Tuesday, 30 March 2021

House beers - revisited

Back in 2008, I wrote a post titled, “House Beers.”  It was one of the very first articles I posted on this blog but after viewing a thread, on the Beer Socials Whats App group I belong to, I felt inclined to re-post my 13-year-old piece, as the points raised seem just as relevant today, then they were back then.

News broke, that come pub re-opening, a well-known local free house will be offering not just one, but two “house beers.” This seemed to spark much excitement, but not from my direction, so before going any further, what exactly is a “house beer?” 

The answer is it is a beer that is branded as being exclusive to the pub in question. It may be named after the pub itself, the landlord or a feature of local interest, but if the publicity and spin behind the beer is to be believed, the beers is produced exclusively for the pub. But is it?

The term “house beer” covers a multitude of sins, ranging from a beer brewed to a certain recipe and then made available to any pub interested in taking it, through to a beer that is genuinely brewed specifically for a particular pub. So far so good, but if we discard the first “mass circulation” house beer type, and concentrate on the accepted use of the term, it becomes self-evident that it would need a combination of a very small micro-brewery and a pub with a very large turnover to make the brewing of a genuine “house beer” worthwhile.

The smallest sized plant normally chosen by micro-brewers is five barrels (180 gallons), which amounts to an awful lot of beer for any pub to shift in one go! Admittedly the beer can be stored for a while, but it is likely to change in character during the storage period, which is why I am certain that very few so-called “house beers” are the genuine article.

I have learnt from years of experience that many so called “house beers” do not tick the “exclusivity box,” and neither do they meet the “carefully crafted pint of beer, brewed to the highest standards, from the highest quality ingredients,” criteria either.

This is especially true when a brewery chooses to mix two or three different beers, and then pass them off as a “house beer”. This is blending rather than brewing, and whilst these beers might be good for the landlord’s ego, they do the cause of the small independent brewer no good at all.

Even worse than pubs selling brewery mixes, are pubs that sell a brewer’s bog-standard beer under their own name. Over the years I have come across several examples of this form of deception, and whilst its prevalence is nowhere near as wide as it once was, I still think it is dishonest.

Many years ago, when I was much more of CAMRA zealot than I am today, I annoyed the owner of a local free house, by asking too many questions about the beer the pub was calling “Our Own”. “Where does the beer come from?” I inquired. “Is it a local brew, or do you bring it in from elsewhere?”

All these questions were met with a stony silence so, perhaps rather foolishly, I then asked mine host if he brewed the beer “out the back.” I knew full well that he didn’t as, back then, word would soon have got around that the pub in question had started brewing it own beer.

Obviously rattled, the landlord told me, in no uncertain terms, that the beer was “Our Own” and if I couldn’t accept that then I should take my custom elsewhere. As I was with work colleagues at the time, I ignored this suggestion and settled for a pint of Fullers London Pride instead. I like to know what I am drinking, so had to chuckle when I later discovered that the cantankerous old landlord had been prosecuted, by Trading Standards,  for passing off Fremlin’s Bitter as his own brew. Talk about karma!

My message to landlords, and also to micro-brewers, remains the same as it was 13 years ago. I appreciate that times are hard and that you need to drum up sales and increase trade. However, please don’t do it in such a way that deceives the drinking public, and which in the end does your reputation no good at all.

By all means offer a genuine “house beer”, but please don’t try and insult our intelligence, or our taste buds, with half-measures or out and out fakes. Better still, do you really think drinkers will travel to your pub for the sole purpose of sampling your “house beer?”

I remain unconvinced, especially as when I come across a beer I haven’t seen before, I like to give it a try. I won’t be pleased if I discover that what I have been drinking, is just a re-badged beer, or a blend of two or more different brews. Equally, if I do spot a pump clip advertising what purports to be a beer brewed specially for the pub itself, I am likely to give it a wide birth.  

Am I being snobbish? Probably yes, fussy too, and downright picky, but I remember the days of “badge brewing” when the likes of Archers and Cottage Brewery were churning out a never-ending number of allegedly different beers, all based on a small handful of basic recipes. 

The beer tickers might have been delighted, but those of us who could see through this, and view it for what it was, were less than impressed. Personally, I can’t see it catching on again, but who knows?

Competition Time (no prizes).

First, the attractive building in the third photo down, is a former West Kent pub. Not only that, it was THE pub where I had the "discussion," mentioned in the post above, about "Own Ale." Can anyone name it?

Second, can anyone name the pioneering establishment which served "Own Ale," back in the early 1970's, thereby reviving the practice of pubs brewing their own beer? This was at a time when there were only four, home-brewpubs left in the country.


Ian Worden said...

Not sure about the first question but the second is the Miners Arms in Priddy, Somerset. I think you could only have a beer there with a meal, but I 'cheated' by having a pint at the 1983 GBBF in Birmingham.

Paul Bailey said...

Your answer to the second question is correct Ian, and you are also right with regard to the requirement for a meal. Now where have we heard this recently?

Despite its name, the Miner’s was a restaurant, rather than a pub, but continuing in this vein, can anyone name the enterprising licensee whose idea it was to brew beer there, or describe his rather unusual, former profession?

John Lamb said...

Paul Leyton, who had one time in his career designed space rockets,when he was at the Miners he farnmed snails in a disused swimming pool and sold them as 'mendip wall fish' I can recall that the beer,although it was not particularly strong,was sold in small nip bottles

David Harrison said...

Paul: the guv'nor was Paul Leighton, who was a rocket scientist, everyone's favourite expert.

I,too have my doubts about House Beers,though I make an exception in the handful of Mid Kent pubs that stock Goacher's Special House ale. I know that it started out as a blend of Original and Fine Light, but it's a bona fide beer now, and, providing there's enough trade to support it, a fine traditional drop.

electricpics said...

With one exception, all of the house beers I’ve come across have been low quality cheap and nasty bitters brewed in the knowledge that the stuff wouldn’t reflect on the brewery concerned, or beers rebadged without the knowledge of the brewer. Neither ever made much sense to me, and the rebadges usually came back to bite the pubs concerned. The only one I’m aware of and will happily sup is Wylam Writer’s Block in Newcastle’s Broad Chare. It’s a unique blend that works and is genuinely cask conditioned which makes a difference as it’s better than just a mix of finished beer.

Paul Bailey said...

Congratulations John and David, you are both right about Paul Leyton and his job as a rocket engineer. As you rightly say David, "Everyone's favourite expert."

I'd forgotten about the snails, but that isn't a bad thing. I tried them once, and whilst they weren't as off-putting as some of the things placed in front of me in Japan, they're not exactly a dish I'd care to try again!

I'm still waiting for somoen to answer the first quest, but the identity of that former pub, does require some specialised local knowledge.

electricpics said...

The pub, Brewers Arms, Lewes. Thank Google for that. Own Ale is from my head as I used to have a bottle from the Miners Arms.

PetesQuiz said...

Interesting piece...something I'd not really considered before.

One of my favourite canalside pubs (certainly the one I've photographed most!) is the Navigation Inn at Lapworth. In recent years they have had a 'special' beer on offer called Lapworth Gold which is brewed by Byatts, a small brewery in Coventry - https://www.byattsbrewery.co.uk/ However, there is no mention of this beer on their website!

Every time I've had a pint (or three), Lapworth Gold has been very good. It's a fruity, quaffable pint that I always enjoy.

Is it a 'special' or is it a re-badged standard? I don't know, but here it seems to work for the pub.

Paul Bailey said...

David, it’s good to know that the Goacher’s “House Ale” is now a proper beer. They used to supply it to the Halfway House at Brenchley, which strangely enough is the pub whose decision to go for two new “House Beers,” is the story which sparked this article.

To be fair to the HWH, the brewer’s name is shown on the pump clips. There are two different brewers involved as well, so full marks to the pub for being upfront about it.

You weren’t paying attention, electricpics. I said the third photo down, rather than the first one; although that rather ornate terracotta plaque is indeed the Brewer’s Arms in Lewes. I’m not sure Google will assist much with the identity and location of the mystery, former pub, so if I mention the word “Hamptons” as a clue (no double entendres intended), that might help.

Pete, good to know you’ve found a house beer you find enjoyable. The concept does sometimes work, especially where the landlord and the brewery have done their homework. It’s the laziness of some licensees that annoys me – the worst example I know being a pub that tried passing off Courage Best as its house beer!

Greengrass said...

Its the Artichoke, I think.

Paul Bailey said...

Well done Greengrass, you are correct. A lovely old pub, that sadly closed in 2003. There were all sorts of rumours surrounding the reasons for its closure, but they seem to revolve around the property being worth more as a private dwelling, than as a pub.

I mentioned it briefly, in this post from 2017. https://baileysbeerblog.blogspot.com/2017/08/a-fine-english-summers-day.html

Rob Sterowski said...

You are of course right that house beers are generally not brewed to a special recipe for each individual pub. However, were that the case, five barrels is only twenty firkins, which is not a ridiculous amount for a pub to go through. Suppose they sell a decent volume of it (otherwise what is the point of a house beer?), say three firkins a week, it’ll only take six weeks to sell a complete gyle.

Ironically enough Greene King brew a badge beer for their managed pubs which I think is much nicer than their flagship IPA. It is only 3.8% and hardly exciting, but it’s a pleasant enough drink.

Greengrass said...

Having guessed the Artichoke as the pub in your photo above, I am now trying to place the cyclists touring plaque. Judging by the brickwork it looks quite an old pub.

Paul Bailey said...

Greengrass, I've been tying to think of a suitable cryptic clue but, like the Artichoke, the name of the pub with the CTC plaque is rather a rare one.

The pub is in a small village, to the west of Tunbridge Wells. It is the sole surviving pub in a village, that also has its own station, a mile and a quarter away, in a very rural location.

The pub itself, is one of the few Harvey's tied houses in the area, and is well worth a visit, especially in winter, when XXXX Old Ale is normally available.

greengrass said...

The Brecknock Arms. I worked at Bells Yew Green converting an oast house & it was a toss up between The Elephants Head & The Brecknock. Both excellent pubs back in 80s

Paul Bailey said...

Not the Brecknock, I'm afraid, Greengrass. The pub in question is in Kent, but only just, and the CTC plaque is on the wall of a brick out-building, facing onto the car park.

It is a Harvey's tied house, and the name is an unusual one; although quite appropriate for a pub. Think of a hymn, with the verse “whence the healing stream doth flow.”

Good luck!

Greengrass said...

The Fountain, I have negotiated their dangerous steps many times. The Crown up the road was considered to be a better pub but sadly like many others now closed.

Paul Bailey said...

Correct Greengrass, although like other observers of these things, I’m not sure quite what status (if any), displaying a CTC plaque conferred upon a pub.

Those steps at the Fountain are certainly a hazard, especially if you’ve consumed slightly too much of the pub’s excellent Harvey’s.

Regrettably I never set foot inside the Crown. It looks a far larger pub than the Fountain, but it’s a shame it ended up as a private house.

A friend of mine grew up in Cowden, and told me that, as well as the two pubs, the village had its own school, two shops (general store plus butcher) and a garage. Now it’s little more than just another upmarket commuter village.

Greengrass said...

Don't forget the blacksmiths shop run by a great character called Ron. His daughter Lisa ran the Kentish Horse not so long ago. One of the best pubs in the area before lockdown for Harvey's & Larkins.

Paul Bailey said...

Barm, your figures do demonstrate the viability of a custom brewed house beer, and I agree that three firkins a week isn't that much beer for a decent pub to get through.

Perhaps it is just the purist/anti-ticker streak that has brought me out against the concept, but if it genuinely pulls in the punters, then I can see the attraction for certain pubs.

I haven't come across the Greene King house beer, though.

Paul Bailey said...

Greengrass, I agree that the Kentish Horse is yet another good pub, in that rich triangle of decent boozers to the west of Tunbridge Wells.

The only gripe I have with the place is the difficulty in getting served, due to all the locals sat at the bar.