Friday, 7 March 2014

Friend or Foe?



How many eggs do JD Wetherspoon sell a year? 39 million.  "That's a lot of eggs" I think.  The statistics roll on.  525,000 (award winning) breakfasts a week.  If you laid the number of sausages sold every week end to end they'd reach from Chester to Frankfurt and back.  Why Chester and Frankfurt? I don't know.  Or was it chips? Either way, this is a big operation. Enough beer is sold in one week to fill an Olympic sized swimming pool.  Sounds a lot. It is a lot. 2.5 megalitres or 45,000 60,000 UK nines of beer. Over 4 million pints of beer a week.  Think about that. I'll leave it hanging to the wall for the moment.

Assembled hacks are in the Cross Keys in Gracechurch, St London to talk about the launch of Wetherspoon's next beer festival which will feature 10 international brewers, all of whom are here.  They are introduced one by one to be presented with a frame memento of their activities.  Most seem confused as you might well be in their situation.  As we listen, we sip rather flat and ordinary beer, jugged upstairs.  It isn't a great advert for cask beer. One disappointment (though logical if you think about it) is that as the brewers had just brewed the beers, they weren't actually available.)

Since they first started JDW's beers festivals have grown both in pints sold and how it is presented to the public, since the first one in 2006 when a respectable 1.1 million pints were sold.  Now they expect 3.5 million pints to disappear down thirsty throats. They'll be delivered in 35,000 nines, to 900 pubs from just two depots.  This year there are 10 international brewers from as far away as New Zealand - the Yeastie Boys - to, as the crow flies from London, next door Belgium by way of Hildegard Van Ostaden from De Hoppeschuur.  They brew in a variety of breweries, such as Caledonian, Banks, Wadworth, Adnams and many more.  This is in addition to the American Craft Brewers Showcase in which one American craft brewer a month comes across the pond to brew their beer for all JDW pubs*.  All of this is making JDW a lot more interesting a place to drink beer.  That isn't all.  JDW has just launched three American craft beers in cans from New York's Sixpoint brewery, which at two for a fiver, kind of blows a hole in craft beer pricing.  BrewDog and Goose Island bottles are already there and there is a decent range of other unusual bottles to drink at keen prices, especially if you aren't drinking them in London. (In London four quid for a cheaply imported Polish beer is hardly a bargain.)  They are already selling British brewed keg craft beer in limited quantities and no doubt will sell more as time goes on.

Unrelated to the beer festival, JDW are changing a lot.  Food is better and still very reasonable.  Pubs are much less corporate now and new ones are pretty contemporary and often a lot more upmarket.  They are often in splendidly restored buildings. Of course you are still going to get the small town drinking den type pub with its John Smith Smooth drinking derelicts, all lining up for their fix at nine in the morning, but this is a diverse operation and as I have said before, like any pub, individual units are only as good as the manager and how he or she runs it.

Back in the Cross Keys, I took an opportunity to have a chat with the two German brewers (From Kloster-Scheyern in Bavaria) who had been brewing a bockbier at Wadworth.(Good choice for that I'd imagine).  They seemed pretty confused about cask beer and I got the impression that they had rather more than a few reservations about it.  The first thing Brother Tobias - yes a real live brewing monk - asked "Why is it always so flat?"  That was a difficult question to answer, but I did my best to explain why it might be so.  Nonetheless the German brewers had enjoyed their time and I got my impression from such as the Yeastie Boys who were positively bouncing about, that like most things, you have to put a lot in to get a lot out.  My suggestion though is that JDW might be advised to hold their launch in a Northern pub, where the conditioning and presentation of the beers might be a little closer to the intended outcome by the brewers.

Now I read elsewhere that the import of the Yankee canned beers is being hailed as some kind of a breakthrough for craft beer in JDW.  This misses the point that JDW has been at the vanguard of this kind of beer innovation for quite some time.  They had a range of great beers some years ago including Duvel, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and other such exotics.  They introduced Polish beers years ago when they were a bit new to the UK. They used to sell Loewenbrau Wheat Beer which isn't even brewed any more.  They try beers out and quietly drop them when demand doesn't meet expectations.. You can probably expect that the availability of the new range will be reduced in many pubs if the beers don't sell, or, as in the past, they may just quietly be withdrawn. so maybe we best wait and see before getting too excited?

Wetherspoons has a lot of knockers that tend to concentrate on the negative aspects of the company.  Just have a look at the comments on Boak and Bailey's blog if you doubt that. Snobbery about them abounds (I for one don't care of people are ordering jugs of lurid coloured drinks - that's up to them).  Nor do I need beer advice from JDW staff other than "What colour is it?"  If JDW sold the Port St or Craft range at knockdown prices, there would still be many snobs that wouldn't want to go there to breathe the same air as John Smith's or WKD drinkers.  For them beer inclusiveness is simply a phrase you hear about, but not one you'd dream of espousing.  Of course negatives exist and should not be denied, but despite the turned up noses of some beer geeks,  there is little doubt that the industry can't do without them. (Just go back to that figure of 15,000 UK barrels a week). Often they are the best bet for decent beer and food in many a small town, or in many a beer desert.  They have 283 pubs in the 2014 Good Beer Guide, 890 pubs out of  905 Cask Marque accredited pubs and they sell a lot of beer.  Only 34% of their turnover is food, so they are still wet led, despite all those eggs and all those breakfasts.

Wetherspoon has in effect had a number of game plans for years and they flex them as needed.  Prices vary according to location. In small towns, they provide cheap drinks.  In airports there is a different offer aimed at the transitory customers they attract.  In London the offer splits between inner and outer, with prices varying accordingly, as they do all over.  You won't see many scallies in the Crosse Keys for sure, but despite prices being on a par with other pubs in the area, it is still choc-a-bloc full of suits.  Must be a good reason for that surely?

Love them or hate them, Wetherspoon has been doing a lot of things right for years. Selling a few cans of American craft doesn't change  that at all, but maybe it will make a few more think again about the company. 

One or two myths arise in B&B blog:  JDW managers have the discretion to buy locally at a certain price. If they don't, it is likely because the manager can't be arsed. Area managers do have a role here, but will devolve power to the individual managers as they see fit.

While JDW is cheap in many places, it isn't particularly so in Central London, yet still very popular. For example in Jeff Bell's new pub a pint of Koenig Pils is £3.90.  In Goodman's Field in Aldgate, a pint of Heineken is £3.95.  Jeff Bell isn't known for his cheap beer.

From Wednesday of this week each JDW will have to have one of Fullers London Pride, Sharp's Doom Bar or Adnams Broadside.  I'm looking forward to trying two of these in great Northern condition.

*Yesterday I had Make It Rain from Sixpoint. It was superb. Brewed at Adnams.

Lastly, disclosure. (1) I got a few halves of very flat beer and a couple of onion bajis from JDW.  I declined a later tour of JDWs in a bus and I was sent the three cans, which I haven't yet tried.  (2) You'll find me in the excellent Regal Moon in Rochdale almost any Wednesday night.

23 comments:

Cooking Lager said...

As these craft cans are 2 for a £5 but dearer if bought alone, that means you have to drink with other beer geeks or get ripped off. What about those that shun beer geeks to drink with normal people? People that wash, dress normally & have a glass of wine and stuff. Do Spoons hand out can coolers to keep the second one cold?

MD said...

I like JDW's, mostly you know what you can expect. I only really know the ones in Manchester center, Rochdale & Oldham. I think the Shay Wake in Shaw is an excellent place, before it opened I avoided drinking in Shaw and went to the Regal Moon or Manchester for a drink. I can only imagine the ale trade would be worse without Wetherspoons and breweries would be struggling more. I hope they continue as they have been doing. I don't see them as a threat to some of the real ale drinking pubs that serve well kept good quality cask ale, just as a supplement really. Certainly can't knock the food either, value for money.

MD said...

@ Cooking Lager, you can pay for two cans, the barman/maid will sign the receipt so you can pick it up later when you have drunk the first one. I know as that is what I have just done it.

StringersBeer said...

Oh come on, Cookie, you must have one mate who'll go for a pint with you.

Anonymous said...

Cooking Lager, you're such a lightweight. 2 cans is easy piecey!

Cooking Lager said...

Nope, String, I'm a right Billy, me. Looks like I'll have to neck 1 quickly before the 2nd goes warm :(

Curmudgeon said...

I also understand JDW are by some way the biggest sellers of cask beer in the country. I still have 6 tokens left, though...

py said...

Trust spoons to miss the entire point of the ongoing home-grown British craft beer revolution by focusing on American beer. D'oh!

Erlangernick said...

Did you practice your Latin or your Bayerisch with Brother Tobias? Hmm...you got to explain cask beer to a brewing monk, I got to explain it to a lovely young Dutch biercafé lass last week. Which of us got the better deal?

FWIW, I, a foreigner, am a big fan of Spoons in general.

Professor Pie-Tin said...

@Cookie.
Can't you share your second can with your current squeeze.Surely it can't take that much effort to inflate her ?

py said...

Describing Doom Bar as "craft" is like describing Carling as "craft".

I couldn't think of a less craft beer if I tried. Sweet, bland, mass marketed crap.

Birkonian said...

I was far from home in a Wetherspoons pub yesterday, briefly. The beer range was uninspiring and the pint that I received was murky and just about drinkable. Try defending them after drinking in their pubs near to me. If you can do that successfully you've missed a career as a lawyer.

Curmudgeon said...

The results of my recent poll on the use of CAMRA Spoons vouchers may be of interest...

Have to say in my experience Spoons rarely rise above OK. Few have any atmosphere worth speaking of.

Tandleman said...

py. Who said that then?

Birkonian and Mudgie. Fair enough but you both miss the point of my piece.

Sue said...

I had the Make it Rain in the Regal last Tuesday before the branch meeting and I agree that it was superb. I was tempted to stay there and sod the meeting. But instead I had another pint of it in the Robert Peel on Wednesday.

Cooking Lager said...

I've tried those spoons craft cans and there the future. In the future all beer will be craft cans and all pubs will be spoons.

py said...

"Who said that then?"

Wetherspoons did, in their little booklet entitled "craft". They list 10 beers as comprising their new craft offering: 3 from Sixpoint, Punk IPA, Goose Island, Brooklyn Lager, Adnams Broadside, London Pride and Doom Bar.

Tandleman said...

Fair point then, though I wouldn't like to dispute that one with the Head Brewer, Stuart Howe. He looks a bit handy.

As a matter of interest, would you include Adnams and Fullers?

Cooking Lager said...

Now that London pride is both craft and available in spoons, the beardy branch I am in has appointed a team of spoons regulars whose job it is to prop up the Spoons bar informing punters "the pride is drinking well today"

It is referred to locally as "team dickie". From dawn to dusk, a member is there to guide the youngers away from the cheap Carlsberg and 2 for a fiver desperados.

That is campaigning, red in tooth and claw. I believe Mudge is doing his shift as we speak. I for one am glad such things occur and if Py truly cared he would join and do his stint. He would get himself the millets multi pocket hiking pants & festival t-shirt, grow a god damn beard and join in. The sheer hypocrisy is what gets me.

py said...

Tand: good question. Broadside I would say yes, although its better in bottle.

London Pride is questionable. Its so ubiquitous you get far more rough pints than good pints but it is a decent beer if served well, if a little bland.

Its a sliding scale, but you have to draw the line somewhere I suppose. Why is Meantime lager "craft" but Carling is not?

I don't know whether accosting young drinkers in the pub is really the best approach Cookie.

Stono said...

I dont think its snobbish at all to point out there are alot of negatives with JDWs to go alongside the positives. There are good ones, there are bad ones, if you live near alot of good ones, then I think you are fortunate, and its not unreasonable at all to point out everyones experience of JDW may well be totally different to others as a result.

but the point I would still make is how much of an impact things like this craft beer in a can, or an american collab beer, or the beer festival really do have if you never see people drink them habitually over the course of the promotion. Of course it doesnt matter what they drink as an alternate, maybe its the free refills coffee, the point is its not the thing everyone is bigging up, and thats an area that most commentators seem totally blind sided on.

Erlangernick said...

The idea to question whether any given Fuller's beer is "craft" or not is hilarious to this Yank, from the land that (unfortunately) coined the term.

And while I've not had either myself (am I missing much?), the question of why Carling ain't but Meantime is, illustrates exactly how useless the term really is.

Hey...another "what is craft?" post!

Coxy said...

I don't mind some Spoons, is was just that George Orwell's ideal pub scenario thing I hated as most would obviously be the antithesis of this.
PS Craft Beer is what the great and the good say it is.