Sunday, 26 April 2015

Beer In Essex: An Open Letter To All Who Work In And Run Essex Pubs

Beer In Essex
An Open Letter To All Who Work In And Run Essex Pubs

Dear Essex pub owners, landlords, landladies, tenants and staff,

Firstly please excuse the unwieldy headline. I realise that it is a bit of a mouthful however I wanted this post to be inclusive and know that running a successful business is a team effort. I have never run a pub or a brewery for that matter and I don't profess to be an expert on such things, but I have been a active pub-goer for more than a quarter of a century. If I come across as pompous or patronising then that is certainly not my intention either. I have no wish to tell you how to run your business, that is certainly your affair, but if you have a passion for great beer I would ask that you at least consider what I have to say. Many of you are already doing a fantastic job promoting the beer that Essex has to offer and if I can help raise it's profile as well as that of its pubs and hard working staff even a little then I achieved what I set out to do.

I'd like to hope that you'd agree with my reason for writing this as I would like to see Essex pubs leading the way in offering drinkers from all over the country somewhere that they would chose to go for excellent beer and awesome hospitality.

I also am not naive to think that I have a quick fix, and I know that many of you already run highly successful pubs that delight drinkers week in week out with a fantastic choice of beer and aren't afraid of trying new things in order to attract a diverse clientele. I know this won't be possible for everyone, indeed there may only be a small minority who have it within their power to act upon any of the things that I mention here, but if it makes you think, starts a discussion or provokes a response then, in the long run, I believe that will be no bad thing.

Before I continue I'd like you to read or in some cases re-read this Open Letter To Essex Brewers And Breweries that I wrote back in January of this year. It did provoke a reaction and it is as a direct result of the feedback I received that has prompted me to expand on what were my initial thoughts in a new year and is partly my motivation behind writig this post today.

I'd also like to add, and I believe that this clarification is important, that I am not trying to start a rift between Essex pubs and Essex breweries, quite the opposite in fact as I am convinced that co-operation and conversation between both parties is the way forward for both parties. My original post raised issues that I hadn't previously considered and I hope that this will do the same. There are two sides to every coin and it is necessary to let all parties have their say in order to evaluate and make an informed decision. This is the next stage in my attempt to do so and is a reaction to my observations up to this point.

I'm not going to pull any punches here and I'll jump straight in and talk about beer choice. I'm not necessarily talking about a range of beer from all over the UK, or from all over the world, fantastic as that would be from a personal point of view but having a range of styles and strengths, whether they be on cask. keg or in bottles and even cans makes my heart sing wherever I find it. By choice I don't mean mass-produced lager or cask ale from the big pub-swallowing supermarket staples as it is my opinion that part of the reason that pubs have been losing drinkers is that they can get the same beer more cheaply and in bulk when they do their weekly shop. Conversely I have heard drinkers opt for a beer that they bought 'just for a change' in an off-licence or in the craft beer section of their supermarket because they like it, and if you have just had a large intake of breath when you read the 'C' word, that is craft beer, and you have switched off then I urge you to take a trip to your local Marks and Spencer and look at the range of beer they have on offer. The variety of styles available should give you some idea of what people are buying, and they all without exception have one thing in common, they all taste of something.

There are hundreds of new breweries up and down the country producing some amazing beer, and there number is growing all the time. We have twenty-nine breweries in Essex yet I often find it difficult to get local beer in many of the pubs in the county and it is almost impossible to do so outside of it. Are we giving our brewers a chance?

When I wrote the letter to the brewers one recurring response was that they would actually like to brew different styles and experiment with different ingredients but they were hesitant to do so as pubs simply weren't buying them. There is a proliferation of Golden Ales, so I am told, as some pubs simply won't buy brewers darker beers. I realise that you need to provide what the drinker wants, and you might reason that if they are drinking these beers then that what they must want. There is a saying often repeated that states that if you always do what you have always done then you always get what you always have got, the result will always be the same. If you want the same customers drinking the same beer year in year out then that's absolutely fine, but those customers won't be around forever. Are you willing to take a chance?

Change is difficult, but if you take the time to prepare then it makes any transitional period a lot easier. If you want to take the plunge then I'm sure that you will have the support of the brewers and breweries every step of the way.

All of the best pubs I have been in, and this is without exception have knowledgeable staff. If you are going to sell a product, I believe you should know it inside out. Take the time to find out and give the drinker an enhanced drinking experience. Simple things make a lot of difference. Who brews it? Where are they from? What's the abv? What style is it? and most importantly, What does it taste like?
To me these are the minimum requirements I expect as a committed pub user. Brewers will be more than happy to provide this information I have found, and much more besides. Once you get a taste for this kind of insight then it can be hard to resist. I love to go into pubs that give me that little bit more when asked, This may include things like the hops and malts used, the flavour profile and what I might be able to pick out when I drink it, how bitter it is, and what foods it might go with. I'd also like you to recommend me a beer when I order my food, and if you prepare your meals on the premises are any of your dishes made with beer. I know that wine is often more profitable by the glass however beer is far more versatile and has a much wider range of flavours and can compliment far more food types. Why not have a menu that varies depending on the beer you have available, putting the beer pairings next to the dishes themselves? This is obviously where having a reasonably large selection of beer available really pays dividends and carrying a range of bottles will help no end.

Raising the profile of Essex beer, Essex breweries and Essex pubs is important to me and if you read some of my other posts I'm sure you will see that this comes across. I have lived in Essex all my life and feel passionately about this county and all it has to offer, and having drunk some great beer in some great places I often feel the sense of tradition and home-from-home comfort that only Essex pubs can offer. We need to celebrate this more often, embrace our heritage.

I know from speaking to Essex brewers that they feel the same way. It may be their business, but their motives for starting out are often that they wanted to brew something better than what was available around them at the time. They have worked on their recipes, brewing and re-brewing many times until they were satisfied that what they were producing was fit for the market place.

I have mentioned before that if you ask for information from the people that brew the beer, really brew it rather than flick a switch in a factory somewhere, then in my experience they are always happy to provide it, but have you considered inviting them into your pub?

Meet The Brewer evenings are a great way to find out about the beer that your local brewer is making and a great way for them to engage with people drinking it. Having a selection of beers available ensures that all who want to can get a taste of what's on offer with the chance to buy more directly from you, and you can find out what particular beers your customers want. I have been to many such events up and down the country and have found them both engaging and invaluable, finding out about the brewing process, a bit about the brewer/brewery and why each beer was brewed. This has deepened my love of beer and enriched my drinking experience as my understanding has deepened and my sense of taste developed.

If this sounds a step too far then why not organise a beer tasting or invite someone in to lead one for you. I'm sure your local CAMRA group could offer a recommendation if you needed some help and many of the country's leading beer writers would be happy to travel out to you, particularly as many are based in London.

Beer festivals are always good way of attracting more people to your pub, especially during the summer months if you have an outside area, however I have noticed recently many of the same beers appearing each year. When considering what beers you might want to have it might be a good idea to have a look at what others have had on and chose something a little different. I have been put off from attending a couple recently as I didn't see a single beer that I couldn't find regularly or that I had tasted at a festival in the previous few months. I want to find something different, something that I haven't had before, experience a new taste, a new style or even a twist on an old one. If you are reluctant to experiment with change in your day to day running then this is the perfect way to do so with minimal impact. Listen to what the drinkers are saying, ask them questions about their beer and take note of their answers. Don't always assume that what sells well in the pub (because you always have it on) will sell well at your festival either. In conversations with certain brewers I have found that they have to brew lighter coloured and lower abv beers as that is all pubs will take but when they have the greater freedom that a festival offers then it is often the darker and slightly stronger beers that sell out first.

In my conclusion to the letter to brewers and breweries I challenged them to think differently and think better and I offer that same challenge to you. As before I realise that this won't happen overnight, these things take time but with the co-operation all concerned we can make Essex a county that people think of whenever great pubs and great beer are mentioned.

This post is a continuation of my exploration into Essex beer culture and is part of a bigger project called Beer East Anglia that you may want to take a look at.

If you wish to contact me about any of the things I have mentioned then I welcome your comments, whether directly on this blog, on twitter at @1970sBoy, or by email by looking up my listing on the British Guild Of Beer Writers website. I really believe that we can make a big difference by working together and improve the quality and choice of beer available to us all. I really would like to hear your thoughts so that I can expand on those in a future post.

You may not agree with me, and might well want to tell me to get lost and mind my own business, but you don't have to look too far afield to notice that things have changed when it comes to beer in this country and that they will continue to change for some time to come. Let's make it a change for the better.

With much respect, appreciation and the very best of wishes,

Justin Mason

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