I’m not expecting sympathy, but I shall seek some anyway. This last week I have spent several afternoons wandering the streets of sunny Camden, making visits to myriad bars. My purpose was entirely work related as I wanted to research how much freedom bars have in choosing the beers they sell and whether local craft beers would be on their list. I managed to make my way around 24 hostelries in total and, other than tasting one beer under duress, I didn’t touch a drop. This sad fact is my opening gambit to at least prepare the ground for a snifter of sympathy.
You may be surprised to learn that about half of the pubs in Britain are tied, usually through a lease or tenancy, to either a brewing company or a pub chain. Another thirty percent are also part of a group but are managed rather than leased. Just one in five can be deemed a ‘free house’. These statistics matter greatly to the potential brewer (me) because it means that to get your (my) beer into 80% of the UK’s pubs you need a deal with a corporate entity and that ain’t very likely to happen! (Get those sympathy tokens ready.)
Some of the bars I entered would be considered pretty fu**ing hip and trendy and you might at first expect that they would be owned by some cool dude who decides exactly which fresh and tasty local craft beers get to appear in his joint. Sadly, this was rarely the case. For example, the shortest shrift I got anywhere was in Lock 17 who said “we’re not allowed to talk to anyone about the beers we sell”. Quite amazing for a bar. In Barfly I was told (by a very friendly young lady) “people don’t want to try anything new unless it’s cheap”. (Insert first sympathy token here.)
However, possibly my greatest disappointment was the Hawley Arms, surely one of the most loved bars in London. The chap there was extremely helpful and kind but I was flabbergasted to discover that they are owned by Greene King (GK) and have pretty much no sway over the beers they sell. Worse, the beer I tasted was called ‘Noble’, a craft beer made by GK. This is significant dear reader because if one of the hippest bars in Camden is not only owned by a huge company like GK, but also sell a (frankly rather nice) craft beer made by same, well, what chance do I have? (The more charitable of you may wish to consider adding two sympathy tokens here.)
Now, if you have read this far with all of your sympathy tokens still intact then allow me to break your duck. Let us consider all of the above sorry tales as a mere backdrop and imagine if you will the scene. A fifty year old bloke with no experience in brewing or the licensed trade walks into an achingly hip bar in Camden, sporting (oh, the shame)…a clipboard and pen. Repeat until funny. It only dawned on me later how naff I must have looked and wished that I’d worn a t-shirt with ‘Twat’ on it, so that they might at least think it was all an act of self-ridicule. Surely some morsel of your sympathy is merited?
So, the results of the Camden jury are in. I took note of every beer on sale in all 24 bars, established their ownership, enquired after their freedom to choose what they sold and also assessed whether they’d buy local craft beers where possible. Each bar was marked for ‘freedom’ (none, some, loads) and ‘taste’ (ditto). Only one scored a double ‘loads’ (the Black Heart) and five scored a double nil. There was a free house with nil taste (“people want Fosters cos it’s cheap init”), one with nil freedom but excellent taste (such a waste) and fourteen others in-between. A weird one was Dublin Castle – a free house, with an envious reputation for live music, that has been ordering all of its beers through Scottish & Newcastle for 35 years. That’s just wrong! In the end I’d found one bar that might, just might, buy my beers, seven that at least wouldn’t eject me from the premises immediately and 16 that probably would. (Any remaining tokens may be donated here.)
There’s good news too. Bars that did stock local craft beers (especially Camden Hell’s Lager) told me that it flew off the taps – it never rains but it pours (beer joke). Indeed, the Black Heart were selling 30 kegs a week of Hell’s Lager alone (a whopping 2,640 pints). They also told me that in their view there’s still room for more craft breweries in London, but making great beer isn’t enough: necessary but not sufficient. You’ve also got to have knockout branding and slick marketing. Combine those and (maybe) you’re laughing. (No, you can’t have your tokens back!)
My conclusion then is that this project is still alive and at least twitching if not kicking. I’ve learned loads about the licensed trade, its limitations, the wicked web of distribution and how you can conquer all of that with fantabulous beers and brand. Camden Town brewery are the shining example and if I want to emulate them then I can’t do it in my home Borough. I need to find somewhere where I can do a ‘Camden’ that isn’t Camden.
Before I leave you, there was one other patch of blue sky that put a smile on my face. While reading through Sophie Atherton’s blog ‘A FemAle View’ (curse those beer puns), I discovered a link to a group calling themselves ‘CAMRGB’ or Campaign for Really Good Beer. This renegade outfit somewhat cocks a snoop at CAMRA’s insistence that the only really good beer is real ale and everything else is tasteless, fizzy, chemical-infused rubbish. Finding this website and sharing well-aligned philosophies with the chap in charge was a revelation and an absolute turbo boost to my weakening enthusiasm. I am now officially signed up as member 708 and fully prepared to do my duty in this noble cause. Which reminds me, that Noble beer was annoyingly good.
Oh, one other thing, I’ve been diving head first into social media recently, both to promote my book (sales now approaching double figures, woo hoo!) and to build my network in the world of beer. Among the many channels I’ve explored, the most important by far has been my inauguration into Twitter. I am not at all fond of tweeting and even less fond of being tweeted at, but I can’t deny its value as a means of social mediation. I’m currently following 43 and being followed by 5, two of whom are my mate Gordon. Well, it’s a start.
- In conversation with… Daniel Sylvester and Greg Wells, founders of the London Craft Beer Festival (speakthinkblog.speakmedia.co.uk)