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Beer bonanza, but it's tough for Shropshire pubs

South Shropshire | News | Published:

Real ale drinking is increasingly fashionable, yet the local is struggling to survive. So what's going wrong? Business Editor Thom Kennedy reports.

Real ale drinking is increasingly fashionable, yet the local is struggling to survive. So what's going wrong? Business Editor Thom Kennedy reports.

If ever there has been a good time to be a brewer of real ale, this is it.

Drinkers of real ale have often been sneered at in the past - one Viz cartoon strip depicting them as pompous, self-important buffoons fitted the stereotype.

But increasingly, younger people are looking over the casks when they get to the bar, and a sturdier snifter is often the first choice for people in their 20s heading to the pub.

A report from the Society of Independent Brewers shows that small, local breweries are currently utterly outstripping major firms, with eight per cent growth in the independent market compared to an overall decline in the brewery market of 3.9 per cent.

Shropshire enjoys a number of independent brewers, who produce a wide range of craft beers, and Nick Davies, owner of the award winning Hobson's Brewery in Cleobury Mortimer, said: "Smaller breweries provide what customers want more than your larger breweries do, they are becoming more sophisticated.

"And the drinking public are quite discerning now about what they want. The entry level to drinking real ale is about 22 or 23, whereas it used to be that people wouldn't drink real ale until they were in their 30s."

With that level of success in local drinks, it would be fair to assume that the purveyors of those drinks are enjoying a similar boom.

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But the troubles faced by Shropshire's pubs remain alive and kicking, and rural watering holes across the UK are still closing at the rate of three every week, and face a continuing struggle to survive.

What, then, is the problem with pubs?

Richard Sys, landlord of the Plough Inn at Wistanstow, says landlords associated with major pub chains are bound to struggle because of the size of the rents and fees associated with the companies that are being placed on them.

"I talk to so many landlords at big companies' pubs, and the extra costs run through every element of the pub.

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"They are no longer companies that own pubs, they are companies with a property portfolio, so when one closes down it doesn't matter, it's still an asset.

"If you look at a Punch or Enterprise pub where they are charging £40,000 a year rent, if you were to think about the kind of mortgage you could get, you realise the pub isn't worth anything near that."

Mr Sys himself worked under pub company, but left after seeing rents nearly quadrupled when he set the struggling premises back on its feet.

Now he has set himself up independently, he says, he is much better placed to handle the difficulties of running his pub.

He says that even on top of rent, wholesale prices add 50 per cent to the price of a barrel of beer, while 'cellarage' charges, effectively renting cooling and pumping equipment, adds thousands more to costs.

And, he says, repairs are the responsibility of the landlord, and must also be carried out by an approved builder on a higher rate, as is the food the pub supplies.

"Anything that takes a pub out of multi-national company ownership is a good thing," Mr Sys adds.

"They have got to take some responsibility for what is happening, as at the moment they are driving prices sky-high."

Nick Snaith, a DJ at Heart FM, took over The Aston in Newport after the pub repeatedly failed to ignite local interest, and agrees that the high rents and 'unrealistic' tie-ins, coupled with inexperienced managers, have been at the heart of the problems faced by pubs around the UK.

However, he says there is a new wave of businessmen and women taking over the reins who want to bring back the glory days of the humble rural pub.

"You just cannot stress enough the importance of the local pub to its community," Mr Snaith says.

"It's not just a place to have a drink or a bite but somewhere for the locals to use as a home-from-home.

"The big pub chains have no affinity with our communities as they are only interested in the profit margin, and their insatiable appetite for greed has left empty pubs everywhere.

"Yet the flipside for serious investors with money in the bank is that there are a wealth of properties on the market at a fraction of the price."

Punch Taverns, naturally, deny that the prices they charge are excessive, and have launched a new type of lease for pubs, which place higher still rents on landlords, but with prices fixed for a decade and without tie-ins.

A spokesman for the firm said: "It opens up more opportunities for people that couldn't afford to buy a pub building, and we provide additional support, but it's effectively your business to put your own stamp on.

"It is about somebody coming in as an individual, looking at the costs and business plans and doing what's right for them.

"When we take on new entrepreneurial licensees, it is about their vision to turn that business around, to go in and see all these possibilities. We want people with vision to put their stamp on a business, and knows how to make it work themselves. We want people to make a profit and keep pubs going, so communities have a resource they can use as well.

"There are no quick fixes, but the future is about the right people running pubs."

tkennedy@shropshirestar.co.uk

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