Friday 30 September 2022

Farewell the Beer Seller

A few weeks ago, I mentioned that a well-known and well-regarded Tonbridge free house, had announced its sudden closure. This decision, whilst obviously known to the pub’s owners, came as something of a shock to local drinkers, and local townsfolk too. It might even have come as a surprise to the staff as well, although some at least may have had an inkling as to what was about to happen.

The pub/bar in question is the Beer Seller, a well-stocked free house on Tonbridge High Street, offering gravity dispensed, cask beer, alongside traditional cider, and several craft offerings. Occupying the former premises of John Angell, in Tonbridge High Street, the Beer Seller opened its doors to an eager public, in December 2018, and quickly became a welcome addition to the town’s beer scene.

The people behind the Beer Seller, were also the owners of the Halfway House in Brenchley, a thriving, and long-established free house, on the back road between the villages of Brenchley and Horsmonden. The approach they took with their new outlet, was to try and replicate the rural feel of their existing country pub, within a town centre setting. I’m not sure they achieved this aim with any real degree of success, as the inter-war appearance of John Angell’s premises, was transformed into a rustic-looking barn, by means of a lower false ceiling, constructed out of corrugated iron sheeting, along with a new stone-flagged floor. 

It all looked very kitsch, and one local licensee, who shall remain nameless, nicknamed it “Bethlehem.” Unfortunately, that name did find favour, in a light-hearted sort of way, with several members of the local CAMRA branch! It's worth noting, that John Angell Jeweller & Goldsmith was an old family business, which was established in 1830. It ceased trading mid-way through 2017, and as a mark of respect to the building’s long heritage, the old name was left up above the door. I would have preferred the new owners to have tried to preserve something of the internal heritage as well, such as the counter and some of the jewellery display cabinets, rather than giving the place such a dramatic transformation, but that’s just me!

The new owners followed the example of their existing pub, by offering gravity dispensed cask beers, straight from casks, housed houses in a specially constructed, chilled cellar room, just behind the serving area. Here a “beer wall” arrangement allowed the cask beers to be via taps, which protruded through the wall. Other taps, allowed lagers, ciders, and craft keg beers to be served from the same location.

Also, in common with the Halfway House, the philosophy was to keep things local as much as possible, sourcing cask ales, ciders and other drinks from producers based in Kent or Sussex. Cellar Head, Gadd’s, Goacher’s, Long Man and Tonbridge supplied the core range of beers, alongside classic session beer, Adnam’s Southwold. These were complemented by guest ales, again sourced locally, wherever possible. Draught lagers were also local brewed, with Helles Belles from Westerham Brewery and Curious Brew from Ashford, amongst the regulars.

In addition to the bar, were a couple of upstairs meeting rooms, plus a shop, also on the first floor, where customers could purchase a selection of bottled beers, ciders, wines, and spirits. The upstairs rooms provided a welcome meeting space for local organisations and societies, including Tonbridge Beer & Wine Makers, plus West Kent CAMRA branch. On the minus side, and possibly a factor in the Beer Seller’s long-term viability, was the absence of food, although customers were encouraged to order items such as pizza, and other street food items, from a small list of local suppliers.

 I wouldn’t say I was much of a regular at the pub, although it was always a handy and welcoming place to pop in for a quick pint, particularly given its prominent location on Tonbridge High Street. It was only the only pub locally to regularly stock Goacher’s Gold Star, a well-hopped, draught pale ale, brewed by the oldest of Kent’s small, independent brewers. Despite its relatively high 5.1% abv, Gold Star is dangerously drinkable, and the fact it will no longer be available in the town, is a sad loss.

As is the loss of the pub of course, not just for local drinkers, but for the owners of the business and their loyal staff, all of whom worked hard to make the Beer Seller a friendly and inviting place to drink, in the town. The closure was announced on the Beer Seller’s Facebook page and is reproduced above. There was some speculation concerning the lack of a “rent holiday” during the Covid lock downs, and whilst this does tie in with the second paragraph of the pub’s statement, it is just hear say, at this stage.

Whether a new buyer can be found for the business, or whether someone different wants to take the place on, is also pure conjecture. I suspect neither will happen, given the economic straits the country finds itself in, and unfortunately, I also suspect that the closure of this pleasant, quirky and much-loved establishment will not be the last within the hospitality trade.

Wednesday 28 September 2022

Swimming against the tide?

Cask ale, or “real ale” as the Campaign for Real Ale likes to call it, has been in the news recently, but for all the wrong reasons. Even before the pandemic sales of the type of beer which CAMRA describes as “the pinnacle of the brewer’s art,” were in steady decline. Now, cask sales seem in a terminal tailspin, after the effects of various Covid-lockdowns, the largest, and most serious conflict in Europe, since World War II, plus a tanking economy.

The latter of course, is thanks to a Tory administrations that surely ranks amongst the most inept in living memory, after all, what sane government would offer tax cuts for the super-rich, that are funded by a massive increase in borrowing? All this comes on top of a damaging, ultra-hard Brexit, that has led to a massive fall-off in trade with our nearest neighbours, who make up the world’s largest trading block. With interest rates set to rise, in a forlorn attempt to reel in the rapidly soaring rate of inflation, consumers and businesses alike are really feeling the pinch, and I haven’t even mentioned the price of energy, which has reached astronomical levels. 

The end result, less disposable income, even for those who, not that long ago, could describe themselves as “comfortably well-off.” With less money to spend, eating out and even the odd pint or two down the local, are pleasures which are becoming less affordable for many, and just distant memories for others. Viewed against this backdrop and coupled with the poor keeping properties of cask ale, it’s small wonder that many pubs are either cutting back on the range of cask beers stocked or, even dropping “real ale” altogether.

The fall-off in cask sales has another underlying issue, which is partly due to the image of the beer itself, but more importantly, that of those who drink it. You see, despite decades of campaigning and various promotions from CAMRA, all with the lofty aim of trying to persuade drinkers of cask’s undoubted merits, the fact remains that its core audience consists largely of men (93%), age over 50 (71%). This market has been described as “male, pale and stale,” rather unfairly, in my view, but probably accurate if the statistics are believed.

So, for all those amongst us who appreciate and enjoy cask, what’s to be done about this image problem? Enter, stage left, a new marketing campaign, launched last week, with the express aim of modernising cask ale’s image, and making the drink more attractive to younger drinkers. “Drink Fresh Beer” is headed by Katie Wiles from CAMRA and Neil Walker from the Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA). Their campaign plans to raise cask’s profile by making it the modern and more relevant choice at the bar and intends to achieve this by highlighting the things that make cask special.

These attributes include being fresh, artisan, handmade by skilled brewers and offering a diverse range of flavours and styles, and to back up their message, Drink Fresh Beer has produced a series of “eye-catching” visuals to help cask compete on the bar. New cylindrical hand pulls, tulip glassware, table talkers, posters, beer mats and staff t-shirts, will push the message at the bar, whilst social and cross-media promotions will aim to capture the attention of consumers before they step through the pub door. A scannable pump clip will help beer drinkers learn more about their chosen beer, how far it has travelled to the pub and when the cask was freshly tapped.  

Speaking last week, at the campaign launch, Katie Wiles said: “The qualities that make cask beer special, are qualities that young consumers really care about when they are making purchasing decisions. The challenge has been how to convey these qualities without stepping on the toes of “craft beer” or using alienating jargon - such as fermentation, conditioning, or yeast.”

She went on to say that “The vibrant visuals and tone of this campaign help get this across, and that by actually re-designing the look and feel of cask beer in the pub - from the hand pulls to the glassware - we have a really good shot at changing consumer behaviour.”

Neil Walker added: “This campaign isn’t just about dressing up a few hand pulls – we’re looking to connect the dots across the industry, and completely change the public’s perception about cask beer. This isn’t just an “old man’s drink” hidden in a dark corner of the bar - cask is the pinnacle of brewing, the freshest, most handcrafted product on the bar.”

“We want to tell this story not just in pubs, but also by creating an enhanced digital experience that allows drinkers in a variety of venues to learn more about their drink by watching interviews with brewers, discovering where the beer was brewed, or when the beer was freshly tapped.”

To ensure the quality of beer across the venues involved, pubs participating in the campaign will be asked to sign up to the “Fresh Beer Promise.” Alongside displaying campaign materials at the POS in their pub, they will commit to stocking at least two hand pulls with a rotating third cask on tap and ensure a high standard of freshness by promptly replacing barrels and take part in initiatives to improve quality. The activity would be supported outside of the pub with a dedicated PR, social media, and advertorial campaign to keep cask beer at the forefront of the consumer’s mind inside of the pub and out. It all sounds good on paper, but how will these laudable aims actually be implemented, monitored maintained and, is necessary, enforced? 

More to the point, I can’t help thinking it will take a lot more than a few fancy glasses, hand-pull handles, paper trinkets, electronic gimmickry, plus an unashamed, and almost cringeworthy attempt to “get on down with the kids,” to turn around decades of decline in cask ale’s fortunes. I don’t want to knock the effort that has gone into the Drink Fresh campaign, but it’s almost as though the people behind it have tried too hard. The whole thing smacks of focus groups, consumer surveys, coupled with the rather naive belief that “in one’s face” promotions can change not just drinkers’ perceptions, but the way they think and behave.

Fresh is obviously best, but a freshly tapped cask of a bland and mediocre beer, isn’t going to win many converts, especially when up against a fresh keg of well-crafted craft – if you’ll excuse the pun. The unfortunate truth is that many of the accolades attributed to cask apply equally to craft, a style of beer that is actually modern, and one much more likely to appeal to and attract younger drinkers.

Despite these observations, I wish this latest attempt to revive cask’s fortunes, well and will be keeping a close eye on the roll-out of the “Fresh Beer Promise” along with the type of pubs that will be signing up to it. However, set against the deep economic gloom the nation finds itself facing, is this really the right time for a campaign such as this?