Mine's a pint
PUBLISHED: 16:26 27 July 2010 | UPDATED: 16:07 20 February 2013
The effect of a smoking ban, the rising price of beer and a recession has hit our village pubs, but by hard work, introducing menus based on local produce and a touch of girl power, the survivors are stronger than ever
Ask anyone to describe their ideal village, and it's a good bet that most people will include a pub (in many cases more than one). Along with post offices and local shops, pubs lie at the heart of many villages, cementing that all important social bond that sustains our rural communities.
Throughout much of the country, this role is under threat. Rural pubs are closing at an alarming rate, currently six per week and it is now estimated that more than half of all villages in England and Wales don't have a pub.
"Last year, in both rural and urban areas, a total of 72 pubs closed in Kent, and of these 36 have gone forever," says Kae Mendham, Regional Director for the Campaign for Real Ale here in Kent.
"So far during 2009 we have already lost 30 pubs, six of which will never reopen. I've been monitoring nearly 2,000 pubs since the beginning of 2008. We are seeing the beginnings
of a worrying trend locally," she adds.
Jackie Clark, who has been a publican for much of the last three decades and runs the North Pole in Wateringbury, feels this trend is not the fault of those running the pubs.
"The companies who now own pubs are trying to squeeze more and more out of the tied licensees," she says.
"People like me who have a lease with the pub owners are forced to buy our beer from them, even though we can get it cheaper elsewhere. The result is that we are often paying three times more for our beer than would be the case if we were able to go to the wider market."
Many of Britain's pubs are tied to a few large pub companies, known as 'pubcos', whose strength in the market has grown considerably in the last 20 years. The pubco is not a brewer, but is essentially a middleman between the brewer and the pub.
While the pubco is able to buy beer cheaply from the brewery, it can charge their pub landlords a price of their choosing. Consequently, the consumer is usually paying a significantly inflated price for a pint of beer, and tied pub landlords are being forced to sell beer at a loss.
But, as Jackie explains, it's not just the pubcos that are a problem. "The smoking ban, for all its implications on health, is having a terrible impact on my pub and others I know about. It's killing atmosphere - pubs are now half empty because a large proportion of our customers are scattered outside, which makes the pub unattractive.
"It also hurts profits, because previously people would play the fruit machine while smoking, which now they don't, and because they are in the pub less they also drink less.
"If you add this to the rises in VAT, the current recession and the fact that we are competing against beer sold in supermarkets which can be bought at much lower prices, then you can see why we are having such a hard time."
Despite the many challenges facing pubs, there are success stories here in Kent. The Plough at Stalisfield Green is one such example, a pub that has prospered in recent years, winning several accolades, including the title of the county's Best Pub at the recent Taste of Kent Awards.
Its owner, Robert Lloyd, feels that one of the key reasons for their success has been an appreciation of their location. "It's a difficult time for pubs and I have nothing but sympathy for others in the trade," says Robert.
"Getting to where we are now has not been straightforward. When I took over the pub, the first thing I looked at was our setting. We're in the heart of the county's countryside, so we made the menu reflect that.
"We use wild food from the woods and fields around us, our lamb is from Romney and we even have our own cattle, which are reared in a farm just four miles away. In fact, all our meat is sourced locally. We also have many Kentish beers and wines on offer. This pub is rooted in its location, and I think that's valued."
Robert feels that this appreciation of the pub's setting combined with an openness and simplicity has proved very popular. "We don't target specific clientele. This is a traditional country pub in every sense of the word and everyone is welcome here, prince and pauper alike, and that is reflected in our customers, who are a broad mix of ages and backgrounds.
"It helps that the menu isn't overly complex, it's straightforward, high-quality pub food such as sausage and mash, home-made pies and traditional ploghmans. As we have no restaurant area, it means diners and drinkers are together, which makes for a better atmosphere, something I think customers appreciate."
At The George & Dragon in Headcorn, another pub doing very well, its owners, Sarah and John Farrow, have taken the appeal of local food that bit further. "Our entire menu is dominated by local produce and if customers like what they have eaten, such as one of our pies, then they can buy some more to take home," explains Sarah.
"They can also join our food club, which gives them a discount on the food we sell, plus the chance to come to events where local producers talk about what they do. We've found that food is making all the difference. It's really integrated the pub with the local community and also given us a wider appeal across the county."
The success of The George and Dragon and The Plough reveal that even in a difficult environment, by offering something a bit different there remains room to prosper. It might also illustrate that in the future more pubs will have to innovate and change if they want to thrive.
That said, Carole Dalgleish, of the West Kent branch of CAMRA, feels many issues still need to be addressed. "Our pubs, whether in towns or villages, are a vital part of their community, places where people from all backgrounds can get together and socialise," she says.
"The pub plays a key role in any community and that needs to be realised, otherwise we risk losing more of them, which is something that I think we will all come to regret."
There are approximately 57,500 pubs in the UK
Eight out of 10 adults count themselves as pub goers and more than 15 million people drink in a pub at least once a week
More than 600,000 people rely on pubs for their employment
More than 80 per cent of pubs are small businesses run by tenants, lessees and owners
The average pub spends more than 70,000 per annum on locally sourced goods and services
UK pubs now serve more than one billion meals per year
Here come the girls...
It was almost certainly a woman who, some 10,000 years ago, stumbled upon the technique for turning cereal grains into a nutritious and fortifying drink used, not just for celebrations, but as a diet staple, writes Clare Pope.
For thousands of years, female 'brewsters' made the bulk of the ale produced, selling any surplus to friends, neighbours and passers-by - the origins of the public house.
So it is perhaps unsurprising that today the pub has come full circle, and a place traditionally perceived as a male domain is increasingly widening its appeal. Some of Kent's most successful pubs are being solely run by women and indeed Britain's oldest brewer, Shepherd Neame, which has more than 370 pubs in the south east, now has 31 sole female licensees.
A new picture of the modern-day British pub is emerging: comfortable, welcoming places with family-appeal run by professional, female licensees looking for a challenge and a family-friendly lifestyle. For these gutsy women, there has never been a better time to strike out on their own.
The Queen's Head
Tel: 01227 751369
A quote above the bar of the Queen's Head tells customers that "wine and wenches empty men's purses." The pub's licensee, Sara Smile has certainly been emptying her customers' purses since she took over in September 2008: prior to Christmas, Sara was in the enviable position of having to buy more cutlery to fulfil her 90 covers per day!
Her philosophy is to keep things simple: "The important thing is to control your costs - understand your margins, keep your menu concise and avoid wastage," she says.
She also has a brilliant Irish chef, David Kennedy, who serves up hearty pies, hand-cut chips and stews and shares her belief that local produce is best. "Howlands in Boughton supplies the vegetables, meat and cheese are from Brogdale and we get fish from Hermans in Faversham. This guarantees fresh, high-quality ingredients and helps us maintain affordable dishes - from 6.50 for a main course."
Sara has worked with the brewery to turn a tired, dingy pub into a light airy bar with a caf-style ambience along with some more intimate dining areas, which she also hires out for meetings and training days. There's definitely a female touch, with all the furniture carefully picked out from salvage yards and antique shops, accompanied by rainbow displays of glass bottles, arty clocks and wall hangings - without detracting from the fact you are still in a pub.
"I gave up work at the end of 2007 and was living opposite the pub and just got fed up of seeing a pub that wasn't being run to its full potential," she says. "I had lots of ideas about how I could develop it and felt ready for a new challenge. The smoking ban was also a factor in my decision to take on the pub - I don't think I would have done it otherwise."
Adds Sara: "The aim has been to widen the pub's appeal and make it a friendly, welcoming atmosphere for all the community. Women didn't come into the pub before, but now the male regulars bring their wives and families and the knock-on effect is that the ladies will come in for coffee or lunch.
"We also host the Faversham quiz league, a local cycling club, sponsor the local football team and have a ladies' bat and trap team."
The Walnut Tree
Forge Hill, Aldington TN25 7DT
Tel: 01233 720298
Karen Barrett's first venture behind the bar was when she managed her brother-in-law's pub while he went on holiday. Two years later, in November 2002, Karen (right) took over the Walnut Tree in Aldington.
Her passion led her to transform the place into a bustling village local and a great destination pub with a delicious menu of traditional dishes.
Karen has also introduced themed food nights, including retro school dinner evenings.
The pub's part in smuggling history is proudly displayed at the bar, and Karen has created a welcoming family environment with a large garden and bouncy caste. She regularly holds fundraising events, raising money for the local school and village hall, among others.
Karen says: "Running a pub is a way of life and very rewarding, but your heart has got to be in it to make it a success!"
The Druids Head
Herne Bay, CT6 5AP
Tel: 01227 372751
Karen (right) is now six years into her tenancy at the Druids Head, Herne Bay and has never looked back. "I was ready for a new challenge and decided that running a pub would provide just that, as well as being a great business opportunity," she says. "So I obtained my personal license and then approached Shepherd Neame about taking over one of their pubs.
"It's hard work but personally, very rewarding, you never know who is going to walk through the door and it great having to deal with different types of characters."
The Druids Head is a traditional drinker's pub that doesn't serve food but does have darts, a pool table, Sky Sports, a spacious outdoor smoking area at the rear of the pub and live music twice a month.
Despite not serving food, it is a busy pub with a strong base of regular customers.