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Why do I feel uneasy about Real Ale Licensee deals?

I wrote most of these notes last week at the time of finding the information. I’ve been exhaustingly busy since then to publish them but have reviewed them and felt they are still worth putting out there.

Sometimes you find out odd nuggets of information when you are least expecting them. Take a quick trip after work to the Britannia Inn, Mossley for example. The pub is a decent little community pub that has always offered up to six ales for as long as I’ve visited. In recent years, these ale offerings have been dominated by macro traditional beers such as Well’s Bombardier and, the house favourite, Marston’s Burton Bitter.

The choice of beer is hampered by the usual problem with the company that owns the pub. In this case, the Britannia Inn is controlled by Admiral Taverns. The pub changed licensee last year and has been consistent with its beer since. Though the range on offer often feels unimaginative, the beer is conditioned excellently and is a pub where you can taste some of those macro beers as intended, which as we all know isn’t always the case.

Another factor into the beer range is the landlady (yes I know she is technically just a licensee but I will refer to her as a landlady) herself, Janet. Though an excellent and friendly sort, Janet, by her own admission, knows little about real ale. It’s strange to think she can keep her beer in such great condition when she doesn't see how any of them differ when she tastes them. For this, Janet relies on customer input and requests as to the variety of beers she will sell. On a visit this week, I bemoaned the choice available as my eyes moved from beers from Well’s to Young’s to Courage and to Marston’s. We got speaking with the landlady about the options available to her and what she could order. She revealed that outside of Admiral’s list, she could order from any SIBA included brewery as long as she could get them to deliver. I immediately recommended 5 or 6 local micros I thought would be willing.

It was here that we spoke of other customer recommendations. It soon became apparent that much of the reason for what I considered to be a poor quality of choice came from it predominantly being the older, solo drinkers at tea time who asked about certain beers. These customers rarely asked for anything more exciting that Jenning’s Cumberland Ale. Janet was heeding this advice, even though she had previously admitted that some of the lighter, hoppier beers, such as Millstone’s Tiger Rut, Greenfield's Silver Owl or Ossett’s current ‘World Cup of Hops’ series sold much, much quicker than any others. At this point Janet revealed something unexpected.

“One customer asks me to get in Doom Bar all the time, but he doesn’t need to as I have to sell that anyway to keep my Sky costs down.”


That’s a bit of a casual bombshell thrown into conversation.

Of course, to the landlady it isn’t, nor is it private information. I put the point to Twitter and was quickly given the information on Admiral Taverns’ own website around a deal with Molson Coors whereby a pub must sell Carling and two products from Coors Light, Cobra, Worthington’s or Sharp’sDoom Bar to keep costs down – a 30% discount on their Sky in fact, which I believe is around £2,500 a year in this area of Mossley.

A good deal then for the licensee, for Admiral Taverns and for Molson Coors, so why do I somehow feel uneasy about this deal? Is it, as first suggested on Twitter, bribery? I can’t imagine many Admiral Taverns licensees turning down the offer or feeling bribed. 

Is it the restricted choice it then allows the landlady? The best pints I've had in recent times in the Britannia Inn have come from local microbreweries, such as the aforementioned Millstone and Greenfield, so this deal with Molson Coors restricts their presence on the bar. Is it this that I find despicable? 

Molson Coors’ Tony Gibbons’ statement at the time is nonsense. “Nothing brings people to pubs like an afternoon of Sky Sports matched with a well poured pint.” I’m hardly arguing your sentiment Tony, so why the hell would we match sport with your products?

To add a little bit of personal back-story into this unnecessary sounding argument, I have very northern reasons for wishing that Sharp’s were different to the brewery they probably are. I spent almost every year from my youth until my final teenage years holidaying in Cornwall with the family. As I grew into my later years and began to learn of beer, I learnt that my real ale enthused father was most excited about these holidays because of one thing – Sharp’s Doom Bar. For this reason, this beer provided some of my first ale tasting experiences, despite only being available 300 miles away, and was held in great esteem by me because of the idolisation of my father. Fast forward into time and between the years of 2006 – 2011 I was a little out of touch with the beer world, knowing only what was presented to me in pubs in my area. A tour around London, Surrey and Witlshire in 2011 proved eye opening. Doom Bar was now available in just about every real ale serving house in the south that I entered, with a shiny and plain metallic pump clip to boot. When did this happen? This was unseen around Manchester. 

Now Doom Bar has become the new Bombardier; the poster child for those who know of nothing else. In December I chatted to a delightful friend of a friend from the south in Font Bar, Manchester about beer, as he claimed to be a fan too, whilst we supped various beers by the likes of Arbor and Red Willow. After he face-gurned through a few of these offerings he turned to me and said “Have you ever tried Doom Bar – that’s a lovely drink.” 

I'm hardly mad at Sharp's for doing the best for their business. Brewing is for making money after all. The world of "real ale" or "craft beer" has always seemed much less competitive though. We've excepted the bigger breweries for what they are without acknowledging the deals they have in place in order to sell their product. 

So is it the certain bribery about this deal that bothers me or the fact that it includes a headstone of modern real ale? I understand that financially Sharp’s would be happy to conduct in such an agreement, so is it my “holier-than-thou” ale loving attitude that makes me uneasy about this agreement? I am not sure, but for now I will not be ordering the Doom Bar in the Britannia until I am satisfied that other breweries are getting a fair attempt at the pumps too. 


Cooking Lager said…
These sort of deals have been common in the licence trade for decades. The only difference is Sky Sports

Ask any club. Most clubs are free houses, owned by the members, yet a brewery (like coors) will offer them interest free loans (ideal for refurbishments and no need to raise subs). The catch is you have to stock their product. Sometimes you have to agree not to stock a rivals product. Similar offers are available to untied pubs.

The practice is monopolistic, it is controlling the supply chain. It's not illegal.
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Mike Smith said…
Nicely worded - I'm a local in said pub and am forever recommending the lighter beers to Janet - the Ossett World Cup beers have been excellent - and I will drink Tiger Rut till the cows come home. You mentioned Greenfield's Silver Owl - that came about because the brewers realised that their "darker stuff" wasn't as popular so they as a brewery changed track a bit (would also recommend their "Thirst Born").

As regards the "Doom Bar" - hey why not ?? Sometimes there are even real ale drinkers who feel comfy with brands they know (strange but apparently true !!). And with 6 handpumps in the Brit ... Doom Bar on one, Marstons Bitter (for other obvious reasons) on another - still leaves four more. Remember - the Brit is not selling itself as Mossley's "Real Ale Emporium" (you need to check out the "Rising Sun" or the "Fleece" for that.

And if stocking "Doom Bar" is tantamount to bribery - so what ??? Rupert Murdoch and his empire will maybe charge a homeowner £70 per month - but he will charge a pub nearly 10 times that ... which is a rip off. With pubs closing at a rate of 20+ per month nationally peeps have to look to ways of getting the punters in whether it is Sky Sports, a decent food menu or free pool on Wednesdays. Giving up 1 or 2 handpumps on your bar is hardly a problem when you've still got the option of four others.

Going back to the SIBA thing - yes you can order anything off it - but you won't necessarily get it delivered (one story - again from the Brit - Janet ordered on barrel from a certain brewery on the SIBA list - they got in touch and said it wasn't worth it financially for them to deliver one barrel - would she take two ?? She did - it was nice !!)

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