Blacksmiths is back on tap

By Roger Protz

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: St albans, Beer

Protz: good to be noticed
Protz: good to be noticed
Imagine my delight when discovering more ales in St Albans, says Roger Protz.

It's good to be noticed. A chalk board outside the Blacksmiths Arms in St Albans announced last week that it sold Timothy Taylor's Landlord and added the rider "Look Roger Protz, £2.70".

The message from manager Mark Frazer was in response to my piece in this paper a couple of weeks ago about finding Landlord in a pub in Corfe Castle, Dorset, at £2.75 a pint. "It would cost £1 more in my home town of St Albans," I unwisely said.

I'm delighted to be wrong. I'm equally delighted to be reunited with the Blacksmiths, which used to be one of my favourite watering holes in St Albans until there was an abrupt change of beer policy five years ago.

The "brewer's Tudor" pub was owned by Whitbread and passed to Laurel Pub Company, which turned it into a specialist Hogshead cask beer outlet. But Hogshead mysteriously became Hogs Head and hand pumps and beer engines disappeared overnight. It became a youth venue, concentrating on lager and a few smooth-flow ales. But, as the pubco sector churns, Laurel has been replaced by the Town & City group, which has discovered a liking for cask beer. So successful is the cask policy in the Blacksmiths that Town & City has given it the special status of a "bespoke outlet", which gives Mark Frazer carte blanche to develop the ale side of his business.

When he arrived four months ago the only regular real ale was Charles Wells' Bombardier. That has remained as a regular but five pumps now offer an ever-changing range that may include Landlord and Hook Norton but also many beers drawn from smaller craft producers.

Mark uses WaverleyTBS, the Scottish & Newcastle wholesale division, to supply most of his cask needs. He also gets beers via Tring Brewery in Hertfordshire and he is considering signing up to the direct delivery scheme offered by Siba, the Society of Independent Brewers, which represents most of Britain's micros.

When I dropped in on Saturday for the amazingly cheap Landlord, the pub also offered Dark Star American Pale Ale, winner of a gold award in last month's Champion Beer of Britain competition, White Horse Village Idiot and Old Mill Fallover.

Frazer led me through the pub to what used to be a car park. Now it's an attractive beer garden with a large marquee where he stages regular beer festivals. His next festival, in early October will coincide, with the local Camra St Albans Beer Festival.

Frazer's love of cask can run riot

in the marquee. It has room for 16 beers and he can draw ales from all over the country. His festivals have included Sharp's and Skinner's from Cornwall, O'Hanlon's from Devon, Thornbridge from Derbyshire,

Titanic from Stoke and Saltaire from Yorkshire. He's keen on Brewster's beers from Grantham, run by Sara Barton, and hopes soon to have Sarah Hughes' legendary Ruby Mild from the Black Country.

The Blacksmiths doesn't have a cask-beer policy merely to please Mark Frazer. The strategy is successful and is winning many new customers to a pub that for several years pleased only one sector of beer drinkers.

"We've lost a few customers, but gained a lot more," Frazer said. Cask beer accounts for 30% of his business and he plans to expand the range. "I want to put in five more hand pumps — I'll take down one of the T-bar keg founts to make way for them."

That's revolutionary talk in a pub that has been a lager-and-keg emporium for several years. But this is the new reality of the pub scene, where a vigorous cask-ale policy draws drinkers like a powerful magnet.

Frazer says his ales don't appeal only to the usual beard-and-sweater brigade. People of all ages are enjoying them, including many women.

And the pub reaches out to its customers by inviting them to participate in the beer policy. Pump Action is a leaflet that lists the forthcoming cask beers and includes space for drinkers to recommend brews they would like to see on the bar or in the marquee.

With a good food menu and live jazz and blues evenings, the Blacksmiths is yet further proof that the resurgence of real ale can help pubs thrive in these difficult days. I'm pleased to have had a walk-on part in the pub's success. Perhaps I can cash in. If Landlord is £2.75 in Dorset and £2.70 at the Blacksmith's, I deserve to pocket the five pence difference on each pint sold and retire to my country estate.

Was that a winged member of the pig family I saw jetting overhead?

Related topics: Training

Follow us

Pub Trade Guides

View more

Headlines