Real ale starts to pull its weight

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CHRISTOPHER Hutt and Chris Holmes have much more in common than a long-standing love affair with traditional English beer.

Their careers have followed similar paths. Both Mr Hutt and Mr Holmes left university in the late 1960s to join big companies, Ford and Slater Walker respectively. Both dropped out of the rat race - Mr Hutt to become a writer and Mr Holmes to lecture. Both have been chairmen of the Campaign for Real Ale (Camra) - Mr Hutt in 1973 and Mr Holmes in 1975. Now both are poachers-turned-gamekeepers, running small independent pub companies with eight outlets each.

The market has changed almost beyond recognition in the 20 years since Mr Hutt wrote The Death of the English Pub, a sustained savaging of the six national brewing combines of the day. 'The big six', he wrote in conclusion, 'have set up their signposts for the future. At the same time, they have tried to block off the by-roads at the end of which pubs still feel like pubs, and beer still tastes like beer. Perhaps it is up to the people who care about these things, and the politicians who represent them, to open up those by-roads and pull those signposts down.'

His old pal Mr Holmes appears to be thriving in the new era. He greeted me at one of his pubs, the Lincolnshire Poacher in Nottingham, with a glass of Australian Chardonnay. 'Trying to keep this down,' he explained, patting a stomach that has stood up remarkably well to more than 20 years of prodigious consumption.

But the wine was also a reminder that the pubs run by his company, Tynemill, are not designed exclusively for corpulent and bearded men to stand around discussing the hoppiness of Old Farts' Bitter. Nor are they indifferent to cuisine: the menu on my visit included poached salmon, Pork Normande and fresh mussels in white wine and garlic.

'Food is important, but it represents only 15 per cent of turnover,' said Mr Holmes, who is managing director. And real ale, kept in peak condition, is still a big selling-point in all his pubs. The Poacher alone has offered more than 300 cask beers over the past year.

This pub is run through a shared-equity deal with Bateman's, the Lincolnshire brewer. Indeed, only six of Tynemill's properties are free houses. The Old King's Arms in Newark, its first pub, was sold to Marston's and leased back to raise money to buy another.

Turnover is about pounds 3m and projected pre-tax profits for the year to 31 March are pounds 230,000. 'We're set to expand again after a forced period of no growth because of the difficulty of borrowing. It's difficult to create the growth we need from internally generated profits. Not that we spend a fortune on refurbishment. We put the property in a sound state and create an environment that is clean and traditional,' said Mr Holmes.

Mr Hutt remains wary of the brewery business. 'I still think they do it badly most of the time. They overspend on refurbishments and underspend on maintenance, cleaning and training.'

We were talking in the Newt and Cucumber, close to Coventry Cathedral. Only last year this was a breeze-block shell in an office development. Mr Hutt's company, Unicorn Inns, transformed it into an instant traditional pub - low ceiling, nostalgic adverts and plenty of hand pumps. He has four others like this.

All are in town or city centres, setting out to attract office workers at lunchtime and youngsters on weekend evenings. 'Traditional but trendy' is the corporate image. 'I'm very much a traditionalist at heart. But we do it like this because it reflects what customers prefer. Well-run traditional pubs have maintained their popularity and support.'

Even in his campaigning days, he insists, he never saw the licensed trade as anything other than a business. 'We sell a lot of premium lagers. I never took the narrow view that Camra should be telling people what to drink,' he said, taking another sip of mineral water.

(Photograph omitted)