We're only here for the beer: How good, local ales are saving our pubs

By Will Hawkes
Thursday 20 January 2011 01:00

One year ago, the Highcliffe Hotel was on its last legs. Decrepit and unloved, this handsome pub in a Sheffield suburb was the sort of place where a handful of regular punters provided the only custom. "The owners didn't want it, the community didn't want it," Simon Webster, a local resident, says. "I believe that within a year, it would've been a block of flats and nobody would've cared."

The Highcliffe could easily have joined so many other pubs in the knacker's yard. Famously, 52 of them were closing every week in 2009 (that figure has since dropped to 29, according to the marketing company CGA Strategy). But the Highcliffe survived – and the reasons why it survived should cause pause for thought in the pub industry. Thanks to Webster, the chief operating officer of the Thornbridge Brewery in Derbyshire, it was reincarnated as the Greystones and is now a thriving business. Key to its success has been an emphasis on good beer.

The same story is being repeated across the country. From elegant London bars to cosy Staffordshire inns, those places that concentrate on beer are finding success at a time when so many of their rivals are struggling. The reason why is obvious, believes Charlie McVeigh, owner of the growing Draft House chain of bars in south London. "It should be an 'emperor's new clothes' idea that every pub should have great beer but most of them don't," he says."There aren't that many people taking beer seriously in the way that a great wine bar or a great restaurant would take wine seriously. That's what we set out to do [at the Draft House] but within the cost framework of a pub. The great thing about beer is that, unlike wine, it's democratic."

It is impossible to argue with McVeigh's logic but, unlike beer, the way so many pubs are run in this country is not democratic. At a time when there are almost 800 breweries operating in the UK, it can still be very difficult for them to get their beers into local pubs. The domination of the British pub trade by pub companies ("pubcos") is the problem.

Pubcos decide what beers their tenants can sell and they ensure that their tenants buy only that beer from them ("the beer tie"), even if they could get it cheaper elsewhere. This can make for bland, identikit pubs which boast the same beer range no matter where they are in the country. It's a model that has dominated the British pub industry for the best part of 20 years, but the example of the Greystones suggests its time may be up.

One of the biggest pubcos is Enterprise Inns, which operates around 7,000 pubs in the UK. It owns the Greystones. It did what could prove to be a revolutionary deal with Thornbridge: Enterprise has removed the beer tie, with the exception of kegged lager and Guinness. It means Thornbridge can sell its own ales, plus interesting bottled beers from around the world; the pub, perhaps not surprisingly, has been a huge success – and Thornbridge's own beers have been key.

"It's been fantastic for us," Webster says. "We have had a phenomenal start. We've sold 25,000 pints of our beer in two months: 50p in every pound we take is on Thornbridge beer. It's a good model. We've also sold 8,000 pints of Beck's Vier, which we've bought from Enterprise. They would have never sold that much in the pub's previous format. It's a bit of a win-win, actually."

So successful is this model that Enterprise is keen to use it elsewhere. Already the Dark Star Brewery in West Sussex has a similar deal and more are likely to follow in the forthcoming months, according to Simon Townsend, Enterprise's chief operating officer. He says that Enterprise has been working with the Society of Independent Brewers (Siba) to identify suitable candidates. "There are quite a lot of discussions ongoing," he says. "We've been saying to our guys on the ground, 'If you have an approach from a Siba brewer who would like to take on a pub, this is something we should be considering'. I think this agreement could be the answer to the pubs' problems. If there is a business that is currently being conducted as a brewery – a sound, viable business – then we think we can match them up with pubs."

Townsend expects similar deals to that struck by Thornbridge to be agreed in the next few months but if he takes a look at the example set by Everards Brewery in Leicestershire, he may want to speed up that process. Everards pioneered the sort of scheme Enterprise is now using back in 2007, linking up with microbreweries to revive closed or dilapidated pubs. Named Project William, after the brewery's founder, the scheme means Everards buys the site and leases it to a smaller brewer free of ties, with the exception of its flagship Tiger ale. So far, it has opened 21 pubs in partnership with 12 different breweries.

"Our first project was in Newcastle-under-Lyme at the Greyhound pub," Stephen Gould, the brewery's managing director, says. "We worked with a local brewery, the Titanic Brewery, which is run by Keith Bott, who is also chairman of Siba. We paid £145,000 for the pub, invested another £160,000 in the refit and presented a brand new brewery tap for the local community. Three and a half years later, it continues to trade really well."

Everards has been successful because it has worked with local brewers who make good beer. These are the sort of pubs with five or six hand pumps on the bar, the sort of pubs that you don't necessarily see on every high street. And these are pubs where beer rather than food – long considered the panacea for all of the industry's problems – is the focus. "There is plenty of talk about food being the answer," Gould says. "Obviously food is critical nowadays, and it's very easy to say that the drinks-led pub hasn't got a future. Well, I think that the drinks-led pub that doesn't focus in on quality of beer probably hasn't got a future, but the ones that do can create a point of difference within a local market."

The growth of beer-focused pubs and bars across Britain bears out Gould's view. Take the capital, for example: from the Southampton Arms in Kentish Town to the Rake in Borough via the White Horse in Parsons Green, it is those pubs that take beer seriously that are thriving. And then there's Sheffield, which boasts one of the UK's healthiest pub markets and a thriving microbrewery scene. It is no coincidence.

Webster's experience in Sheffield illustrates how beer can turn a pub around. "Within the first week that the Greystones was open, we had a guy come in and say to the barman, 'Oh, I've just been into the estate agent,'" he says. "The barman said, 'Are you moving?' He said, 'No, I've taken my house off the market because of the pub opening.' Good beer can save a pub."

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