Are Lincoln drinkers losing out?

by Steve Renshaw

Pubs in Lincoln are expensive and don’t support local microbreweries. These are common observations by visitors to the city. Clearly, they are generalisations and there are notable exceptions. But, based on my travels, I find it difficult to disagree. The reasons are complicated, but one of the major factors is the ownership of our pubs.

In the good old days, most pubs belonged to the local breweries. They were tied houses – they only sold their brewery’s beer. Independent pubs became known as free houses, and could buy their beer from any brewer,

Things changed after the second world war, when brewery mergers began. By the 1980s, the Big Six brewers owned more than half of the country’s pubs and produced 75% of its beer. Mrs Thatcher’s government was concerned about the lack of competition and, in 1989, issued the Beer Orders. Brewers were not allowed to own more than 2,000 pubs, and had to give landlords the option of selling at least one guest beer produced by a rival.

Because the big brewers weren’t prepared to open up their pubs to other brewers’ beers, they came up with something new – pub companies – to which they sold all their pubs. As these “pubcos” didn’t brew beer themselves, they were exempt from the legislation.

So, today, we have a situation where around half of pubs in the UK are owned by pubcos. These pubs have to buy their beer only from the pubco, at a price up to 50% more than a free-of-tie publican pays. Alongside this, pubco licensees often find themselves paying rents that are above the market rate.

Around Lincoln, we have very few free houses, so there isn’t the same level of competition as in many other towns. Hence the higher prices in our pubs. And, as the pubcos broker deals with the bigger brewers, microbreweries have found it difficult to get beer into their pubs.

For some years, CAMRA has campaigned against the unfair practices of pubcos. This came to fruition last month, when the government announced a new, statutory code to ensure fair practices for a number of issues, including rents and the prices publicans pay for beer. It will enshrine the fundamental principle that “a tied licensee should be no worse off than a free-of-tie licensee”.

The Code is expected to apply to all companies owning more than 500 tied leases. Regional family brewers, such as Batemans, who have used the beer tie for over a century to guarantee a market for their beer, will be exempt.

One development that has benefitted microbreweries is the Society of Independent Brewers’ Direct Delivery Scheme. A number of pubcos, including big boys Punch Taverns and Enterprise Inns, allow some of their licensees to source beer brewed within 30 miles of the pub, via the scheme.

I visited The Strugglers Inn, a Punch pub on Westgate, to find out what can be achieved within the constraints of a pubco lease. Apart from snacks, there is no food on offer, so the pub stands or falls on the quality and diversity of its beers.

There are eight handpumps on the bar. By using Punch’s core and guest beer lists and direct delivery to the best advantage, landlady, Anna, managed to serve 386 different real ales during 2012. And the quality has been recognised with the award of CAMRA’s Lincolnshire Pub of the Year in 2010 and 2012.

And what about the beer? 8 Sail Brewery’s Victorian Porter (5% ABV) is produced in the shadow of Heckington’s famous windmill. It’s a full-bodied, beer dominated by dark malt flavours, but with hints of berry fruits and some bitterness at the end. Perfect after a winter’s walk.

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