My Pub: Fuggles Beer Café, Tunbridge Wells

By Phil Mellows

- Last updated on GMT

Café culture: Fuggles Beer Café has opened a sequel and both sites are thriving
Café culture: Fuggles Beer Café has opened a sequel and both sites are thriving
Owner and licensee Alex Greig might be surprised that Fuggles Beer Café survived its first year, but since opening in Tunbridge Wells in 2013 his concept has been a hit and a second site has launched in nearby Tonbridge

Facts 'n' stats

Name:​ Fuggles Beer Café

Address:​ Grosvenor Road, Tunbridge Wells, Kent

Tenure:​ Commercial leasehold

Founded:​ 2013

Licensee:​ Alex Greig

Staffing: 10, plus three in the operations team

Annual turnover:​ £700,000

Wet:dry split:​ 90:10 (60% of wet volume is beer)

GPs:​ 50% to 60%

The pub

I got a start-up loan through a Government scheme and opened Fuggles in 2013 with £45,000, taking a lease on an old pound shop that was an empty shell. I had a clear idea of what a pub should be, combining inspiration from the bar culture in Belgium and the Netherlands with a classic English boozer. It was something I believed in, something I was passionate about. 

Fuggles would be, simply, ‘the best place to drink’ based on the atmosphere, the design, the people and the music. If any one of those are wrong, you’re in trouble. It’s always a big risk, but I had the attitude that if it didn’t work there’s still time to try something else. 

The publican

I’ve been in the drinks trade since I was 18, starting at Threshers wine merchants. I joined the Pitcher & Piano here in Tunbridge Wells at 19, and worked there for five years. Then I opened a new bar for them in Chester. 

But I got bored with the corporate world and came back to Tunbridge Wells to work in 
independent restaurants and pubs. I was part of the team that opened a new bar-restaurant Wells Kitchen in 2012 and became a director. It was great to learn how to run an independent business – and around that time I fell in love with craft beer. 

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The trade

Our customers are a diverse crowd aged from 18 to 80. We’re not beer geek-centric here. We do have that craft beer culture, but we also have old boys who want a pint of traditional bitter, office workers who want a cold pint of lager and Prosecco girls, too. We have no pretensions. You should just do things well and not make it hard for people to enter the market. I don’t like demographics. Your demographic should be everybody in the pub. 

The team

We have 10 staff at Tunbridge Wells led by general manager Lauren Porter and supported by an operations team of three – myself, food and operations manager Doug White and Dan Tapp, who is about to take on a training role. Two thirds of our staff are full time. I’m a big fan of full-timers, you get a pay-off in the long term. 

What we do is quite complicated. You have to know the difference between a gose and a gueuze, so we’re developing our own training programme covering beer styles, off-flavours, gin and whisky. We’ll be putting staff through the Level 1 Cicerone beer qualification, while the management team will take on Level 2. 

We work with a local company, Runway Training, on the statutory stuff, and I’m doing an apprenticeship in leadership and management. Leading a team is the biggest challenge and I’ve been making it up for the past 14 years!

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The drink

Beer is our forte, complemented with solid lists of wines and spirits. I don’t like the word, but you could say everything we do is ‘craft’, working with people we know. 

If you’re paying £5 for a pint you’ve got to make it worth it, and if it’s selected by ourselves and served by a guy who knows what hops are in it – that adds value.

We’ve really developed that over the years. Our staff can recommend what to drink based on your mood – but not in a w***y way. It’s all accessible and down to earth. Everything’s priced on a cash margin so the more expensive things are still affordable.

We hit craft beer at a nice moment and caught a wave. We piqued people’s curiosity here. Fuggles opened with four cask lines and 10 keg, and now have six cask, including two ciders, and 14 keg. Three are permanent core beers – Campus Pilsner from the Huyghe Brewery in Belgium, Tonbridge Brewery’s Coppernob Ale and Hawkes Urban Orchard cider. 

It surprises me how the market has changed. We couldn’t shift our first sour beer but now we have a permanent sour line.

The more keg we’ve put on, the harder it’s been to push cask. Cask drinkers will drink keg now. Cask sales are consistent, but you have to be realistic about volumes and make sure the quality’s always there. I train the guys in cellar management and use Cask Marque to check standards. We have a fantastic relationship with CAMRA (the Campaign for Real Ale) and I help organise its local festival.

We’ve gone from 30 or 40 bottled beers to 100, and we’ve started ageing our bottles in the cellar. You can’t compete with supermarkets so you have got to offer stuff you can’t get anywhere else. 

The wine list was recently relaunched because it didn’t really represent what we are. Now we’re working with smaller importers such as Les Caves de Pyrene and Red Squirrel, doing interesting stuff. And it’s the same approach with 
gin and whisky.

The food

It’s a very European menu of cheeses and cured meats plus traditional English snacks like sausage rolls, served all day from 12noon to 10.30pm. The ‘kitchen’ is at the end of the bar and it’s limited to what you can do with a meat slicer and a mini-grill. Doug used to work at Neal’s Yard and makes our own pickles. The main thing is that it all goes with beer.

On the menu

  • Punjabi-style red kidney bean curry, flatbreads and yoghurt dressing £4
  • Beetroot, almonds and mint salad with pomegranate dressing whipped Graceburn cheese and horseradish £4
  • Ploughman’s with cured pork, farmhouse cheddar, sliced apple, pickles, chutney and bread £8
  • Staffordshire Oatcakes with smoked bacon, melted cheddar, onions and leek, sweet and spiced mayonnaise £6
  • Toasted cheese and ale sandwich, with farmhouse cheddar, Westmalle Trappist ale and four types of onion and leek, served with dressed leaves and pickles £6
  • Devil’s Mortar with soft sobrasada-style salami on toasted sourdough with dill pickle, yoghurt dressing, pickled fennel and leaves £7
  • Big Board – a daily choice of three varieties of farmhouse cheese, two cured meats and Devil’s Mortar on sourdough with dressed leaves, pickles, olives and bread £25

Suppliers include Neal’s Yard, Crown & Queue, Blackhand, Cobble Lane Cured and our local butcher, A Fuller.

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The events 

We aim for at least one food-related and one beer-related event a month, but it’s usually more frequent than that because brewers are coming here for launches. We’re hosting the Fourpure Continental Collaboration Tour in July and that’s great for getting the word out about us.

We don’t market the pub in a traditional sense. Our focus is on events. We attend local festivals where we get to meet people, and that’s our advertising. We also post on social media every day, talking about events and new products.

The future

People seem to like what we’ve done here. Personally, I’m amazed we survived the first year! Our new place in Tonbridge is going well, too. We’ve built a team of people who want a career and we don’t want them to leave, so we’ll open more. Perhaps we’ll get to five or six. 

I’d love to have a brewery. It’d make commercial sense as well as being a lot of fun.   

Tonbridge: the second site

Tonbridge Fuggles opened last August in an ex-carpet shop and is managed by Evie Hawes. The menu is the same but the beers are different. 

The two pubs share a lot of customers, people who were coming to Tunbridge Wells from Tonbridge.

One advantage is the business can split cases between the two sites to make sure bottled beers that need to be fresh are turned over every four weeks because “people like to try something new”.

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