Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Would it hurt?

Last night a customer at the Finborough asked whether we had a bottle of Peroni. I replied "well, you see, we only really do craft beer here" and offered the alternative of a big fat bottle of Augstiner Edelstoff. She had three so in the end we had a happy customer. I couldn't help feeling embarrassed about my initial reply, though, and it set me to thinking: would it hurt bars that specialise in "craft" to have a few bottles of mainstream industrial lager in the fridge to keep everyone happy? Your thoughts appreciated.

I visited the Blind Tiger in Greenwich Village last time I was in New York. A more hipster and craft-y bar you could scarcely imagine. We all chose our beer with care but a girl in our group dismissed the beer list and ordered a Bud Light. The chap serving on didn't bat and eyelid and her wish was granted. Nobody died.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Birrificio Italiano

Looking back over my photos from 2013, this one always makes me laugh. The quality isn't great (I'd had a bev, innit) but it looks like Giacomo - an ex-Gunmakers barman from Milan - is coming to start some aggro with me. I was in the bar of Birrificio Italiano's restaurant in Lurago Marinone, Lombardy. The brewing equipment used to sit in that exact spot 17 years ago when Agostino Arioli (pictured right) founded the business. Production is now in a much bigger, purpose built site but the restaurant still functions as the spiritual home of Tipopils and all the other great beers BI produce.

I'd flown over to Lombardy to deliver a pair of redundant handpumps I had going spare. They're now installed at the bar for serving English style seasonal ales. Over dinner with Agostino in Milan that night we discussed finding a permanent home for Tipopils in London. The mission has since been accomplished and my new pub the Finborough Arms has the beer on tap all the time.

On Wednesday 19th November Agostino is flying to London to speak here at the Finborough in the evening. We'll have six of his beers on tap, four of them imported especially for the occasion: Tipopils, Imperial Pils, Weizen, BI Bock, Nigredo and a special collaboration spiced saison Agostino brewed with Firestone Walker of California. No tickets are required for entry. The beers will be reasonably priced, poured correctly and in appropriate measures. Complimentary matching cheeses will be available. Doors open at 5pm and Ago will speak at 7:45. Join us.

How do you get to the Finborough? Easy. You get the tube to Earl's Court. You exit on the exhibition side. You turn LEFT and keep walking over the junction. Job done. You'll see the pub in a matter of minutes. The address is 118 Finborough Road SW10 9ED and it's the most prominent building around.

I've loved Tipopils since the first time I drank it way back in October 2007. I was on a boozy trip to Rome with pals and we drank gallons of it in Ma Che Siete Venuti a Fa', well known to beer fanatics now but largely undiscovered by non-Italians back then. If you're so inclined you can read about that visit here. Serving this fantastic beer in a pub of my own is something of a dream come true. Indeed I'm drinking a pint now at the Finborough. Cheers.

Monday, 27 October 2014

Punch Taverns and the pubco tie

One of the things I was always cagey about when writing about the Gunmakers back in 2009 was the pub's "tie" to Punch Taverns. They owned the freehold (they still do - I sold the leasehold interest and the business, but the bricks and mortar belong to the pubco) and as well as paying rent I had to buy all my beer and cider, draught or packaged, through them at above market prices. When I first started that meant I could only buy what Punch's nominated suppliers - Carlsberg - were selling.

I glossed over that in my writing and in conversations over the bar with inquisitive (nosey) customers because I didn't want to encourage any perception that our beer choice was severely restricted. And as the years went by things improved so much that many thought the Gunmakers had become a free house. Credit has to go to Punch for that. Slowly and reluctantly they did wake up to the changes in the beer market and offered more flexibility to selected pubs.

In 2009 Carlsberg's beer list for Punch lessees was almost all very mainstream. It did include a rotating range of guest ales called "Finest Cask". Sometimes that allowed me to buy some really decent beers from across the UK, although a lot of the beers were ropey seasonals or one-offs from national brewers. In the early days we built our reputation as a good ale house by making the most of Finest Cask.

As the years went on Carlsberg started to offer mainstream but credible bottled product - the likes of Goose Island IPA or Brooklyn Lager, for example - and in late 2013 they even introduced a very limited "craft keg" range. I steered clear of that because the beers didn't really appeal and our tiny bar was already chocka with handpumps.

The biggest change for the Gunmakers came at the end of 2011, when Punch finally allowed us to use the Direct Delivery Scheme operated by the Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA). This gave access to beers from participating local brewers within about a 30 mile radius. The Gunmakers was able to participate in the boom in London microbrewing that was just around the corner. Credit goes to Punch again.

Of course, the pubco had to protect its own margin - the "wet rent". The system works like this: we would call SIBA and order the beer, they'd then call the individual brewers and the delivery would be made directly. Then came payment: SIBA would present the bill to Punch for the beer, Punch would pay the rock bottom prices you'd expect from a pubco with huge buying power, and then they'd add their own huge mark-up and present me with the bill.

There is no doubt in my mind that Punch could have made a greater margin by selling me beer from bigger breweries, purchased in bulk and delivered by Carlsberg. Microbrewers can't compete on volume so will only go so low on price, even to pubcos. That's why the SIBA scheme is only available to a few licensees in Punch's estate who make a big fuss about beer choice. I even had to get a Cask Marque - a waste of time and money in my opinion - to show I was serious.

A word on pricing under the tie generally. The anti-pubco campaigners frequently state that tied publicans pay double the market price for their beer. I suspect what they mean is that the purchasing power of pubcos sometimes allows them to charge pubs double what they paid themselves, their buying price being far lower than an individual publican or multiple operator would be able to achieve. I never paid more than about half again the amount I would have paid otherwise on the open market, usually less. That still isn't pretty but the record needs to be set straight after some of the wild claims I've seen bandied around.

Of course the beer tie is still a huge hit to a publican's margins and creates an active disincentive to sell beer in favour of everything else. In my first three years I tried all sorts of schemes to sell more wine and food, and had a degree of success, before deciding it was too much work and I wanted the Gunmakers to be an alehouse first and foremost. Although that meant lower margins, it also lowered staff cost in the kitchen and revenue increased so the business actually became a touch more profitable and easier to run.

So much for the pubco tie. In an upcoming post I'll cover what it's like to be free of tie at my new pub, the Finborough Arms.


Friday, 24 October 2014


Just north of Pegnitz and south of Bayreuth in Franconia, Germany, there's a cluster of villages blessed with three brewery taverns. There used to be four, but sadly even the Franconian thirst for beer doesn't prevent small businesses going to the wall. They're linked by a waymarked hiking route called the Bierquellenwanderweg (beer source trail, translated literally). Those waymarks are pictures of beer mugs. Very pleasing. The 11 mile circular route crosses farms, pretty villages, rolling hills and forests. I did it last week.

I'd visited the first brewery on the trail - Brauerei Herold in Büchenbach - the day before, stopping there near the end of my walk from Pottenstein to Pegnitz, so left it until the end. I was keen to cover a little bit of distance before tucking in lest I abandon the whole exercise at the first pitstop. So it was straight on to Brauerei Grädl in Leups. I'd read descriptions of Grädl's dark beer online and it sounded really special.

The gasthof in Leups sits next to a separate building housing the brewery. That's not always the case in Franconia, where some breweries are so small they're under the same roof as the tavern. Two rooms decorated in an unflattering 1970s style are what you get inside. There's nothing to look at apart from other happy drinkers and the poor old landlord, bent double at the waist with a crippling back complaint. He struggled to pour beer (directly from an old-style barrel on the bar, incidentally). He struggled to bring it to people's tables, sometimes spilling some as he went. I still got my first jar quicker than I would in most pubs over here with four or five kids behind the ramp. Overstaffing is never a problem in Franconian pubs.

The pub was nearly full at 11am on a Saturday. The sun was coming in through the windows and spreading a warm glow across the few tables. There was no music. Conversation was hushed or non-existent. Noone was shouting their head off or enforcing their dull anecdotes on everyone else. The clientele was a mix between hikers and cyclists in their technical gear and middle-aged rural Franconians dressed in the way you would expect them to be. A little girl and her father got up to leave. She went to every table and knocked on the edge, catching everyone's eye and saying tschüss. The undemonstrative landlord smiled for the first time and ran his hand over her head as she skipped gleefully out the room. I later observed that this wasn't the charming habit of one gregarious child, but a convention in the pub: everyone did it as they left.

The beer arrived. Properly dark, just how I wanted it to be. The old boy's exertions at the barrel - his agonised posture meant he was pouring at the strangest angle you could imagine - had not been in vain, and the foam sat proud atop the glass. Now you expect there to be plenty hops in a Franconian dark beer, but some can disappoint. Not so here. Grassy, resinous, lovely. Raisins. Chestnuts. A lot going on, all quite distinct. What I remember most was the hard, flinty edge and the unexpected dry finish. I had four of them before pressing on north to the next brewery. But I already knew I'd had the best beer of my holiday. In truth, I think I'd had one of the best beers of my life.

I forgot to knock on all the tables and say goodbye to my fellow drinkers. Next time I go to Leups I'll get that bit right, and it'll be the perfect trip to the pub.