Small Beer – big business

by Steve Renshaw

There can’t be many Lincoln businesses that can claim to be a UK leader in their field. But you’ve probably seen the white vans of one such company delivering to pubs around the area. I haven’t enough space to tell the full, fascinating story of how Small Beer Ltd has grown from humble beginnings to become Britain’s leading cask ale wholesaler. But here’s a potted version.

In the late 1970s, Tony Eastwood was a real-ale enthusiast at a time when CAMRA was still in its infancy. Having seen a friend open a successful real-ale off-licence on Tyneside, Tony decided that the formula might work in Lincoln.

So in 1980, Tony and his wife, Judith, took the bold step of selling their family home (at the time, they had two small children) and buying a shop. Initially, Tony continued his day job as a town and country planner and they opened the shop in the evening and at weekends. They collected casks of beer from local breweries and customers would turn up with their own containers to be filled.

As the business grew, they started supplying local pubs with cask ales. However, storage space at the shop soon became a problem and, in 1988, the company acquired a unit on Kingsway. The original shop was converted into a private house but, if you walk down Newland Street West, you can still see the off-licence sign on the wall.

Small Beer has gone from strength to strength. Their annual sales of real ale now amount to around 12,000 brewer’s barrels – that’s around 3.5 million pints! They provide real ales for brewery pub estates, pub companies and free houses. And they supply many CAMRA beer festivals, including the Great British Beer Festival, Peterborough and, of course, Lincoln.

Although cask ale is still central to the business, they now provide all the drinks you’d expect to see behind a bar. Traditional real cider and perry has been a growth area over the last five years. They sell Belgian and continental beers, import craft beers from the United States, and are now offering craft keg beer from UK brewers. There is also a specialist wine division.

The family nature of the business was cemented in September 2008 when Tony and Judith’s son, Rob, became commercial manager, having spent four years at Batemans Brewery as national account manager. Four years later, Rob took over from Dad as managing director and his wife, Karen, left her job as national sales manager at Everards Brewery to take over as Small Beer’s commercial manager.

Anyone visiting the Kingsway site in recent times would have seen how little space there was for such a large business. After 18 months of looking, the company moved to brand-new premises on the Churchill Business Park at Bracebridge Heath during last summer.

One of the local pubs supplied by Small Beer is the Adam and Eve on Lindum Hill. The whitewashed, stone-built free house is reputedly the oldest tavern in Lincoln. The pub has two regular ales and two guests. According to manager, Alex Jones, “Choosing our guest ales is hard because Small Beer has such a fantastic choice.”

And what about the beer? Moon Frost (4.0% ABV) is brewed by Grafton Brewery in Worksop. My pint was a beautifully clear, golden colour with a creamy white head. The initial taste was tropical fruit but a biscuity malt flavour came through. A really refreshing pint!

Read the full story of Small Beer in the next edition of Lincoln CAMRA’s magazine, ImpAle. Pick up a copy from your local pub in January.

Where to find the best beer (and cider)

by Steve Renshaw

Have you noticed the number of celebrities who are plugging books at the moment? This time of year is crucial for the publishing industry. According to Nielsen BookScan figures, one fifth of book sales by value are made in the run-up to Christmas.

Of course, it’s not just autobiographies and cookery books that are packing the shelves. The annual guides to hotels, restaurants and pubs are always popular stocking fillers. And the UK’s best-selling beer and pub guide is CAMRA’s Good Beer Guide.

But CAMRA members won’t be waiting until Christmas Day to get their hands on their copy of the 2014 edition. The publication date was in September, so lots of copies will already be well thumbed. Oldies like me carry their Guide with them when travelling the country, but there’s a mobile-phone version for the technically adept pub-goer.

The Guide features the best 4,500 real ale pubs from across the UK, with details of food, opening hours, beer gardens, accommodation, transport links, disabled access and family facilities. CAMRA is a proudly independent organisation and, unlike many other guides, pub owners are not charged to appear in the Good Beer Guide.

The entries in most pub guides are chosen either by small editorial teams or by members of the public, whose recommendations are not necessarily checked. On the other hand, every pub that appears in the Good Beer Guide has been visited regularly by CAMRA members. The entire 150,000-plus membership is encouraged to be involved by submitting beer quality information throughout the year via CAMRA’s National Beer Scoring System. The thousands of beer scores help inform the drawing up of shortlists of pubs in each county. When the branches meet to choose their entries from the shortlist, votes are cast and the numbers are reduced to meet the allocations for each part of the country.

And there’s a good spread of pubs. We recognise that most people live in towns and cities, and expect a good selection of pubs in those areas. But we don’t neglect suburban and country pubs. On the contrary, CAMRA campaigns for the survival of rural pubs that are often vital hubs of their isolated communities.

It’s heartening to see that three village locals, all within ten miles of Lincoln, have been recognised in the Good Beer Guide 2014. The Dambusters Inn at Scampton, the Lion and Royal at Navenby and the Green Man at Norton Disney are all first-time entries.

For this month’s beer tasting, I persuaded my wife to navigate the minor roads to the south of the A46 Newark road. The Green Man, formerly known as the St Vincent Arms, was completely refurbished in 2009. Colin and Emma Davies have been in charge since April 2012.

The village is tiny and isn’t on a main route, so they have to work hard to make the pub a destination. It’s popular with walkers and is a regular lunch venue for the local shoot. The food is just as good as the beer.

The pub is LocAle accredited, meaning that it always has at least one real ale from a brewery within 25 miles. When I visited, two of the three handpumps had local ales. And they carry the best selection of real cider and perry in our area

And what about the beer? Steep Hill Reserve (4.3% ABV) from Cathedral Heights Brewery in Bracebridge Heath is matured in an oak whisky cask. It’s a deep ruby bitter that provides an initial burst of raisin fruitiness and a long bitter finish. An excellent example of innovation by a young brewer.

CAMRA’s Good Beer Guide 2014 is available in all good bookshops.

Pubs in our lives

by Steve Renshaw

During October, as part of the Community Pubs campaign, CAMRA is highlighting the part that pubs play in people’s lives. New research shows that many of us use pubs to celebrate landmarks in our lives, from wetting the baby’s head to holding a wake. This got me thinking about how pubs have become family-friendly venues, and I realised that it was linked to the availability of pub food.

When I first started visiting pubs, you might get a sandwich or cold pie at lunchtime. The highlight in the evenings was when the shellfish man came round selling bags of cockles and shrimps. And the first family room I came across was a lean-to at the back of a pub on the Norfolk coast. It had a formica-covered table and a few wobbly, wooden chairs. At that time, pubs were places for men to have a few pints after a hard day’s work, not for women and children. And not for eating meals!

Things began to change in the early 1970s when basket meals appeared. Then, chicken or scampi with chips in a basket felt like the height of sophistication. This was the time when eating out became more popular, with the growth of affordable restaurant chains. Readers of a certain age will remember feasting on prawn cocktail, rump steak and Black Forest gateau in a Berni Inn. In the face of this competition, “pub grub” expanded to include classic meals such as steak and ale pie, fish and chips, and Sunday roasts.

At the end of the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher’s government forced the big brewers to sell off their large pub estates. The pubcos that took over were often part of larger hospitality groups. They recognised that having a restaurant within a pub would widen the appeal and increase trade. As a result, we have seen numerous pub/restaurant chains spring up. The majority of pubs now serve hot food, and they range from budget chains offering two meals for £6 to Michelin-starred gastropubs.

Over the years, changes to the licensing laws have relaxed the restrictions on children in pubs. Each pub now has a unique set of conditions on its licence setting out how it operates. Generally speaking, the licensee can allow children in the pub, unless there is a particular licence condition preventing this. A number of pub chains now target young families by providing children’s menus and play areas.

The recently-refurbished Stags Head on Newport is a typical, modern pub/restaurant. According to its website, it has a “great family atmosphere”. I called in on a Sunday lunchtime and the place was packed. Every table in the restaurant and the extensive bar area was occupied with diners enjoying the carvery. Children are clearly welcome; there is a play area in the beer garden and a plentiful supply of high chairs inside.

I sat at the bar and was pleased to see that, despite the emphasis on food, there were four real ales on offer. As I enjoyed my drink amid the hubbub, I reflected on the way pubs have changed over the last forty years.

And what about the beer? Caledonian Deuchars IPA (3.8% ABV) was CAMRA’s Champion Beer of Britain in 2002. The brewery was taken over by Scottish & Newcastle in 2004 and is now part of Heineken. It’s a refreshing, pale gold bitter with a slightly floral aroma and a dry finish. A good beer for a lager drinker who wants to try real ale.

Remember, your local is for life, not just for special occasions. Visit CAMRA’s new pub database whatpub.com to find details of pubs in your area.

List your local

by Steve Renshaw

Dunholme village green is a hidden gem. I’ve driven close by on numerous occasions but, until recently, never noticed it. The small triangle of grass has an impressive war memorial at its centre. A beck runs along one edge, with a footbridge leading to the ancient church. And just off one corner is the village pub.

It’s a scene you might see in a Visit Lincolnshire brochure. Except for one thing. The pub, The Lord Nelson, is boarded up and unloved. Last year, Punch Taverns sold it to Lincolnshire Co-op, who plan to demolish the building and replace it with a convenience store.

This is CAMRA’s worst nightmare. A cash-strapped pub company puts a prime-site pub up for sale, a property developer or supermarket chain snaps it up, and another community asset is lost forever.

The new owners will probably say that the pub wasn’t viable and the locals didn’t use it. But there are lots of examples of struggling pubs that have gone from strength to strength once they have been released from the constraints of a big pub company and allowed to operate as a free house.

The Bridge Inn in Ruabon near Wrexham had been closed for six months when, in 2009, it was taken on as a family business. It has been turned round to such an extent that, in 2012, it won CAMRA’s national pub of the year award. It now plays a pivotal role at the heart of a small community.

But what can you do to keep your beloved local out of the hands of speculators or supermarket chains? Well, until recently, the answer would have been, “Not much.” However, through the Localism Act, the Government has introduced new powers for communities in England to nominate valued facilities such as pubs as assets of community value.

Listing stops the sale of pubs behind the backs of communities. If the owner of a listed pub wishes to sell it, they must let the local authority know. At this point, a six-week interim moratorium period kicks in, during which the local community group decides whether it would like to consider bidding to take the pub on. If so, they can trigger a full moratorium period of six months – time to raise finance, develop a business plan and to make a bid to buy the asset on the open market.

In order to list your local as an asset of community value, you must explain to your local authority why it should be listed and demonstrate that at least 21 people from the community support the case. Some authorities already have a nomination form on their websites. If not, CAMRA has a template form that can be used.

But it’s important to stress that, by signing the nomination form, you will be under absolutely no obligation to bid to buy that pub in the future.

CAMRA is hoping that at least 300 pubs across the UK will be listed by the end of the year. At the Great British Beer Festival, Brandon Lewis MP, the Community Pubs Minister, announced that 100 pubs have already been given greater protection from being sold off for redevelopment. So, if you love your local, get it listed.

And what about the beer? As The Lord Nelson was closed, I had to go to Welton to find the next nearest pub. It was ironic that I passed another Co-op convenience store on my way to the Black Bull. Since global brewer, Molton Coors, took over Cornwall’s Sharp’s brewery, Doom Bar (4% ABV) had become the UK’s best-selling real ale. It’s an easy-drinking, amber bitter with a dry finish.

Find out more about protecting pubs at www.camra.org.uk/listyourlocal

Let there be beer!

by Steve Renshaw

When this column goes to print, I should be at the Great British Beer Festival in London’s Olympia. CAMRA’s flagship festival, first held in 1977, will have a huge selection of cask ales, together with beers from around the world (plus ciders and perries).

Beer has been brewed across the globe for thousands of years. But cask beer has deep roots in this country. In the 19th century, as the lager revolution spread from central Europe to most other parts of the world, Britain remained loyal to beer made in a time-honoured fashion.

The process of brewing is the same, whether it takes place in a giant brewing factory or in a home brewer’s kitchen. The key ingredient is malted barley. When grains of barley begin to germinate, the starch they contain is transformed into soluble malt sugars. The skill of maltsters is to kick-start the germination and then roast the grains to produce the malted barley. This not only provides the sugars that are vital to producing the alcohol and carbon dioxide but also gives flavour, aroma and colour to the beer.

The brewer crushes the malted barley and soaks it in hot water to dissolve out the sugars. The resulting liquid, known as wort, is pumped off into the “copper” where it is boiled.

Hops are added during the boil to give extra flavour and aroma. The hopped wort is transferred through a cooling system into fermenting vessels, where yeast is added. This digests the sugar and produces alcohol and carbon dioxide. The beer stays in the fermenting vessel for a number of days, before it is transferred into conditioning tanks or casks.

The vast majority of beer is filtered, and often pasteurised, in the brewery and then run into sealed kegs. It can then be transported to pubs and served by applied gas pressure. Casks of real ale, on the other hand, undergo a secondary fermentation in the pub cellar. This enhances the flavours and produces the natural carbonation which means that the beer can be served direct from the cask or be drawn to the bar using a handpump.

I recently cycled to Bracebridge Heath to visit the new premises of the Cathedral Heights microbrewery. Having been a home-brew enthusiast, Steve Marston set up as a commercial brewer a couple of years ago, just in time to brew a special ale for his wedding.

After a year’s break from brewing, Steve is now back on stream in a unit on the Churchill Business Park. Being a Jack-of-all-trades, he has built his 2-barrel (that’s a 72-gallon capacity) plant from scratch. Every last piece of welding and pipe work was completed by Steve, with some help from family and friends. Having visited a number of larger breweries, it was really interesting to see all the same elements but on a much smaller scale.

Steve’s first brew using the new kit was in June, but he already has six different beers in his portfolio. And they are appearing in local free houses, including the Ritz and the Forum in Lincoln. One frustration for Steve is that, because of beer-tie arrangements, none of the three pubs in Bracebridge Heath have yet stocked his ales. That’s a common problem I’ve highlighted previously.

And what about the beer? Steve kindly let me have a taste of his BBH Bitter (4.3% ABV). It’s a golden colour with a fruity aroma. There’s plenty of hoppy bitterness but it’s not overpowering. All in all, a refreshing treat that set me up for the ride home.

In the words of the new advertising campaign, “Let there be beer!”.

Pubs and Charity

by Steve Renshaw

“Where would we be without the local?” That’s the strapline for CAMRA’s community pubs campaign. And this month we’re asking, “Where would charities be without the local?”

According to figures from PubAid, 85% of pubs raise money for charity, totalling over £106 million in the last year. This means that each pub raised, on average, £2,742. And new research shows people would visit pubs more regularly if their local pubs organised more charity events.

It’s time pubs got the recognition for their amazing work in raising funds for numerous charities across Britain. They get unfairly blamed for anti-social behaviour but often the alcohol that has led to these problems has not been drunk in pubs. The industry has been struggling in these tough economic times but the research shows all parties win if pubs run charity events. The charities get important donations, pubs get busier and the locals get some fun events to attend.

One magnificent example of fundraising is The Ship Victory in Chester. Over 11 years, this cosy, city-centre pub has raised a staggering £105,000 for the Breast Care Unit at the Countess of Chester Hospital. And JD Wetherspoon, who have a pub estate of over 850 pubs, have recently announced that they have raised £7 million over the years for CLIC Sargent.

Des O’Flanagan, one of the co-founders of PubAid, said, “What other industry can demonstrate such generosity and selflessness in this economic climate. These results should act as a reminder that pubs are very much part of the fabric of our community and make a meaningful contribution”.

I popped in to one of our top community pubs to talk about fundraising. Mal and Diane Gray have been running Bateman’s pubs for 14 years and have been at the Butcher and Beast in Heighington since 2009. In 2011, they were named Bateman’s Publicans of the Year, and last year they were highly commended for their cellar, food and flowers.

Heighington is fortunate to have two pubs. Both serve food, but whereas the Turk’s Head shows live sport on a big screen, the Butcher relies on lively conversations for entertainment. And it’s well supported by the villagers. Any pub that has six handpumps is clearly turning over plenty of ale.

The pub regularly raises funds for local and national charities. They also support charity events at the village hall next door. But when I asked Mal about it, I was struck by his matter-of-fact attitude. It was as though doing his bit for charity was one of those things that you do when you run a pub – like cleaning the beer lines.

And, of course, that’s the point. People don’t go to pubs just to drink. They go to spend time with friends and neighbours. And if they’re visitors, they go to join in with the local community. And when people get together, they start thinking about what they can do for those less fortunate than themselves.

So don’t spend all your social hours at home with cheap supermarket beer. Make the effort to get down to your local pub and be part of your community.

And what about the beer? With three Bateman’s ales and three guests on offer, it was a difficult choice. But I was drawn to American Pale Ale (5.4% ABV) from the Sonnet 43 Brew House, a new microbrewery in Durham. My pint was dark gold with a creamy head and beautifully clear. From the name, I expected a big burst of hops, but it turned out to be well-balanced with malt and spicy fruit flavour.

Follow us on Twitter @Lincoln_CAMRA for news on events at local pubs.