. We stock most of Sam Smiths bottled range and are the only place in Leicester to sell any of their stuff (except one club). We have had an overwhelming positive response and they seem to have many enthusiastic fans. A lot people take it home too which is rare. We have no draught lager so their 5% Pure Brewed Organic lager flies out at £3.50 for a pint bottle.

    I've ever been to the Abbey in Derbyshire but it would love to visit more of thier pubs as it was great. Also, next pub we open, if it's appropriate, we'll put some of thier draught in.

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  8. I like the pubs,the beer I struggle with after an initial pint.

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  9. This blog nicely complements the previous one.
    How do you set about pricing a beer by quality when the same beer is found by different drinkers to be

    " a distinctive, high-quality product / not sure I find it very distinctive,
    a memorable experience / cheap, malty swill
    weirdly syrupy sweet / a distinctively dry-tasting beer"

    and is "extremely sensitive to cellar time"

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  10. There’s not much else I can add here, except to say I’ve long been a fan of Sam Smiths. The OBB can sometimes have a slight lactic twang (I’ve noticed the same thing in the past with U Fleku’s dark lager, in Prague). I’m guessing that in both cases, this is picked up from the wood (casks in Sam’s case, and maturation vessels with U Fleku). As both beers are served with tight creamy heads, I fell this subtle, background sharpness adds to their thirst-quenching properties.

    When I moved back to Kent in the very early 80’s, Sam Smith’s beers were quite a common sight in free-houses to the west of the county, but not long after they became confined to an area within the M25 motorway. With their large tied London estate, they now only seem to supply their own pubs; possibly because of the extra work involved in looking after a beer which is solely supplied in wooden casks. There is also the problem of getting the empties back as well.

    We stocked the complete range of Sam’s bottles, back when we had our off-licence. They would only supply by the pallet load, but this wasn’t a problem as the beers used to literally fly off the shelves.

    The admirable thing about the company is they refuse to supply supermarkets and multiple-outlet off-licences; a bit like Harvey’s really. This was a major plus point for a small shop, such as us. Their prices were pretty keen as well.

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    1. They do have some free trade - for example the Fairway in Stockport sells their draught stout and I think one of their lagers. However, they don't seem to actively pursue it as they once did. In the early 80s OBB was often seen in free houses in the South-East.

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    2. Sam's have an extensive Free Trade, employing reps all over the UK. They just don't supply cask OBB to it.

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    3. I assume Sam's 3.7% ABV keg Best Bitter is mainly aimed at the club trade, as I've never seen it in any of their pubs.

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    4. Two of the "craftiest" pubs in Cambridge - the Pint Shop and the Maypole - generally have Organic Purebrew on, and fair play to them, it's solid. The Maypole also do a bunch of their bottles, and actually did a Sam Smiths Tap Takeover at some point last year, which aren't four words I ever thought I'd see next to each other.

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  11. How well does it travel as a beer?

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    1. It certainly seems to have no problem travelling across the Pennines :-)

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    2. It also travels down to London without any problems. This myth about beers not “travelling well”, is just that; a myth, and probably comes about when the beer is handled by several distributors en route to the pub. This means the finings will have to “work” several times before the beer reaches its final destination. Each time the finings become a little less effective. The beer takes longer to clear, and undoubtedly loses something of its character. Hence the myth.

      In the old days – back in the 1950’s or before, it was the publican’s job (or the cellar-man’s, if such a person was employed), to add the finings when the beer arrived at the pub; a practice which has now totally vanished.

      Sam’s obviously ship the beer down to London themselves and, instead of sitting for days in some beer distributor’s warehouse, it goes straight from the brewery to the pub. The beer is fresh, it hasn’t been trans-handled en route, and the brewery has total control over the whole process. A factor which is strongly in favour of the tied house system.

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  12. I love Sam Smiths beer. Particularly the OBB from the wood. Its very reasonably priced, quality brewed. I love the pubs. Why do CAMRA not put more of their pubs in the GBG ? I think in the current GBG there are not more than two pubs.

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    1. One of which is our own Boar's Head. Sadly CAMRA in general seems more interested in handpump-counting than beer quality.

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    2. Nothing to do with handpump counting here (as Mudgie well knows I think) but all down to the fact that with few exceptions (such as the Boars Head) Sam Smiths pubs all use cask breathers.

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    3. A myth. I've been in the cellars of plenty and never seen one. They may have been used way back but now, if the cask doesn't sell well, Humphrey Smith just takes it out.

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    4. No myth at all - it's well known company practice. They have them at the Boars Head too but choose not to use them there due to the high turnover.

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    5. Of course this will become academic if CAMRA's revitalisation proposals go through ;-)

      The only other Sam's pub I can think of in the current GBG is the excellent Colpitts Hotel in Durham.

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    6. Over the years I have observed 3 reasons why CAMRA members as a group lean more towards disliking Sam Smiths than liking them.

      1. They serve 1 cask beer, a malt forward unfashionable trad bitter.

      2. The working class atmosphere of a number of their pubs whilst authentic is quite different to the middle class safe spaces that embody what you might call a "CAMRA" pub. Many feel uncomfortable rather than entertained if a chap with prison tattoos says Good Afternoon to them.

      3. Many CAMRA members have a problem with the autocratic nature the company is run. Whilst politically neutral as an organisation, most CAMRA members fall into the Guardian rather than Telegraph reading spectrum of the tapestry of life. They see intrinsic virtue micro brewers called Toby/Tristam/Tarquin beyond the quality and price of their produce.

      This lends itself to many members who may consider themselves fair and unbiased judging some pubs on more harsh criteria than others.

      The indifference of CAMRA doesn't seem to harm Sam Smiths nor does the indifference to CAMRA from Sams seem to harm CAMRA.

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    7. @Mudgie - of course some branches have been neutral on the cask breather for quite some time...

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    8. @Cookie - yes, I well remember one long-standing member of the Labour Party complaining about the "slightly rough" atmosphere in the Boar's Head!

      @JC - indeed, many blind eyes are turned. And I suspect if Sam's were a more fashionable brewery, more blind eyes would be turned to them in terms of GBG entries

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    9. Boar's Head rough? I find that an interesting comment. If I had to rank the city center pubs, the Boar's Head would not have been ranked anywhere near the top of a roughness chart. The people there seemed liked genial pensioners to me. I would not have said it was a rough crowd. I was only there twice and both times during the day though.

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    10. Depends where you're from. A Corbynista from Highgate or Canonbury might have been surprised to find that Stockport had paved roads.

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  13. You don't like pubs which are too restauranty, but you like the Swan which has been decorated like a Scottish country house hotel, subsidising the beer with £90/night rooms? Sam's obviously didn't stint on the refurb - the outside lights are gorgeous - but it's not really my thing.

    I like Yorkshire beer, but let's just say that when I lived there, OBB didn't really feature. It's OK, but I'd suggest that Sam's is more of a lager brewery these days and the most interesting beers they do are some of their fruit beers.

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    1. But the letting rooms don't impinge on the rest of the pub in the way that wall-to-wall dining does.

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  14. I would comment, apologies if someone else has made the comment already, that in London, nthey serve fod in separate upstairs bars, which helps with the demarcation oif families and singleton/group drinkers. And in London the prices are a key factor. All Smiths pubs are crowded out on Friday and Saturday evenings with the student population. Their places of study seem not to include a tavern these days.

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  15. I think Cooking Lagers views sum up the attitude of CAMRA to Sam Smiths perfectly.

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