Palmers - one of the UK's most traditional brewers?

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Bridport-based Palmers lays claim to being one of the UK's most traditional brewers.While the big regional brewers grab the headlines with their...

Bridport-based Palmers lays claim to being one of the UK's most traditional brewers.

While the big regional brewers grab the headlines with their takeovers and acquisitions, smaller operators are keeping up the centuries-old traditions of the family brewer.

None is more traditional than Palmers, based by the sea in Bridport, Dorset, which is the only surviving thatched brewery in Britain with an estate stretching from Lyme Bay in West Dorset as far as Somerset and Devon.

All its pubs, whether they are in villages or bustling ports, are promoted for their "good ale, good food and a warm West Country welcome".

Sales director Tim Woodrow said: "We're firm believers in keeping pubs as pubs and are keen to promote the image of the traditional country pub. Food is an important part of the business but we don't want to create restaurants selling beer. We want pubs selling food."

The brewery management is headed by the fourth generation of the Palmer family, chairman and managing director John Palmer and his younger brother Cleeves, who is marketing director.

They are the great-grandsons of Robert Henry and John Cleeves Palmer who bought the company in 1896, although the brewery dates back to 1794.

The directors take a hands-on approach to the pubs, dealing directly with tenants rather than employing business development managers.

"Our tenants are geared to show their own enterprise and skill," Woodrow said. "If we have quality licensees in the right pubs, then we're going to get the most out of our pubs by encouraging their individual flair."

To prove this individuality, the pubs are not badged as being owned by Palmers.

"It makes our licensees feel like it's their own place," Woodrow said. "We like to see them as pubs that happen to sell Palmers beer."

With no managed houses, the estate is made up entirely of fully tied tenancies.

"If the tie is fairly priced and tenants have choice of products and a good package, we believe there are benefits for both sides," Woodrow said.

Alongside national brands, the range includes Palmers' own brewery-produced soft drinks. All the pubs sell real ale, from the session beer Bridport Bitter (ABV 3.2 per cent) up to the 3.7 per cent Dorset Gold and the 4.2 per cent Palmers Best Bitter IPA.

Sales of its five per cent ABV premium ale Palmers 200 have grown since it was launched to celebrate the brewery's bicentenary in 1994. Added to this is a strong dark ale, Tally Ho! which, at 5.5 per cent ABV, is an occasional brew.

Freetrade sales and the pub estate are focused on the brewer's West Dorset heartland, but both are expanding. Although it is happy with the size of its estate, it is on the lookout for about two new pubs a year, looking northwards and eastwards.

It made a bold move 18 months ago, opening the Master Thatcher in Taunton, Somerset. Not only was it a new location but it was its first new build, complete with a large thatched roof.

But Palmers continues to dominate West Dorset's towns and villages, where it owns 11 pubs in Bridport and three in the fishing town of West Bay, which is the location for the BBC series Harbour Lights, starring Nick Berry. For filming, the Bridport Arms Hotel is transformed into the Bridehaven Arms and the Piers Hotel, which has brought extra business to Palmers' pubs, including coaches carrying members of the Official Nick Berry Fan Club.

Although Palmers is a well-kept secret compared to other players in the pub industry, it is clearly performing well, pushing up profits for 1998/99 by 47 per cent to £1.3m.

"We're just quietly getting on with running the business," Woodrow said. "We don't go overboard on publicity. We don't want to make a song and dance about it.

"We have gone from being a small introverted family brewer to one that is becoming more extroverted."

It remains 100 per cent controlled by the Palmer family, which appeals to licensees who have seen their pubs changing hands as the industry consolidates.

Woodrow said: "We can offer security, which isn't so common these days, because the family is proud about the business and wants to leave it for the next generation.

"Our growth has been carefully controlled and we know where we are going. We're proving that a small family company can still survive against all the conglomerates, fighting our corner successfully."

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