Publican Local Focus: Birmingham - cask central

By James Wilmore

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Real ale, Beer, Public house

"Real ale is just going crazy at the moment." That was the view of one licensee we met in Birmingham. Admittedly Nigel Barker is a real ale fanatic,...

"Real ale is just going crazy at the moment." That was the view of one licensee we met in Birmingham.

Admittedly Nigel Barker is a real ale fanatic, and social secretary of the local CAMRA branch, but the evidence we found across the city seemed to back up this assertion.

While publicans in Britain's second city have been hit by the same factors affecting many - the recession, off-trade pricing - lots of the pubs we visited were finding positives among the negatives.

Since taking over city-centre venue the Wellington, Barker has concentrated on making it a real ale haven. Customers are allowed to bring in food - whether it be a local takeaway pizza or a packed lunch. And the formula seems to have worked.

"It brings in office workers, students and OAPs, so it's great," he said.

"Birmingham was a real ale desert in the mid-90s. But I could see there was a gap in the market. We started with 10 handpumps - and now we have 17."

Another licensee looking to capitalise on this apparent boom in real ale is Mark Satchell at the City Tavern.

Last month, owner Highgate Brewery re-opened the pub under the once renowned Davenports banner.

Highgate has the licence to brew Davenports beers - and has introduced some of its famous ales at the pub.

Positive feeling

"There's a very positive feeling around real ale in Birmingham at the moment," said Satchell. "Licensees seem to be trying to work together on promoting it and they are happy to support each other."

A short walk from the City Tavern is Broad Street - where undoubtedly many a tabloid newspaper photographer has captured lurid scenes of "Binge Britain".

But both Barker and Satchell suggest this strip of late-night bars has had its hey-day.

And the reason for this? Satchell suggests: "It's appealing to people from outside the area - for hen and stag parties - but for locals it doesn't really have that attraction any more."

And there is evidence that the street is not the thriving Mecca it once was, with a number of bigger commercial venues having shut down.

On the other hand, there's still the opportunity to get seriously refreshed on Broad Street and have enough for your bus fare home. Among the offers we saw were cocktail pitchers for £4.99.


However, Broad Street has worked hard on its image and for the last four years has had a Business Improvement District scheme in place, which includes street wardens being employed to patrol the area and work with police.

Away from the centre, the impact of the recession is more strikingly apparent with a number of pubs closing in recent times, particularly a number of larger pubs in Birmingham's suburbs. What were once vast successful boozers are no longer viable and are ripe for conversion into flats or homes.

So it seems Birmingham's pub trade is going through a transitionary period, perhaps being mirrored in many other UK cities.

With less of the pie for everyone to share, it's those operators offering something special, or concentrating on what they're good at, which are thriving.

As Barker explains: "It sounds harsh but the recession is sorting the wheat from the chaff - it's definitely been a wake-up call for some."

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Birmingham licensees

Nicola Roberts is manager at Pennyblacks - a privately owned bar in the Mailbox complex, just to the south-west of the city centre

How much will a drink cost me?

All real ales are £3 a pint and lagers are £3.30 a pint. Offers include £2.20 for a pint of Foster's before 7pm, Mon-Thurs. Wine is £3.40 a glass, vodka and cola £3.85, and cola £1.25.

Do you do food?

It's generally traditional English with a contemporary twist. Steak and ale pie and chips is £10.50, ham and eggs is £9.95, and Sunday roasts are £8.95. We also do breakfasts.

Who are your customers?

We get a real range. Fridays we get a younger crowd and we turn the music up louder. But our selection of cask ales tends to bring in a slightly older crowd and we also do wine tastings.
What attracts people?

We are a bit of a one-off really because we cater for a lot of audiences. Sixty per cent of all drink sold is real ale - and we have seven on most of the time. We've also noticed more young people taking an interest in ales - some just like the attractive pump clips.

What are the issues affecting trade in Birmingham?

People are losing their jobs and also lots are taking early retirement. It means everyone is more reluctant to spend. With the after-work crowd we've noticed customers having a couple then heading home.

Nigel Barker has a free-of-tie lease with a private property company at the Wellington, situated in the heart of the city centre
How much will a drink cost me?

Wye Valley HPA, our best-seller, is £2.60 a pint. Purity Mad Goose is £2.80. Pure Czech is £3.10. Coke is £1.10 for half a pint, a single-serve wine is £3.10, spirits are £2.10.

Do you do food?

No, we just concentrate on the beer. But we encourage people to bring their own food and supply plates and cutlery.

Who are your customers?

We attract a broad spectrum - everybody from suits to OAPs, to students. We are known as a specialist real ale pub and we have 17 handpumps.

What attracts people?

Our range of real ales and the fact the pub is clean and well-run. People seem to be more discerning now and are seeking something more individual, that's why I think real ale is enjoying a revival.

What are the issues affecting trade in Birmingham?

The city centre is doing well real ale-wise, but pubs in some of the suburbs are suffering. There's some fantastic pubs there, but they are too big and are just no longer viable.
Mark Satchell is licensee at the City Tavern, just off Broad Street. Owner Highgate Brewery has recently given the pub a makeover and re-introduced Davenports beers

How much will a drink cost me?

Davenports Original Bitter is £2.50 a pint, Highgate Mild is £2.50. Guest ales are £2.70. Davenports Continental Lager is £2.80. Single-serve wine is £2.95. A vodka is £2.00 and bottle of coke £1.

Do you do food?

No - we operate a bring-your-own policy, like the Wellington.

Who are your customers?

We've only been re-opened for about three weeks, so we are getting new faces all the time. We get a lunchtime office trade and we have the cinema opposite so we have people coming in from there too. We are next door to Gatecrasher so we have some of that crowd as well.

What attracts people?

It's the Davenports brands now, there's been a lot of press about it. People are excited Davenports is back in Birmingham. Our continental lagers are also proving popular too.

What are the issues affecting trade in Birmingham?

I've noticed that smokers are pub-jumping a lot more because of the ban. There's lots of pubs in the city centre, so you can do that.
Steve Jones is licensee at Punch Taverns leasehold the Prince of Wales, just around the corner from the ICC and Symphony Hall

How much will a drink cost me?

A pint of Tribute is £2.70, as is Landlord. Ansells Mild is £2.40. Wine is £2.60 for 175ml. A pint of Pepsi is £2.15. Vodka is

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