It’s alway good to find that a bar you haven’t visited for a while has kept the standards up.  This was very much the case with The Firehouse in Sowerby Bridge a couple of weekends ago.  I’d only visited a couple of times before and liked the place, but recently when visiting the town we’d got into the habit of going up Hollins Mill Lane to the Works and Puzzle Hall Inn.   On a steady sunday afternoon, although by the time we left it was warming up nicely for the evening, the place had a great combination of chilled atmosphere, good beer and cracking pizzas.  The testament to the last point was the number of people coming in for a takeaway pizza and enjoying a pint whilst waiting.

The pub has a great range of beers on offer, 6 on pump including a couple of Dark Star beers and Magic Rock Ringmaster and 8 craft beer lines.  I’d like to say I tried a couple of the craft beers, but give me a Magic Rock High Wire tap and I’m not moving to another easily, although I sampled a half of Dark Star American Pale Ale and it was in cracking condition.  The service was very good as well and the pizzas are as they should be, good toppings and a base just about thick enough to support them, frankly at £10 for two as part of their daytime deal is as good as are going to get for the quality of the pizza on offer, although the seafood jambalaya was calling my name rather loudly.

The bar is relatively small on the lower level and this works to make the place welcoming and cosy even if quiet, but can take a decent number of people without getting crowded.  Some might say the craft beer is slightly expensive at £4.30 per pint on average, but I’d argue you’ll pay about this at other places such as the Victorian Beer Cafe in Halifax or Millers Bar in Brighouse, so is par for the course.  It’s a bit of a marmite issue, some like me are happy to pay that for a good craft beer, others are not and neither party are wrong. I’ve got good friends on both sides of the camp who know their beer to prove this.

All three pubs on Hollins Mill Lane are good in their own right. The Puzzle Hall Inn for the music setup, bands, covered outdoor space and being the most traditional pub of the three serving some good ales.  The Works wins out over the Puzzle Hall Inn for the wider selection of draft beers (this is down to a larger bar space partially) and this same bigger space makes it better if the area is busy as the Puzzle can get very busy very quickly at the right time.  I also like the back room library in the Works, a nice touch to distinguish it from other pubs, and like the Puzzle Hall Inn and the Firehouse it welcomes well behaved families outside of the busy core evening hours.  The Firehouse wins on the beer front with its real ale and tap selection as well as for the food.    If you wanted the best of everything, you’d start at the junction with the Firehouse and work your way down the Puzzle Hall in sequence to enjoy the music as the evening wore on.

My local village is about to get its third pub back as the Packhorse in the centre of Southowram changes back from being a restaurant.  I shouldn’t be asking this question really, but it nags me, can the village support three pubs on a sustainable basis.    The two existing pubs have steady trade through the troughs of the week, with good peaks of trade at the weekends.   The Cock and Bottle is slightly different as it is in Bank Top, about ¾ mile from the Southowram end, so is not directly affected by the new pub opening.   The Shoulder of Mutton has its regulars and I can’t see them moving over en-mass to the Packhorse.

The drinking culture has shifted in Southowram as it has everywhere else.   Are there drinkers who are going to start coming out drinking in the village again just because a new pub has opened, both at weekends and throughout the week.  If they wanted to there were already two good pubs (plus a social club and cricket club during the season) to visit.  I feel there will probably be cannibalism of trade from other licensed premises in the area. I wish them well, but I think it will be tough in the medium to long term after the initial interest wanes.   Punters pub habits are hard to change once set in, like I said at the beginning, you have to make an effort to do so sometimes.



Last week the Portman Group, who are the self appointed regulators of alcohol advertising, marketing and packaging upheld a complaint which stated the bleeding obvious.  The complaint was regarding super strength beers Kestrel Super, Special Brew and Skol Super, all of which are 9% lagers.   The can typically contains 4.5 units of alcohol, more than the daily average recommended guidelines for a man and 50% higher than the female recommended amount.  The complaint was from the homelessness charity Thames Reach who said that the non resealable design of the cans and the degradation in quality of the beer once it was opened means that it encouraged drinkers to finish consumption of the can in “one sitting”, and therefore encourage “immoderate consumption”.

Kestrel Super did put a prominent label on their cans saying “Sharing Can”, but the best bit they saved for the back of the can which read ‘…an award winning beer that can be savoured on its own, with fine food, or even better, shared with friends’.  Let’s be frank if a guest turned up with a four pack of one of these three beers, you’d start to have concerns regarding other things that are happening in their life.   These beers are not nicknamed “tramp juice” for no reason.  Four to six cans will ensure that most people forget their worries and concerns for the rest of the day whether they wanted to or not.

Kestrel in their defence quoted 80% of its database said they shared the contents of the can and this was because of the sharing message. Of those that did not share the can, 50% said they often left part of the contents of the can in the fridge overnight and consumed the rest the next day.”  I like my beers, but even the best carbonated beer left open in the fridge overnight is fairly undrinkable when it is flat as a pancake.  It is not like wine, spirits or flat cider which don’t change character significantly if left overnight at the right temperature, the gasiness is an integral part of the lager experience, would you accept a flat lager at the pub?

One point regarding these beers and “the degradation in quality of the beer once it was opened”.  I’ve tried Special Brew once in my teens and frankly it tasted like a rat had urinated into a can at the factory and been topped up with industrial chemicals.  There is no room to degrade from here unless you count “fizzy chemical enhanced rat urine” better than “flat chemical enhanced rat urine”.   Either way you could use it to descale your toilet.  But joking aside it is the so called lower echelons of society who buy and drink these beers.   The poor, the serious alcoholics, the homeless.

You don’t buy these beers to enjoy the taste or to sip over a meal, you buy them to take the edge off day to day life. 18 units of alcohol packed into 2 litres (4 x 500ml cans) does a damn good job of that, as does a 3 litre bottle of Frosty Jacks High Strength Cider Drink at 7-8%.  Let be blunt that these 18 units of alcohol (or about 8-10 normal strength cans of beer) comes relatively cheap at about £6.50 alcoholic unit for unit.   The homeless, the alcoholic with little money, the chronic alcoholic with a high tolerance, they all have a hell of an edge to take off a pretty poor life every day and these 18 units go a long way to making that life bearable by taking you mentally away from that sharp edge.

It is an extreme example of what we regular recreational drinkers consume alcohol for, however our edge is blunt, we drink to relax, socialise, have fun.   We get up go to work, have a beer after work then return to our families or drink a beer over dinner.  We don’t get up, open a beer to help us cope with the day, spend the day trying to keep away from our real life and then drink to send ourselves to sleep at the end of the day on a groundhog day basis.   If you lower the strength or reduce the can size, people who have proper issues will buy more cans or move onto stronger brands.  They won’t suddenly decide to change their personal health and life decisions based on this small change.

I can’t disagree with the basis of the complaint from Thames Reach, it does not dissuade from drinking large amounts of alcohol, but the result of a Portman Complaint being upheld is that there is an order to remove the products from the shelves within 3 months.  How will this help the homeless, not a jot, it’ll just change their brand of choice (if the removal ever takes place).  It’s a bit like taking a drug dealer off the street, there is always another one round the corner.

I’ll start this week with a quick review of the new bar in town, the Victorian Craft Beer Cafe in Halifax.  Located behind the Victoria Theatre on the site of the former Ricci and Capone restaurant, it is spread over 3 (or 2.5) levels with big open areas and cosy private areas alike.  The beer selection is not short of choice with 10 taps serving a mix of european beers, quality UK keg beers from the likes of Thornbridge and world craft beer.  Added to this is 4 pumps serving regional real ales and a range of boxed ciders.  The beer prices are reasonable for the beers on offer, on par with other pubs of its type in the region.  A pint of real ale coming between £3.00 and £3.20, with the speciality keg lines coming between £3.70 and £4.30, a reasonable price for what it on offer in today’s beer market.   The pub has acres of lovely polished wood and dotted with interesting knick-knacks.  The welcome has been warm in my 3 visits there (both weekend tea times), and it looks to be getting a good reception by the towns drinker later in the evening.

I also popped into the Gun Dog (ex Sportsman) for a quick pint a couple of weeks ago, whilst suffering from the January trading slump, it is obvious the place has been re-opened by people who know what they are doing, original features have been restored and the tradtional multi room layout has been retained, whilst remodelling the bar to give more room in the main serving area.  Normally with 5 pumps, only 3 were on due to quiet trade (so ensuring beer does not go off), but the beers they had on were decent and well kept, the barman obviously having the knowledge and experience judging by our conversation.  Somewhere I’ll visit again when in town, the circuit in Halifax is improving all the time, when you take into account the real ale mile at the bottom of town and the new openings at the top as well as established pubs like Cookies (more from the continental beers here), it’s becoming a place worth visiting for a days drinking again.  We now have a handful of towns around the Calderdale area worth going for a session, something we definitely didn’t have 5-7 years ago.

Whilst just up the road at Wetherspoons, I’m saddened to announce that Heineken and Wetherspoons have settled their dispute over the wholesale price of Heineken and Murphys in it’s new Irish pub and frankly it back to where it was.  Heineken, Fosters, Kronenbourg 1664, Strongbow, John Smith’s Extra Smooth and Amstel all are back in UK pubs with Fosters, Beamish and Symonds Cider in the Irish pubs.   The whole furore turned out to be game of chicken that both backed out of.   It would have been nice to see the stance by the 926 strong pub chain stand strong, but I suspect the cost of moving over contracts and the costs of promoting the new brand as well as some small incentive in price from Heineken changed their mind.  I’m sure there will be plenty of regular drinkers who will not be complaining about this however.

Now onto our favourite pub company Enterprise Inns, a company with 5000 pubs are developing a managed pub estate business so they can “better understand how pubs can be ran”.  As if 25 years and 5000 pubs haven’t honed these skills, or rather it has honed skills in the different area of extracting the most money from tenants.  Managed pubs are staffed by salaried employees, so it is like a regular payrolled company, you have a relatively fixed employee cost and after costs, bills and taxes you take you profit directly back into the parent company.   What can they learn from this venture given the range of products sold are broadly the same as tied leased premises and are being converted from tenanted pubs?  The real truth is that the decision to impose a free of tie rent option and statutory regulation on pub companies makes managed premises the more attractive option in giving them total control of stock, pricing and policy.  As they are technically the landlord and the manager is merely an employee hired to look after the place day to day, the company controlling the beer supply controls the purchasing decisions.  Even though they only plan to convert a small number, don’t be surprised if this project scales up a lot quicker.

You can’t help but notice that the big breweries are now clamouring to launch their own “craft beer brands”, either by resurrecting old recipes much as Worthingtons did with their White Shield beer a few years ago (and a very nice beer it is too) or by marketing new beers as being from their “craft or experimental” brewery.   We’ll tackle the old chestnut of what is craft beer first, nobody really knows, it can be both keg and cask, of all styles and tastes, made by a 2 brew capacity micro brewery or a company like Brewdog which has 53,000 pint capacity plant.  All we can say it that it is the ethos under which it is brewed, the development of new beers, experimenting with flavours, not with the initial idea to make this a large scale production (although as we see with Brewdog, some beers do reach that level), but to make a good beer people will enjoy and you can make a profit on, in the end this is business still.

Look at two breweries in Huddersfield, Magic Rock and Mallinsons.   The former is definitely known for being a craft brewery, the later is known for making really good ales.  Once you are at the pump, what is the difference, lets be honest not a lot, the craft beers might tend to be stronger in ABV, use more unconventional brewing ingredients, be more heavily hopped or be more aggressively branded to stand out more on the pump, effectively shouting out “look at me”.  Good beer is good beer and you drink what you like and on a session if you are like me you will generally mix between the more interesting beers tempered with really good session beers.   One is not better than the other in the grand scheme of things, but one may suit your drinking mood for the occasion.

But big brewery can’t do craft beer, it’s not in their ethos.  Their ethos is to produce and sell as much as you can to maximise profit on the venture.  They may call it craft, but this is an intentional attempt to jump on the fast moving bandwagon and the people watching that wagon can see companies like Greene King and Guinness hanging on by its fingertips destined to fall to the road sometime soon.  Lets look at Greene King, their keg craft range is 5 strong, compromising of a Double IPA, American Style Pale Ale, English Craft Lager, Craft Pilsner and a Copper IPA.  The first two styles are some of the most common craft beer styles, but the last three styles could fall into both the craft and real beer camps (I intentionally use the word beer as it includes Lager and Pilsners).

The fact is that a genuine craft beer is aimed a people who enjoy beer, that is the only criteria, be they 18 or 80 and what they do for a living.  Greene King includes notes on who to aim at and pricing, frankly it is cringeworthy.   Their target audience is “Affluent 25-40 year old young professionals. Trend-setting early adopters with a work hard, play hard attitude to life.” and when it comes to pricing “Customers are willing to pay more for interesting, small batch beers, using the finest ingredients from around the world.”.  So they are basically saying to target money rich young people with few commitments and fleece them for all you can.  Craft beer is about the beer not who will pay the most for it to improve your bottom line.  Does this surprise me regarding Greene King?  Does it hell!  Its all about the money with no soul attached.

Guinness I am less cynical about (to be honest I’d if the world blew up tomorrow, at least we’d get rid of Greene King beer), they have launched their Dublin Porter and West Indies Porter.  Firstly they are staying within the realm of beer they are known for, not going for the scatter gun approach of Greene King.   I may not be a fan of their core product, but their imported Nigerian and West Indies export stouts I’ve previously tried from specialist shops have been drinkable and enjoyable.  The key difference for me is, yes they are using the craft label, but not at every opportunity.   They place the products in their “Premium Ale” category when it comes to market sector, and I cannot disagree with this one bit, that is what it is.   The craft wagon will move on, Greene King will end up moving some of their “craft” beers into the main range, whilst Guinness will sell these exactly as they define the target market sector.

Maybe “Craft” for these companies means trial runs of beers to see if they can move into the main range, and thus the term is used falsely.



Pubpaper 789 – The State of the Pub Nation 2015

Posted: 2nd January 2015 by santobugtio in Pub Paper, Writing

New year, same problems for pubs, much as I said a year ago, nothing has really changed in the pub world on the ground over the last year.  On the plus side craft beer and smaller brewers are becoming increasingly popular, more breweries are opening, and the upstarts are growing.  What is happening countrywide is exemplified by the Huddersfield brewing scene, as a brewery outgrows its premises (as per Mallinsons in recent history and Magic Rock soon if rumours are true), it moves to a bigger building, builds a larger capacity brew plant, selling on the old premises lock stock and barrel to new brewery.  Hand Drawn Monkey Brewery took over the Mallinsons premises and are now enjoying national success on the craft beer scene adding to their well established beer shop / bar in Huddersfield and online beer shop operations.

On the negative side the pub companies were still shafting their tenants, trying to avoid legislation to control their behaviour and people continued to lose their homes and life savings.  As importantly communities lost their local pub to other commercial uses without any say via the use of planning loopholes which allows such conversions.  However 2015 has the opportunity to really change the pub trade when the amendments to the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill forcing large pub companies to offer a market only rent as well as other fairer terms to tenants, as voted through in November last year, come into force when they clear the House of Lords in the first part of 2015.  However this will take at least 18 months to bed into the system, so although we will see some change in the next year, I’d reserve judgement until the end of 2016 to say if the law is working or that we looking at another Beer Orders 1989 situation.

The next thing that need changing in the pub industry is the closing of the aforementioned planning loopholes so pubs can stay pubs if commercially feasible and not be leased out by greedy pub companies to the highest retail based bidder.  You can fully understand why their commercial departments want to lease to a big company with little chance of default on payments. Payments with high chance of being worth more than they could hope for via wet and dry rent from a struggling pub tenant, guaranteed over a long term contract.  When renegotiating the restructure of their debt (as they seem to every 4-5 years), it looks far better that they have 200 premises with guaranteed £50,000 rent per year for the next 20 years than 200 pubs where the tenant might leave at any time due to money issues, stress or simply having enough of being ripped off.

If we can guarantee the security of the pub tenant via fair rent and beer prices, allowing them to have a normal life working reasonable hours and giving them some money to enjoy life a bit whilst removing the worry of their pub being turned into a Tesco in the near future, then our whole pub industry would be far healthier and would benefit not just those directly affected, but the pub scene as a whole.   The reason for this is that some people get out of the habit of going to the pub when it closes, not just that pub, but any pub.  They get into the habit of drinking at home, and the cheap prices of beer from the Tesco (which has probably replaced the local pub) ingrains this behaviour.

The continued trading of a local pub which doesn’t have to charge over £3.00 a pint for a half decent beer to break even means that the pub going habit continues and although say 75% of the persons trade will go to the same pub, there is 25% to be spread around other pubs in the area.  Scale this out on grander scale and you create a mesh of pub spending which will benefits the entire area.  A higher density of pubs in an area means people are more likely to spend a Saturday night or Sunday afternoon visiting a few pubs in the area finishing back at their local.  Just look at Brighouse or Sowerby Bridge to see what a high density of pubs does for weekend and evening leisure spending in the town and the flows of customers from pub to pub.

Think of it as a spiders web and we drinkers are the flies.   One pub won’t catch us easily, there is simply no web to trap us.   But if you have two or three pubs in an area, the web is formed and we get caught in the web for longer.  Once you have a town with five or ten well respected pubs and bars, people can’t help but be trapped by the mesh of the web and keep coming back.  But swipe a hand through a significant part of the web and it just collapses completely.  Discretionary spending is a fragile thing just like the web of a spider.

I do like it when big companies try to get their own way and promptly find themselves poking their own eyes out.  Heineken have been supplying Wetherspoons pubs for 35 years with a contract worth £60,000,000 a year in revenue.  Wetherspoons have 925 pubs in the UK and 2 pubs in Ireland, and it is this one of these Irish pubs which has been the cause of the cancellation of the long standing deal.   In Ireland the average price of a pint of Heineken and Murphys is about five euros (about £3.80), Wetherspoons wanted to sell both at three euros (£2.37)  in its new pub as per its other Eire outlet in Dublin.  At this point Heineken declined to supply the single Irish outlet without conditions and Wetherspoons decided to cancel the whole deal.

Now I know that Wetherspoons is a big company itself (although virtually nothing when its £200m net worth is put next to Heinekens £11 billion) and frankly they’ll manage without the 926 pubs worth of trade.   Wetherspoons may well have its faults, the beer pricing attracting some less than desirable customers, the places being big soulless spaces and the food being slightly inconsistent when it hits the table, but conversely it is good value, does decent real ale and world beer at reasonable prices and is a known quantity in an unknown place.   Tim Martin and his management team may not be everyones cup of tea, but you know where you stand with him, he doesn’t step back from a fight and he sticks to his principles if they are popular or not.

The side effect of all this is that the following products will be pulled from Wetherspoons, Heineken, Murphys, Strongbow, John Smith, Amstel, Kronenberg and Fosters among others.  In Ireland, the chain also does not stock Guinness after a disagreement with Diageo, the owners of the brand, over retail pricing.   Heineken say they are looking at a resolution to the issue, but Tim Martin has called their hand and they may be a price to pay to get back at the table.   Lets be frank here, all five brands affected can all be easily replaced or other products promoted up to the first tier roster of drinks and it has been reported that the stouts will be replaced by Bath Ales Dark Side Stout and Marston’s Revisionist Craft Stout instead, a massive step up from the two Irish brands in my opinion.  So for the customer the beer range has had its blandness quotient significantly decreased overnight.

There will be those of course who argue that Wetherspoons destroys local independent pubs when it comes along, buts let take two local towns in Calderdale, Brighouse and Sowerby Bridge.  The latter only gained a Wetherspoons a few months ago and the former has had one for a good number of years now.  Firstly it is noted that Wetherspoons will only open up where it can make money, thats business.  It is not healthy for them to destroy the local pub scene as people come for a night out to town, not to “go to Wetherspoons”, it is mainly a stop off on route or for some cheap dinner.

Sowerby Bridge has a thriving pub scene, it caters for the cheap drinks crowd to the real ale mob to the cocktail chasers.  When I last visited none of these had closed down, and seemed to be doing decent trade for the time of week.  I suspect some food sales dropped off initially where they were not a wet led business, but people are creatures of habit and if they like a place they return, if they think the food is better elsewhere, then that is for the other pub to impress them sufficiently to get them back.  I suspect one venue in town had suffered more than others with direct competition on the food and drink front, but they will have adapted to the new situation in town by now.

I’ve covered Brighouse with a fine tooth comb over the last few months, so I’ll not linger.  The town suffered a major slump in pubs about 3-4 years ago, the delayed reaction from the recession when the lack of money finally caught up with businesses.  However since that low we have had 2 new bars open, the rejuvenation of three bars from closed premises to viable businesses and the rise of the town as hub for live music as well as the reinforcement of the good pubs which got through the financial crisis with less problems.   Wetherspoons presence hurting the town?  It may have took a temporary small knock, but those places had money problems before the Richard Oastler hit town.

As I said earlier they are not everyones cup of tea, but they are a fixture in most towns in the UK now and have to be lived with, as they won’t be going away anytime soon.



Pubpaper 787 – New Pubs, Old Pubs, Closed Pubs

Posted: 3rd December 2014 by santobugtio in Pub Paper, Writing

Recently, myself, friends and extended family visited the Huddersfield Festival of Light in Georges Square.  A light show to entertain the children, the adults having a few drinks outside while they were kept entertained, a nice plan.  Except somebody decided to put all the food and drink vendors in the same narrow corridor, meaning queues from one stand merged with all the others and you couldn’t swing a mouse, never mind a cat.   The Head of Steam was five deep at the bar, so I ended up going into the Kings Head, a pub I’ve never been in my 17 years in the area.

12072716065_7ca0035392_zOnly two deep in customers, it was relative luxury. However despite the fact that 2 sides of the pub are covered in plastic sheeting and the roof is held up by 3 tension supports whilst the railway station has improvement work done, it is a worthy addition to the square along with the Head of Steam.  A nice selection of about 8 real ales including Magic Rock Ringmaster, a cracking session ale, of which two were taken back outside for me and my dad while we waited for something to happen (note to organisers, please keep things moving a bit more in the square next year if it goes ahead again).

After most of the party went for a curry, me and my parents retired back to the Kings Head for a couple of pints and found it to be friendly, reasonable beer prices (£8 for two session ales and premium lager) and holding well kept ales.  If you’ve not been there, it’s definitely worth popping in.   Post watching the excellent STEM musical piece accompanying George Melies “A Trip to the Moon”, we headed down to my favourite pub in Huddersfield, Hand Drawn Monkey.  Sampling the Hand Drawn Monkey Pale Ale and Great Heck Yakima IPA was a treat as usual.

12073029553_f362f933f5_bBut the atmosphere there is what makes the place, great for adults while also being good for families.  It is a small venue, but cosy, not cramped.  The staff know their beer (frankly given the number of good ales pubs in the town, the area is not short of knowledgeable bar staff), and the addition of the new keg and taps to the bar has just added to the range on offer.   After the rest of the party joined us post curry, our group of 10 people with 5 children was no problem even on a Saturday night at 7pm.   Their own beer from the Hand Drawn Monkey Brewery is worth the trip ignoring all the take out options on the shelves behind the bar.

Moving back closer to home, I popped into the new Millers Bar in Brighouse earlier the same day (based on the site of the Black Swan opposite Rokt).  So new you can smell the paint still, the bar is modern in decor and more importantly the staff are attentive and welcoming from the go.   There is good range of beers including 4 real ales, 4 craft beers and a number of good continental beers.  I tried Camden Town Pale Ale and their house beer brewed by Stud Fold Brewery.  Both were good beers and served in good condition.  The venue was very family friendly with children being welcomed to help decorate the christmas tree.  With off street parking (a god send on Brighouse Christmas Market weekend), its on my return list.

10801825_1576975862532921_6447224973115537272_nBrighouse is now stuffed with good pubs, The Beck, Red Rooster, Ship Inn, Commercial, Jeremys and Millers, it’s easier to fall into a good pub than not now and this list ignores other places like Wetherspoons which do a good job in their own right.  But you are seeing the same pattern extending throughout the Calderdale area, much reduced reports of pubs closing and new drinking establishments opening in new venues.  Only recently Oates have opened their brewery tap two evenings a week and the new bar on the site of the old Ricci and Capones unit behind the theatre in Halifax looks promising on paper.

What has been seen on the negative side though is that the pubs which closed 2 or 3 years ago and have been left shuttered are now becoming active properties again, but not as pubs but local supermarkets, day nurseries and private housing to name a few uses.  The now boarded up Pump Room in Halifax will become rubble eventually when the white elephant of the new shopping centre is built.  This is why the the Black Swan to Millers conversion is great as it keeps an existing pub alive.

The great British pub may have its peaks and troughs, but it will survive as long as there is Britons who want a beer.  Venues may change, but our desire for beer will support that.


Pubpaper 786 – Two years at the Cross Keys

Posted: 1st December 2014 by santobugtio in Pub Paper, Writing

What do you call an empty shell of a pub, a few tables and chairs, a cellar which needs totally re-equipping and a bar with an solitary ale pump.  25 months ago you would have called it the Cross Keys in Siddal.   What is now one of the best known ale houses in the Calderdale district was once a deeply unloved Admiral Taverns property.

P1080656_SMALLWhen Hugh and Ruth took over the property they didn’t know what to expect, only armed with a basic plan to turn a profit and create a place people would keep wanting to return to.  When they moved in early Nov 2012; the pub had been closed for an extended period, they knew nobody in the area and it was a huge step into the unknown.

The key thing for Hugh was to get the beer selection right and to do that he had to get a new cellar system up and running.  A full cellar fit out and 6 new pumps later, he had an operating bar.  With the addition of a range of European lagers and choice mainstreams brands he was ready for business a month later when he opened the doors on 7th Dec 2012.

Gone were the days of offering McEwans Export, Carling, John Smith and Stella, in came a regularly rotated range of well kept ales in their place.  Knowing full well they had changed the local pub, they felt a healthy trepidation.  They need not have worried, trade was good and the majority of customers liked the new offerings and the pub was soon going from strength to strength.

It was long hours at first, with Ruth working full time in her day job for the early life of the pub with Hugh pulling 80-100 hour weeks.  After a few months the team grew to 4 people and even two years on the core team is still only 6 strong.  The team is a mix of experienced bar staff and total / relative novices to the pub trade.  What is important to work there is dedication, loyalty, the ability to learn about the keeping and serving of beer as well the core ability to be able to get on with people whatever their walk of life.  All the staff are fully cellar trained and trusted to manage both the condition and selection of beers on a day to day basis.

P1080665_SMALLAs Hugh says “The door has a squeak for a reason, its lets the staff know somebody needs to be acknowledged or served”, and things are kept simple.  Food is limited to a range of locally produced pies, there is live music every Sunday afternoon and plenty of good beer is ready to be drank in the cellar.

The music has become a key offering on the weekend, with the pub being one of the few in the area to offer Sunday afternoon gigs.  Starting in March 2013, both Hugh and Ruth were fans of live music and a monthly performance started the ball rolling, however soon this turned into a weekly event.  The first band was Belt of the Celts and good bands return on a regular basis.  With the pub gaining a reputation of having musically appreciative crowd, new bands are regularly found on the bill.

The main thing they are known for is the beer however, the range of ales being picked to provide a variety of styles, strengths and colours, the 6 pumps allowing this selection.  The customers of the pub know a good ale and their favourites are rolled into the cellar on a regular basis.  However it is also known for having at least one strong beer on most of the time ranging from 6% to 10%.  This started off as a trial of Kirkstall Contemplation, but sold out quickly and became a regular feature of the bar, one of the few places in the area where this is beers of this strength are a fixture of the beer range.

Looking back over the last two years, Hugh is humbled and amazed at how well the business has done and is thankful at how it has been embraced by locals and drinkers further afield alike.  This was recognised in 2014 with both Society for the Preservation of Beer in Wood and local CAMRA awards being presented.  Word of mouth has brought the pub its success, along with the dedicated team of staff and the all important customers.

Hugh, Ruth and team aim to keep improving the pub with a refurbishment maintaining the original period features in the back room continuing into the main bar area after the opening up of the two rooms earlier this year.  And with guest rooms planned for the future, things are not standing still at the Cross Keys, a lot like the range of beers they will continue to offer.

Last week in parliament, the crucial vote on whether pub companies with more than 500 pubs and at least one tenanted or leased site would be forced to offer a Market Rent Only (MRO) option, took place.  As it stands tied pubs are forced to buy beer at inflated prices from the pub company as well as paying a ground rent which is often above the true worth of the property.  The beer price inflation can be startling which is why it is called the “wet rent”, the ground rent being the “dry rent”

As an example (as told to me by a 20+ year veteran of the trade), a good session ale direct from the brewer will cost about £60 for an “9” (or 72 pints), of which a landlord expect to sell 62 pints once pull through wastage is accounted for over a few sessions.  When this is distributed via SIBA (Society of Independent Brewers), the costs increases to £70 to cover their costs, not an extortionate amount for a convenient centralised system.  This is what the pub companies buy at, but when it is sold to their tied tenants, the cost has jumped to £120, so now instead of paying about 97p per pint (pre taxes and costs), tied tenants now pay about £1.93.

When you sell 1000 pints a week, £970 (97p per pint difference) per week or £48,500 per year makes a difference between struggling to make a profit or paying yourself the minimum wage for the long hours you pull behind the bar, computer keyboard and in the cellar.   If you are a couple then you can take £15,000 per year each out of this and start planning for your life after the pub trade when you have to pay for your accommodation and utilities as an individual.  It also means that you could employ staff to give you a break during the week with the remainder.

The amendment to the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill, New Clause 2 as this is catchily known as in Parliamentary terms (called NC2 from here on) was passed by 284-269 votes, despite a last minute attempt by Jo Swinson, Minister for Employment Relations and Consumer Affairs to introduce an change which would add a delay of 2 years whilst a “rigorous” review was done into whether the clause was needed, with her adding that the MRO would only be implemented if the review finds tenants are not sufficiently protected by the current system.

If the pub companies were going to clean up their act, they would have done it in the last 6 years, another 2 years will make no difference and the majority of MP’s agreed with this view and voted for introduction of the clause into law as soon as legislature allows.  So what does the change mean.

First of all, total freedom to pick your own beer is not included.  The pub company can mandate a choice of brands which can be sold in their pubs, however tenants can buy these beers from any supplier to get the best price if the pub company is strongly tied to brewery (eg : Greene King Inns).  This could be of course be offset by threats from the brewery that the supplier will be cut from their distribution chain if they supply the pubs in the breweries chain.  This applies even if the tenant has an MRO agreement.

The pub company must offer an MRO option at the following times, new lease or tenancy contract; agreement renewal, rent review; five years after last rent review.  The pre-condition of this is a) when the large pub-owning business gives notice of, or imposes, a significant increase in the price at which it supplies products, goods or services b) upon an event outside of the tenant’s control, and unpredicted at the time of the previous rent review, that impacts significantly on the tenant’s ability to trade c) when a pubs ownership changes hands.

The tenant must give notice of intention to pursue an MRO and a period of 21 days of internal negotiation is needed before they take this into a 90 day consultation period where a mutually agreed independent assessor, of which the costs are split 50/50, can investigate the commercial situation.  After 90 days he can submit a fair MRO rent, the tenant can then pay no more rent than submitted and existing ties are no longer valid.  There is a clause that says pub companies cannot discriminate against MRO agreement tenants.

So it gives the tenant a fair deal on paper, but like before, pub companies will find a way around this, they did with Beer Orders 1989 and I’ll bet you a tenner its not the last we see of the pubco dirty tricks.


Pubpaper 784 – The real reason for the local pub!

Posted: 9th November 2014 by santobugtio in Pub Paper, Writing

The local pub is important, along with the local shop, chippie, post office and takeaway, it’s what differentiates a housing estate from a village.  There are places where people can meet and interact as part of day to day life, they give people a reason to stay in the local area and the create networks of contacts and friends over time.   How many times have you heard someone who lives on one of these faceless new mega estates that they don’t even know their neighbours as they just “reside” there, not “live” there.

Nothing demonstrates this more than Bonfire Night at my local pub The Cock and Bottle, Southowram.  It’s become a bit of a tradition now for the Cawood family (who own the pub) and the staff to put on a bonfire, fireworks, pie and peas and all the trimmings you’d expect from a fireworks night.   The pub car park and pub itself is full with people, some of which are regulars, some of which only come once or twice a year for special events such as this and they put on a great show.

But the fireworks are not the most important bit of the night in my opinion, they may take all of the glory, but it is the entire village getting together for an occasion we should be focusing on.   My youngest daughter does not like fireworks, the noise scares her rotten, and I’m not particularly bothered about watching them, so I normally end up taking her inside the pub while the night sky is being lit up and my eldest girl and wife stay outside to watch.

The value of nights like this show when seen in the family dynamic, my eldest went off with one of her best friends to watch the bonfire, my youngest was playing in the back room of the pub with her best friend from school.   Friends from the village we haven’t spoken to for a while were caught up with, all of this on a basic level strengthens the backbone of the village.  Where else would you within a couple of hours arrange to get your boiler serviced, provisionally plan to do some band photos, whilst talking to multiple other people and having good quality family time.

If you go a a big display, its “wham bam thank you maam”, as soon as the fireworks have ended everyone goes home.  Here people stayed about after the festivities, chatting and drinking, having a good time.   We stayed another hour or so after everything had finished, other groups stayed on a lot longer.  You saw people drifting between conversations within the pub throughout the night, people with mutual acquaintances joining in conversation creating new links, social circles being crossed over.

We all have multiple social circles where we live and most of the time we see them in isolation, just off the top of my head, we as a family have “friends from the kids dancing lessons”, “playground friends from my daughter’s primary school”, “cricket club friends”, “people who I’ve worked with on charity events” and “local trades people who I’ve employed / done work for”.  If I sit down and think about it there will be many more.  There is limited crossover most of the time, but where you do get blur these circles new business dealings and personal relationships form.

This needs a melting pot to soften these social circles.   When you have local pub owned by local people who used to be regulars at the pub and know a lot of the village through its previous incarnation, it breeds loyalty and when you give back to the community with events like this, any success is well deserved.   Its not just about a bumper night behind the bar on the night, but encouraging regular return visits outside of such event, planting the idea in peoples heads that instead of driving out to the pub, why not walk down to the local.

Such custom is the lifeblood of village local pubs and wherever they are they deserve our support, the more custom they get the more they can afford to put things on for the community, because if they can’t pay the bills, the fireworks aren’t going to happen.