Sunday, 18 July 2010

Q: When is a good pub not a good pub?

When you’re delivering beer in Cumbria there is plenty of time to think, and plenty of time for regrets. Yesterday (a relatively quiet day) we visited around a dozen hostelries, all of them ‘good’ pubs. That’s where the regret comes in – I’d love to stay on at many of them, and roll out into the evening air for a short stroll home rather than a 50 mile drive.

That started me thinking. What makes a good pub, a good pub? I’ll give you two examples to chew over.

One of my clients took over a pub which was always regarded as ‘good’ but which failed to make any money. It kept a good stock of beer and it managed not to provide any of the following …

  • Wide screen TV
  • Screeching children in ‘play areas’
  • Loud music
  • Plastic food

But it was never full. It was never cosy. And no-one seen drinking in there appeared to be having a good time.

Fast-forward 18 months, and it’s a different story. There’s still a goodly range of real ales, but now there is also a roaring fire. A small TV offers the opportunity to catch up on the news but doesn’t attract crowds of soccer fans. Children are evident playing in the garden, but don’t screech. Soft music plays in the background. The food on offer is reasonably priced and attractively presented, and best of all, it’s packed and everyone there seems to be enjoying themselves.

Meanwhile, in another part of the county, a client is trying his best to get into the 2011 Good Beer Guide. Rightly or wrongly, he has decided that this means he should have a constantly changing variety of real ales on his four hand pumps. His pub is also attractively and cosily furnished, after a recent refit, and it’s always busy with people who appear to be enjoying themselves. But after a period of intensive and wholly unscientific study (sitting at the bar for several hours one Saturday), I decided that his could never be considered a ‘good pub’.

For one thing, his wet/dry split is something like 10/90%, with the floor space in the ‘pub’ being allocated accordingly. On entry you’re greeted by a waitress, not a barman, and the massive chalkboards advertise not the brilliant beer but the (admittedly tasty and reasonably priced) meals on offer.

And it gets worse. At least half of the punters were drinking shorts and wine. No bad thing. But of the remainder, most were into fizz, and weren’t drinking a lot, to allow room for their three-course meal. In a three hour session, he must have sold around five pints of real ale, from the four on offer. So instead of having a good range of different beers on tap, he had four slow sellers, tired and unappealing, warm because they had stood in the lines, and altogether not likely to get him into any good beer guide. Yet they were excellent beers! (one of mine, a Hawkshead, a Coniston and a Yates).

Hmm. Not a good pub, then. So how come it’s in the 2010 Good Pub Guide?

Here’s my opinion on what makes a good pub.

  • it’s warm and clean
  • there are plenty of interesting things to drink and reasonably priced nibbles on offer
  • whoever is behind the bar is prepared to converse, not just rant
  • there’s nothing outlandish screaming loudly in my ears (I would also ban all folk music and anything by Morrisey but that’s just personal)
  • the loos are well stocked with soap and toilet paper
  • You don’t feel out of place if you’re not eating, and there’s somewhere to sit at a table without moving the pepper and salt
And, of course, they sell my beer. Or want to.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Business and Beer

Here at the Ennerdale Brewery we are very serious about our beer, in a sort of light-hearted way. We're beer novices who stumbled into the world of cask ale by way of doing an old mate a big favour, then we got left with ..... that's another story.

We're not brewers of long standing, we're just learning how to hold our own in beery discussions, but we are serious about our beer. We have a programme of continuous improvement, which sounds a bit glam but it's all about our trying, every day, in every way, to do what we are doing just that little bit better.

What we are most serious about is our business, because good beer alone is just not enough. We have to be a good business, a cost-effective, efficient, lean business which is consistent and reliable. Those concepts which seemed so dull and irrelevant when we were salaried employees with a safe wage packet are so much more important now that our mortgage depends on them!

So to improve our business we do a lot of finding out about other businesses, and in the course of this I came across a guy called Seth Grodin, a 'thought leader', in other words a man who writes books which state the bleedin' obvious in a way which makes you say "why didn't I think that before?" Seth's latest is called 'Tribes', and it explores the development of groups which share a common interest or passion. Groups like tickers and scoopers, or their less extreme fellows, CAMRA members. And then there is the tribe of landlords, licensees, and pubcos. Can you see the link with the real ale business yet?

The secret of being a good real ale business, it seems to me, is to balance the interests of the two warring tribes who form our customer base. I can produce beers which are 'interesting' and which excite the scoopers - but once they have scooped, they don't want to see it again.

I can produce beer which is 'commercial' and consistent, at a drink all day a.b.v. - but this gets fewer brownie points with the beer heads. In fact we have been condemned by one brewery in Cumbria as being too commercial. In other words, we're paying our way. And one day we might even make a profit.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Swallow update ....

Tense time yesterday afternoon watching the chaps gain the courage to leave the nest. Actually it was more like their fed-up parents getting in behind them and literally pushing them out, one by one.

In less than an hour the whole nest dynamic had changed, from the nervous chicks lining up and daring each other to fly as far as the office door ("but I'm telling you, I'm not going any further") - then to the grain bins ("pity we only eat flies, this looks like good scran") - and finally to the lowest part of the barn roof.

Now the whole brood seem to have changed into argumentative teenagers, zooming around in and out of the brew hall and chattering loudly like R2-D2 on speed.

Some things - but only a few, mind you - are beter than beer.