Jennings Brothers adapts to modern times

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At first glance it would seem easy for a regional brewer like Jennings Brothers to just rest on its laurels.In business since 1828, the company began...

At first glance it would seem easy for a regional brewer like Jennings Brothers to just rest on its laurels.

In business since 1828, the company began brewing in Cockermouth, Cumbria in the 1870s at its attractive site on the confluence of the Derwent and Cocker rivers.

With an established brewing reputation and a solid estate of some 110 pubs, a number in picturesque Lake District locations, surely Jennings could just carry on as before and remain successful?

Fortunately for Jennings shareholders the company has been only too aware in recent years that to do nothing would be to go backwards.

The overall decline in cask ale sales in Britain and the rising strength of branded pubs from national companies provide a warning against complacency.

One of the areas that has come under the microscope has been the brewing operation, which for many years did not extend far beyond Jennings Bitter, which was too often in less-than-good condition by the time it reached the customer.

Key changes have included the cessation of malting at the Castle Brewery - malted barley is now brought in for greater consistency - and repositioning of the site to make the brewing process less complicated. Even small changes, such as washing barrels in the same area where they are filled, make a difference.

An important step came with the appointment at the start of 1997 of former Boddingtons head brewer Peter Laws, who was lured to Cumbria after a two-year stint with Banks Barbados Brewery in the Caribbean.

"Big steps have been taken to improve the beer that comes out of the Castle Brewery and making it a more stable product," he said.

The range of four cask-conditioned ales is now complemented with Old Smoothy, a nitrokeg version of Jennings Bitter. Laws said he saw a place for the market for a nitrokeg beer, adding that both Old Smoothy and Jennings Cumberland Ale had claimed some converts from lager drinkers.

Laws stressed that much of the work had already begun before his arrival, but he has already instigated an appraisal of the operation to see what else is necessary. His enthusiasm for brewing in general, and the Jennings' range in particular, is infectious.

When it comes to distributing the beer, the company is seeing the benefit of the 10-year deal signed last year with specialist distribution firm Tradeteam, which now handles all warehousing and distribution for Jennings.

A wholesale deal was also signed for the sale of cask beer in Lancashire and the North East of England.

Jennings is one of the latest recruits for Tradeteam, which now supplies one-in-three pubs in Britain.

"We are a brewer and a pub operator, and the distribution deal has allowed us to concentrate on these core activities," said tied trade manager Mark Welch.

Jennings now has 83 tenanted and 27 managed pubs, an estate that is growing steadily.

"It is company policy to be acquisitive, and we are always looking for new opportunities," said Welch. "There are a lot of pubs available, but very few good ones and it is some of these that we are looking to cherry-pick."

Jennings is firmly committed to the tied house system and Welch is a particularly strong advocate, having recently completed a thesis on the partnership aspect of tenancies.

"We're looking at partnership as a new approach for our tenanted pubs," he said. "We've looked at long-term leases and franchises, but we feel that the traditional tie system has a lot of merit."

Welch said he felt that the tie system offered the tenant a suitable degree of flexibility, giving scope for their entrepreneurial flair but also providing financial security.

Tenants formerly dealt with area managers, whose job sometimes extended little further than ensuring publicans were buying the brewer's products and paying its bills.

Now tenants work with business development managers whose job is to unlock and maximise the potential of the tied estate.

The new approach will be outlined in a new code of practice for tenants set to be introduced this summer.

"Other companies have produced a lot of promises for tenants, but we are determined to deliver," Welch said.

Within the tenanted estate a separate trading operation - Solway Inns - has been set up. This incorporates 18 pubs, mainly in towns, which have been identified as requiring special assistance.

Jennings is also aiming to develop its managed estate, although it has so far steered clear of branded pubs, choosing to maximise the potential of each individual house rather than roll out a brand.

Although Jennings share many of the concerns of regional brewers regarding such issues as the future of the tie and beer imports, the company is now well-placed to be optimistic about its future.

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