August 29, 2008

Gloom? Real Ale Still Proves a Winner ; BEER


DEVELOPMENT Opportunity. Former Pub Premises. Lease For Sale. Vacancy. Freehold. High Turnover. And There's More.

The signs are unmissable on every high street, giving the impression that the licensed trade is in freefall. That may be true, with a combination of the smoking ban tightening throats and cheap, strong lager being encouraged on supermarket customers. Add poor summer weather, credit crunch belt-tightening and job insecurity to the flat market and the direction of the bar chart takes a downward spiral. Pub pie charts tell the same stor y.

So, why is just about every report from real ale-friendly pubs and North East micro-breweries peppered with phrases such as "great success", "repeat orders" and "continued good business". And there's more.

John Taylor from the tiny Bull Lane Brewery in Sunderland describes his two new beers as "great sellers". Tom Hick from Allendale Brewery in Northumberland says "trying to keep up with demand is difficult", while Tyne Valley's Wylam Brewery has been recording "our best-ever May... our best-ever June... our best-ever July..." Something's afoot.

While national brewing companies post decreased profits and pub companies dispose of premises, the country's micro-brewing sector is buzzing. It's what Martin Hammill, head brewer at Newcastle-based Hadrian & Border Brewery, perceptively calls "a kind of resistance movement". Martin is not alone in identifying an increased customer awareness towards real ale via farmers' markets, beer festivals and quality venues - and is picking up accounts where nationwide companies run by accountants have failed to make an impact.

He also cites readily-available advice on cooking with beer and dining with matching quality real ales as contributors to the growing demand and steady appreciation of a completely natural product full of vitamins and trace elements which has not been pasteurised, laced with preservatives, glowing with colourings and pumped through with artificial carbonation.

"Things are positively booming for us," says Martin, "and it's the same for other micro-breweries, from what I hear. Consistency and quality builds sales and generates a following which in turn means repeat orders for the beer and therefore continued good business.

"Keg beer is mass-produced and sells for the same price over the bar as quality cask ale, but it's becoming more average by the week. John Smith's Smooth, Worthington's Cream, Boddingtons Nitro Extra Cool... they're all the same to me.

"At Hadrian & Border, we're prepared to listen to customers and to cater for the market. Hedonistic thrill-seekers want new things more than ever, and while being part of an ancient and traditional craft, micro-brewing can adapt to any requirement. Would Carlsberg Tetley do so? No.

"We listen and attempt to create what is wanted while the big boys tell the masses what 'they' expect them to enjoy. Perhaps this worked in the 1960s and 1970s, but people are far more free- thinking now and do not like being pigeon-holed, particularly when it affects free-time choices such as entertainment and beer."

Allendale Brewery has been up and running for just over two years but it quickly carved out a reputation for high quality ales produced with old-fashioned care and attention. Former zoologist Tom Hick runs the business with his father Jim with such success they have recently opened their first pub, The Crown at Catton in Northumberland.

Tom says: "It's an interesting situation at the moment with statistics showing the whole industry in decline, but micro- breweries aren't feeling that at all. We're rushed off our feet, particularly with the beers we bottle here.

"Trying to keep up with demand is impossible and even storage space is becoming difficult. Cask ale sales are very good as well - we're about to take delivery of pounds 5,000-worth of new casks which will give us a third more than we have, so that's good. The only problem we find is that some of the better outlets are being taken over by big pub company chains.

"The Crown has been a great success.

"We've got a full-time manager, a full-time bar manager and a full-time chef lined up to start very shortly and that should give my dad a bit of time to step back - he's been running everything since we opened. We've had excellent reports on the food, so when the chef starts, it'll be even better."

It's a similar story at Wylam Brewery where a finger-crossing investment in 2006 is paying dividends with a monthly production running at 200 barrels (7,200 gallons). Business development manager Matt Boyle says: "We're going the other way to the big lads; they're in depression. We're finding people want to drink proper local beer in proper local pubs. Every time I talk to publicans, it's always the same - cask ale is flying out the door. People have become more aware of the value of their money and when you're spending pounds 2.30 or so on a pint, you spend it wisely."

Like Hadrian & Border and Allendale, Wylam is giving customers what they want, not what they think they want. It's a simple equation, a geometric progression opposed to an obtuse angle. All have recognised newly emerging markets with, for example, Wylam Northern Kite (4.5% alcohol by volume) and Angel Ale (4.3% ABV) opening doors and introducing fine beer to new markets. Hadrian & Border took similar advantage by supplying its Tyneside Blonde (3.8% ABV) to The Sage Gateshead. Martin Hammill says: "Venues offering quality entertainment attract the category of customer who expects a corresponding quality of refreshment - it is no longer a separate part of a night. A show or performance and the drinks - the whole evening, in effect - are all part of the complete experience. Venues such as The Sage have to package the 'whole thing' to cater for this discerning person. So far, I think they are succeeding, but they must continue to evolve. We are playing our part in this development with new and bespoke ales."

John Taylor at Bull Lane Brewery - tucked into the cellar of The Clarendon pub - is investigating new markets in a slightly different direction. A new Ginger Ale (4.5% ABV), brewed without hops, took first prize at the recent South Shields Beer Festival. Neck Oil (4.2% ABV), specially brewed for TJ Doyle's Irish bar in the city (and second-equal at Shields), is a combination of previously successful recipes because, says John: "It's very pale and people are preferring pale beers at the moment. At times like this, pubs are having to work harder, putting more interesting beer on to get customers in. Going out for a couple of beers now means that those couple of beers have to be good beers.

"The Last Orders in Sunderland has started taking our beers. The pub is admittedly not in the best of areas, but the cellar is pristine and what they shift from us is immense. They absolutely love our beers and customers are choosing ale instead of lager because they never knew it was there. It's a really big market to develop.

"We're taking The Clarendon a stage further and involving Brewlab at Sunderland University by coming along and explaining the concepts of beer tasting to customers.

"We know that yellow is yellow because we've been taught that from an early age, but taste has to be identified and demonstrated.

"We're doing different things to keep the ball rolling like putting a call out to local Campaign For Real Ale (Camra) branches for them to come and brew their own beer.

"The Ginger Ale has taken us by surprise; we thought as it was a specialist beer it would only appeal to a minority, but it appeals to women in particular."

The signs are there. Real Ale. Development Opportunity. Listen. Listen Again. Act Accordingly. Success. Bright Future. There's More To Come.


JOIN our Liquid Bread sessions tomorrow at The Journal Taste 2 Food & Drink Festival in association with Tesco at Linden Hall Hotel, Longhorsley, near Morpeth, Northumberland (10am-4pm) where - among the finest in North East produce - we'll be exploring different experiences in beer, then do some taste comparisons and have a bit of fun.

The eponymous Northumberland Brewery will be there, as will Wylam, Allendale and Geltsdale.

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