Tuesday, 26 April 2022

Wetherspoons. Good or Shite?

I inadvertently started a sort of flame war on Twitter the other day. I innocently called into my local Spoons the other day after a few pints of Holts and Lees.  I took a photo - this photo - which seemed to kick off a lot of angst.

It seems that many of the Twitterati retain a visceral hatred of JDW, even if they up their cask game beyond the "usual suspects".  In a tirade reminiscent of a Usenet Flame War came the sort of comments that are all too often flung about where Wetherspoons are concerned.  You can look for yourself to see what exactly was said, but the same old clichés were trotted out. Let's list a few:

"They buy nearly out of date beer; they are sucking the life out of every High Street; they are loss leading cask beer; they are screwing brewers by forcing them to sell at under fifty quid a nine; £2.10 is an unsustainable joke even before the recent huge increases in EVERY aspect of producing beer;"

You get the picture. Of course, added to the general tirade about Wetherspoons, were the usual attacks on CAMRA and its members for daring to a) offer and b) use 50p vouchers.  Another theme was that brewers are devaluing their own products by selling to Wetherspoons and further shooting themselves in the arse by doing so at unsustainable prices.  I particularly liked this post - countered by Cooking Lager. One can almost feel the spittle flecks:

So what is the truth here?  Like many things, it is complicated. Let's all remember that JDW didn't fall from the skies as a fully formed company of nearly 1000 pubs. Owner, Tim Martin, started with one pub and slowly built his empire. Back then, as far as I recall, the company always used its buying power to keep prices down and attract a wide base of customers on the" pile it high and sell it cheap" model.  I assume as business picked up and the number of outlets increased, their buying power also increased.  This essentially is the model that most supermarkets use. They don't have high profit margins, but they squeeze their suppliers to maintain value to customers. It isn't new at all.  

Back on Twitter, I was moved to respond by naming what I called "the elephant in the room":

I suppose that the argument that brewers are devaluing their own product is some kind of abstract, perfect world thought, as the evidence, rather is that many breweries - most breweries - are not so indignant about the issue that they won't sell. The inconvenient truth is that they are all scrabbling for outlets and the real reason for their supplying JDW, is that if they don't, someone else will.  There are a lot of brewers out there with beer to sell. Likely there are more brewers than we really need to supply the market, but nobody likes to admit it. Oh, and JDW pay the agreed price promptly.  You make beer - you have to sell it. Not much outrage there.

Another inconvenient truth, that we must remember, is that selling cask ale is a quite small part of JDW business, but it accounts for a lot of cask beer. JDW does not make much of its money from cask and if they suddenly ceased to exist - or decided not to sell cask at any price, the problem of over-supply wouldn't go away.  There wouldn't suddenly be sunny uplands where cask beer will be sold at £140 a nine and all breweries would live on milk and honey. Rather, even more of them would have to cease trading. Be careful what you wish for.

So back to the hatred, by some of Wetherspoons. What's really behind it? Yes, they are a big company that force prices from suppliers to be lower than some would like, but unlike, say, certain other pub companies who also buy cheaply, they pass the savings on to customers. Bad people?  There is undoubtedly, too, a certain snobbery aspect. This will be vehemently denied, but really, many rather look down on ordinary people being comfortable with their peers in an environment that they can afford. Better by far they should learn to improve themselves and save up to buy expensive murk in a tin shed or railway arch. That would improve the beer market and give more money to deserving brewers, rather than to the ingrates flogging to Wetherspoons.

So are JDW saints or villains? I'd venture neither. They fulfil a need, and they keep mash tuns full.  You also have to remember two basic facts. Nobody has to go there and nobody has to sell to them, but should you really despise and demean those that do? 

What is/was Usenet? Usenet (/ˈjznɛt/) is a worldwide distributed discussion system available on computers. Users read and post messages (called articles or posts, and collectively termed news) to one or more categories, known as newsgroups. Usenet is culturally and historically significant in the networked world, having given rise to, or popularized, many widely recognized concepts and terms such as "FAQ", "flame", sockpuppet, and "spam"

Back in the old Usenet days in the 1980s, we (semi jokingly) boiled things down a bit when discussing beer. Was it good, or was it shite? Hence this blog piece title.


Reg said...

I say good

Maybe people should people should give Wetherspoons a break. After all there are evil pub companies (property companies) that rip off punters and tenants. They are more worthy of comment

Anonymous said...

I've supplied Spoons as a brewer, minimum of 30 days on cadk life is a requirement. I've audited over 50 Spoons cellars in past 3 years alone. Their standards leave many independent outlets and other chaibs standing. They introduced calories on the menus while others are busy faffing. They make a margin on Cask ale and support over 500 microbreweries. Supply and demand dictates pricing. They turn beer over quicker than many other outlets hence quality is well above the norm for cadk ale.

retiredmartin said...

Great read and fair conclusion, as usual.

Set aside the beer/cask angle, and Spoons fulfil a key role in many towns in providing an affordable social meeting point and restaurant for folk across the age ranges. OK, rarely first choice for the beer connoisseurs, but Spoons don't care about them despite selling more cask than anyone else (I assume).

I think the fact that your branch, and Central Manchester, continue to put Spoons in the GBG says a lot about the quality of the cask, though I'd always pick the City Arms over the Waterhouse in Mcr to meet mates or read a book.

We could do with more pubs piling it high and selling it cheap; fresh is best.

Curmudgeon said...

Very good post.

Apparently Spoons account for at least 1 in 10 of all pints of cask ale sold, so they would leave a massive hole.

Especially in the current climate, the people drinking £2.10 pints in Spoons wouldn't start spending £3.50+ in the independent free house, they'd be on cans at home, and they would be deprived of a social outlet.

And I certainly remember Usenet and uk.food+drink.real-ale :-)

Tandleman said...

One likes to think it is deserved. Most Spoons are like most pubs, only as good as the management. I agree with your remarks in para 2.

Tandleman said...

Indeed. I was usually on the busy but more American re.food.drink.beer Still know plenty from those days.

Phil said...

People seem to be having an unthinking reaction to those low prices - as if the fact that the JDW's retail price is twice as high at the Enterprise pub down the road means that Spoons are exploiting their market position by paying the brewer half as much. Tain't necessarily so. If Primark sell a pair of jeans for £3, you can conclude that the people who stitched them aren't getting much for their work, but you can't assume that the people who stitched designer jeans going for £60 are getting twenty times as much - or twice as much for that matter.

Life After Football said...

A great piece. Couldn’t agree more. Decent cask at an affordable price when most of us are feeling the squeeze

Alistair Reece said...

Completely agree here.

Whenever I get home to the UK I am more than happy to go to the local Spoons. The one in Inverness is one of my favourite spots for a pint or several and a bit of a feed.

While it is true I am not a fan of Tim's politics, if I only spent money at businesses in full alignment with my worldview, I'd be a millionaire, and a miserable sod with no mates. I go to Spoons because I know the real ale will be as well kept as anywhere else locally, and invariably better, and the prices mean I can have 2 pints instead of 1. As you mention, nobody is forcing brewers to sell to Spoons, so if people want to take some self-righteous, dubious "high ground" let them have it.

Anonymous said...

Something often overlooked is that if you drink at lunchtimes or early evenings Spoons is often the only place with a significant number of customers.

Sitting with one or two others in an otherwise empty pub gets old very quickly.

rod said...

I don't always agree with you, but I do on this occasion.
I would like to also agree with the comment above - as a former (now retired) Cask Marque auditor (and brewer), I endorse the comment that Spoons keep their cellars, and their beers way above the average. Failing a Spoons on an audit is pretty much unheard of.

I also agree with the point about snobbery - there's a lot of people on zero hours and minimum wage out there, and they are just as entitled to go for a pint as anyone else. Wetherspoons would not have prospered as it has if it didn't fill a need in the market.
Don't like rubbing shoulders with the Sppons crowd? Off to your local taproom or gastropub then, and pay through the nose.

Stono said...

is it dislike of Spoons, or dislike of Tim that drives the twitter frenzy though ? I think alot of the angst Spoons attracts certainly in the past decade, has been driven by more from the latter than the former. Though I think as a brand as it grew more rapidly its always had its detractors for one reason or another, there was an article I read only a few weeks ago belittling their 9am opening for breakfasts and the reporter,who I doubt visits many Spoons full stop, wrote it up as the "most depressing experience ever", personally Ive always liked their breakfasts myself.

But its difficult then to debate with someone on twitter who is triggered more by what Tim might have said on an edition of Question Time, than about the actual Spoons business, its place in the pub & brewing trades and what needs it serves for people & the community.

Ive visited towns where Spoons were the only pub serving drinkable cask beer, where actually they might have been the only place open selling reasonable quality food for a decent price too, equally Ive been to some right godawful ones, it very much is like most pubs down to the quality of staff and managers running the place.

and on the whole I think they get more things right than not, than alot of chain pubs do. I certainly partook in the recent beer festival, and enjoyed each of my beers for £2.10, knowing full well had the exact same beer been present in the nearest non chain outlet for nearer £5 instead, Id probably have given it a miss.

Anonymous said...

Big fan of spoons. Usually a great range of beers (cask & keg). JDW have saved and refurbished some fantastic buildings throughout the country and are also a major employer of young people. The only issue for me is they can be very noisy due to their success, but so can some local pubs which I also frequent. Cheers Ian B.

Citra said...

I have no problem with Spoons business model and certainly no interest in Tims politics, for or against, I just don't enjoy Spoons as a pub experience and as such use them rarely,for those that do or is their only option to get out for a drink, well thats fine, It's just not for me.

Ed said...

Yeah, lack of atmosphere in 'Spoons is one of the things that mostly keeps me away from them.

rod said...

I agree that many branches do suffer from a distinct lack of atmosphere. My wife compared drinking in the Greenwich branch (the Gate Clock) to drinking in the bar of a cross-Channel ferry...

Rob Sterowski said...

If only cross-Channel ferries had beer as good as a Wetherspoons. I’ve been on several ferries run by three different shipping lines in the last six months and it’s invariably been Heineken for £6 a pint.

Cooking Lager said...

Good, Obvs.

Always a laugh to troll some beer snobs. Whether it's spoons, Timbo, chain pubs in general or regular drinkers they sneer at, they always manage to reveal their snobbery and contempt for a regular drinker enjoying a regular beer.

Couple of points I'd make. Spoons wide range of cask, promotion through "festivals" and CAMRA discounts come from Timbo himself. He is a supporter of your campaign. I know of no other large pub chain operator that actually likes CAMRA. When he steps down and a more conventional CEO takes over, much of the cask offer will go. It's low margin drinks for lone old men. It'll be like a Toby carvery with one pump of Doom bar. At that point it'll get ignored by the beererati and we discount pint lovers won't have the fun of earning the contempt of beer snobs.

The low wholesale price of cask beer is not the fault of Timbo. A thousand breweries churning out largely identical pale ales produce a commodity market. Commodity markets trade on price. The nice cosey cartel of us all agreeing to pay more to support Tarquins and Jaspers "dream" of a craft brewery isn't a solution to a commodity market.

Tandleman said...

Common sense and good points Stono.

Anonymous said...

That’s a very good side point-probably 100s of empty buildings lining our high streets,had spoons not taken them over.
I have done nearly 900 now,there are some hovels but most are good drinking hostelries

Tandleman said...

Troll? Moi? Serious piece Mate. Often the garbage about JDW comes from those that should know better.

Curmudgeon said...

@stono - I think the dislike of Spoons is mainly the same kind of snobbery directed at any mass-market chain offering keen prices to ordinary people, rather like McDonalds and Greggs. Revulsion at Timbo's politics is only the icing on the cake.

And I'd agree with the point that if Spoons didn't offer cask beer, or only offered Doom Bar and Wainwright, they would largely fly under the radar of beer enthusiasts. But from their point of view the cask offer has a huge halo effect for their public image.

Curmudgeon said...

@Citra - I have a lot of respect for Spoons' business nous, but like you I find their pubs largely devoid of atmosphere and not places I feel at home. While they may occupy some impressive buildings, the actual layout is often more like a works canteen.

I've heard it said that they are deliberately made "unpubby" to minimise customer dwell time.

Tandleman said...

Of course layout and "pubbiness" isn't particularly endearing in many, though some of their modern designs are far better. The older versions remind me of a more carpeted Yates Wine Lodge of yore.

Your last para seems unlikely. It is probably more of a practical issue. Big pubs, unless split into distinct areas or rooms, rarely feel as good as smaller ones.

William said...

One more thing I'd add. JDW started mainly in north-west London and what had been Middlesex. Due to the rapid suburban housing expansion in 1930s and 1950s, it had become an area with a large population but not many pubs - even on the main high streets, in some cases. So JDW filled a need for pubs, let alone cheap beer.

Oh, and always worth pointing out to people that using "buying power to keep prices down" was a business strategy pioneered by the Cooperative Wholesale Societies before any supermarket chain or PubCo.

Reg said...

When Wetherspoon started in 1979 the pub world was a quite different place. Many outlets were behind frosted glass and of a small square footage etc. The large format, non threatening, more female friendly layout is part of the success, often replicated by other pub operators.

A lot of people forget this and only look at things from the beer enthusiast perspective. For the man, or woman, in the street Wetherspoon are Pubs. Wetherspoons have enlarged the pub/pub food market. For many families it is the obvious place to have a meal in a strange town. When four people can have a decent modest meal for £35-£45 with a drink what's not to like.

Wetherspoon are Top
Mostly non slopp
Snobs should remove their mask
Then drink the fresh cask

Anonymous said...

I think the unpubbiness is designed to drawn in customers who wouldn't usually go to a pub, which is one of their strengths: they attract a wider clientele.

Cookie said...

The pile it high, sell it cheap business model was 1st discovered by the Quakers that founded the countries main confectionary brands. For moral reasons they cut margins, considering high margins to be immoral. They discovered this increased volume and shifted their confectionary from a product enjoyed by the upper classes to one enjoyed by the middle classes. Their profitability increased, something that wasn't their expectation.

This was considered a problem that required them to use that profit for the public good, hence the civic buildings, hospitals, schools they built and donated.

Don't believe stories it started in America and came here via woolworths.

CAMRA Chairperson, Fingringhoe said...

Wetherspoons are awful pubs populated by awful people. CAMRA ought to sever their relationship with them and all pub companies. I ritually burn my CAMRA tokens every year.

My local CAMRA branch has an annual event outside the local Obscure Ales Tap, we congregate over our responsible and sustainable £4+ beer and burn the evil tokens for cheap £2 ale. Some even dance around the fire and sing songs denouncing Tim Martin and holding their flagons of ale aloft. All branches should do this, and I am disappointed that yours doesn’t.

I refuse to pay less than £4 a pint and anyone that buys Wetherspoons beer is a selfish fool that is killing the rich and diverse cask beer ecosystem CAMRA have lovingly built over 40 years. Hang your heads in shame. You will reap what you sow. A world of cheap pisswater served to you in a tatty barn in the company of dirty unwashed scrotes spending their job seekers allowance.

I recommend keeping abreast of twitter, the great and good will inform you when the £4 floor limit increases.

Tandleman said...

That you Cookie?

Ed Quoththeraven said...

In my time involved with my local CAMRA branch the only pub person who ever contacted us asking to come to a meeting and talk about beer with us was the manager of our local Wetherspoon.

A fairly local brewery has also supplied beer to Wetherspoon "beer festivals", and has won awards for their beer. They don't need to rely on Wetherspoon for trade, but if the company was really awful they wouldn't bother at all.

I don't go in my local Wetherspoon much. I don't hate it, I just prefer other nearby pubs. But what I would say is that while I have had to return bad pints there, it's always been met with an apology and a no questions replacement, which is not something you get everywhere. So they're a mixed bag.

Colston Crawford said...

You’re right, there are good and bad Spoons just as there are good and bad pubs in most chains (and good and bad independents) and we all have varying views about what constitutes good and bad.
There are one or two horrible Spoons in my area that I wouldn’t go into; in a couple of others I’ve had exemplary, going the extra mile service.
I’ve been in towns (Dumfries, Doncaster for two) where I needed a meal at a time when only Spoons were open. I’ve stayed in a couple of their clean, comfortable, bargain-price hotels: the one in Thirsk is excellent.
A point not often covered… in several places they have rescued and enhanced buildings that would otherwise have been derelict. Sometimes the thought and detail of the history on the wall displays makes them little short of a mini-museum (the new build one in Stapleford, Notts a classic example).
In Northern Ireland they provide cask outlets where often no others exist.
I’m not a fan of Tim, I don’t think CAMRA should have got into bed with them to the extent they have and I think they should do more about the anti-social customers in some outlets and the cleanliness and service in some others.

But, overall, more good than bad, I think

retiredmartin said...

On Colston's point, actually being open is an underrated attribute in a pub.

I visited Kendal recently on a Tuesday lunchtime and NONE of the six GBG pubs were open (a few opened at 4, a few not till Thursday). The Spoons was open and full.

Tandleman said...

Fair points from you, Ed and Colston.

Hinge and Bracket said...

Whilst we detest wetherspoons and the dreadful people that drink in there, we take take exception to being called snobs. We have constructed and expressed reasons why we don't like wetherspoons for reasons other than snobbery and turning our nose up at the horrible people it attracts. People that go to the trouble of articulating well considered arguments for why wetherspoons is dreadful that make no reference to the dreadful people that drink in them should not be considered snobs. We would go further and encourage others to make no reference to wetherspoons dreadful customers when criticising wetherspoons.

Abbie (not her real name) said...

Wetherspoons is my go to space but I can't tell my liberal mates or my father who is a Church of England vicar. I'm also a CAMRA member and use the 50p tokens which I know is frowned on. I just can't help it. I often slope off there when my flat mates are away at weekends. I also think Tim Martin is a cool dude. I would hate this to be know in the village.


Tandleman said...

Cookie and Cookie? 🙄👏

Anonymous said...

I should probably say I sell beer to JDW outlets and some of the UKs most revered cask ale sites. I've never got the thing about "it's end of date beer", we sell all of our beer within six weeks of racking and that includes to JDW sites (really wish that myth would die).

Also, they're not terrible, they're just OK pubs. Some are better than others for sure and I wouldn't try and make some false argument that they can even compete with a well run independent as a a kind of "reverse snobbery" that some commentators here have but they are what they are at the end of the day.

Like supermarkets they are part of the system, there are much worse pub chains and operators in the UK.

Anonymous said...

We need a cookienomics blog please. ✔️

Tandleman said...

Absolutely. Which is kind of my point.

Beer snob said...

Why is beer snob a perjoritive?

I'm a beer snob and proud of it. I'd no more drink in Mr Wetherspoons than I'd get my groceries from a food bank or travel by public transport. Just because a lot of the uneducated masses like something it doesn't mean it's good. I don't care what the price of beer is and would not wish to rub shoulders with those that do.

If Mr Wetherspoon serves one function, it is to keep the scum out of the CAMRA Micro Tap and ensure our ale discerning appreciation is not ruined by the presence of those just throwing it down their neck.

Tandleman said...


Cooking Lager said...

What's up, fella?

John-Mightycat said...

Here's my sevenpen'th.

First, a few pros.
The beer is cheap and usually in good condition.
No muusic.
In some places, the only real ale in town.
Marvellous use of old buildings.
Opening hours.

Now, the cons
Tim Martin pushing his politics.
Service can be sparce - "Who's next?"
Lack of 'pub' atmosphere.

I do find that there can be a big difference between different outlets. Some are excellent. Ones I use are the one on St Pancras station and the one at Potters Bar. One or two are/were hopeless - I will not name them because they may well have changed since my last visit.

electricpics said...

My local Spoons is the High Main, Byker, which sells very good cask and I'd go in a lot more but for the fact that Spoons stopped letting dogs in, so I wander past to the rather more expensive delights of Ouseburn where dogs are welcomed everywhere.

ian said...

'Spoons are very democratic places where a wide range of people comfortably mix. This is something that until the advent of this chain you would rarely see elsewhere. On the matter of cask ale, the quality is good and there is normally available a wide range of styles. Obviously some people took offence at Tim Martin's vocal support to leave the EU but unless one is overly sensitive about the issue it is not difficult to ignore the beer mats and house magazines trumpeting his political views.