Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - February 2014

* A Warm, Brown Embrace *

Samuel Smith’s idiosyncratic approach adds welcome variety to the pub scene

OVER THE YEARS, Samuel Smith’s brewery of Tadcaster in Yorkshire have invested heavily in acquiring a number of high-profile pubs in Greater London. This gave rise to a surprising article in the “Daily Telegraph” last autumn in which the author gave lavish praise to the general ambiance of their pubs and referred to their “warm, brown embrace”. They are certainly a brewery intent on ploughing an individual furrow and you can understand what he meant.

By and large, Sam’s pubs are still proper, traditional boozers, where beer is to the fore, drink and chat predominate, banter passes round the room and TV football and piped music are conspicuous by their absence. At their best they can be busy and boisterous in a way that many Holt’s pubs once were, but which is increasingly rarely seen nowadays. They seem to have been largely immune from the wave of closures that has blighted the pub industry in recent years.

Sam’s are also respectful custodians of their pub estate, rarely carrying out insensitive knock-throughs, and indeed a few years back they actually reinstated some internal walls when refurbishing the Boar’s Head on Stockport Market Place. The Blue Bell in Levenshulme, voted as the local CAMRA Pub of the Month in June last year, received a very smart and tasteful makeover a couple of years ago.

To a degree unparalleled by any other brewery, they exercise tight control over everything sold in their pubs, going well beyond beer to encompass wines, spirits, soft drinks and even own-branded crisps and peanuts. They have recently produced an elaborate “Drinks Menu” to display in their pubs, which in total lists twelve different draught beers (only one of which is cask) and fifteen bottled. Great emphasis is put on authenticity and tradition, stressing that all of the beers are “brewed solely from authentic natural ingredients without any chemical additives, raw material adjuncts, artificial sweeteners, colourings, flavourings or preservatives”. Most are fermented in Yorkshire squares and are suitable for vegans.

Sam’s are often criticised for only producing the one cask beer – Old Brewery Bitter. I remember them also offering two more – Tadcaster Bitter, which suffered from the perennial difficulty of selling a weaker bitter alongside a standard one, and Museum Ale, which some drinkers liked but most found hard work. Because it doesn’t fit in to the modern trend towards ultra-hoppy beers, some people can be rather dismissive of OBB, but in fact it is a well-made, high-quality beer in a distinctive Yorkshire style. The same is true of the bottled beers which are highly regarded as exports in the USA. There are few other tied estates where you will routinely come across a cloudy German-style wheat beer.

They might improve their image if they produced a second cask beer, and many of their pubs certainly have the throughput to sustain it, but it’s difficult to see what would prove a strong seller with their predominantly traditionalist clientele. Personally, I’d like to see the return of Tadcaster Bitter, but I fear it would suffer the same fate as before. Maybe the best option would be a premium bitter of around 4.5% ABV that was a little paler and hoppier than OBB and would fill an obvious gap in their range.

It’s also impossible to discuss Sam’s without mentioning the high-handed and even quasi-feudal management practices that they have been accused of over the years, but you have to ask whether they have really been any worse than some of the much-criticised major leased pub companies. I certainly wouldn’t want every pub to be like a Sam’s pub, but they add much needed variety and distinctiveness to the pub scene, and it would be the poorer without them.

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