Pubpaper 838 – Blandness v Choice in Pubs

Posted: 10th January 2016 by santobugtio in Pub Paper, Writing

A while ago I wrote about the buyout and merger between Green King Inns and Spirit Inns, who operate chains such as Chef and Brewer.   I said at the time once plans for how the two pub operators would be integrated were finalised, you’d see the choice of beer reduced.   I’ve got experience of chains from both sides of the fence, mainly from eating out.  The Greene King owned “family pub chain” Hungry Horse and the Spirits “Gastropub chain” Chef and Brewer.

The drinks range at Hungry Horse is pretty dire, when you resort to drinking Newcastle Brown from the drinks fridge, you know this.  The bar is full of big brand lagers, generic cider, keg dispensed smoothflow ales, the obligatory Guinness and poor excuses for cask ales from the Greene King estate.    Looking at the Chef and Brewer chain, it was a better picture.  Of course you have the full range of big brands lagers plus a decent premium European beer, but at least you got a choice of 3 real ales, brands most of us would consider mainstream ales with the addition of beers from Leeds Brewery and other local brewers.  

Greene King now say Greene King IPA (GK IPA)  is now being sold in 90% of the former Spirit operated pubs.   This is not a good thing, it is frankly one of the worst beers I’ve ever tasted (and I know people reading this will sit on both side of the fence regarding GK IPA), to say it is bland and uninteresting is being polite.   The fact that it is the biggest selling “British Ale” in China and was chosen to be drunk in a media event by our PM and the Chinese premier on a recent visit is even more depressing.  We have 10,000+ beers brewed in the UK to choose from, why choose the lowest common denominator.

Most of us would agree that the Chef and Brewer ale selections such as Black Sheep, Bombardier, Hobgoblin or Everard Tiger are not the best ales in the world, but at least gives us some stimulus for the taste buds.    But looking at the latest beers lists you see a lot of Greene King brands creeping onto the list, Abbot Ale and Old Speckled Hen on top of GK IPA.  On top of this you see Sharps Doombar, the mainstream ale from MolsonCoors, a beer not much better than GK IPA (I’ve given this beer many chances to impress and never had a good pint of it).  

This is exactly why big pub operators such as Greene King buy out other pub chains, it gives them a wider area of distribution for their main brands, where volume can give a massive profit margin for their brewing arms and distribution partners..  I’m sure that the beer is not being sold cheap because it is direct from the brewer, very much akin to the mega operators like Enterprise and Punch Taverns who can buy barrels by the million from big brewers for volume discount and then sell to pubs for well above market wholesale rate.

I see the pub market now moving into a number of camps, you have the small independent pubs or small chains where freedom of choice is encouraged and customers are offered a rotating range of good interesting real ales as well as a house ale or two.  On the extreme of this you have the pubs who’s ethos is to offer a wide range of constantly changing ale without a nod to the mainstream, either as cask only or cask and keg.  On the other side you have these massive generic chains who’s purpose from head office point of view is to shift as much core brand beer and ale as much as possible,or in the case of dry led pubs, the food being more important due to higher profit margins than beer.

One pub company has 3 tiers for landlords regarding real ale, the first being a selection from handful or ales, if you achieve certain sales targets you can get access to a wider list of ales (20-30 in number and generally from large and medium sized UK brewers), if you can achieve higher sales targets, only then are you allowed full access to the SIBA list where you can choose beers from any SIBA (Society of Independent Brewers) member.    How you are to build up a bank of real ale regulars with a limited choice is a hard one, enough to get onto the next tier of choice….and you wonder why a lot of bland ales sell so much?