Opinion

Building trust in beer and pubs

By Sophie Atherton

- Last updated on GMT

Collapse and sale: small investors raised £1.5m for Hop Stuff brewery
Collapse and sale: small investors raised £1.5m for Hop Stuff brewery
When the pub and beer industry is able to offer trust to customers, the payback is often seen through loyalty

We’re often told not to talk about politics down the pub, yet it used to be one of my favourite topics. Frequently, it was something debated and argued about by people with little or no interest in sport, but who enjoyed discussing ‘teams’ with opposing ideas. In the past few years though, many people have begun to take comfort in political talk being taboo and I now count myself among them.

In the summer, even the newspapers, as I still wistfully think of them, take a break from politics. Because parliament isn’t sitting, there’s little in the way of political news. This is, of course, where the concept of ‘Silly Season’ comes from. Cue stories by desperate journalists about villainous gulls (actually just being good parents, or that have learned to take food from humans because people feed them) and the most expensive pint (usually a very high-ABV beer that no one drinks in pints anyway).

As I was mulling all this over, news broke of London brewery Hop Stuff being sold to Molson Coors, after going into administration. That sort of thing is never good news, but the sting in the tail of this story was the fact that Hop Stuff had raised some £1.5m through three rounds of crowdfunding from small investors – who now have little to no chance of getting any return on their investment. Because of the hard-done-by small investors, this latest buyout came with an intrinsic sense of betrayal, more so than when other breweries sold their business to larger brewing corporations. The fact remains though, when an independent brewer is bought by a bigger one – be it a national or a multinational – strong feelings are provoked. Such feelings are often criticised, just like talking politics in the pub, but the political uncertainties of the current era shed light on the issue. Beer has an unlisted ingredient, one that drinkers – and licensees – want: trust.

Ingredient removed

For many drinkers, it’s about genuinely knowing who made the beer and where, but also who profits from the beer. Are they supporting the small, independent business they think they are; or lining the pockets of a big business that’s cynically pretending to be a small one? It’s also about quality and being able to trust that you’re going to get a good pint every time. Something that itself rests on the trust between licensee and brewer. Trust that beer supplied is of the highest quality and that advice on how to store and serve it is reliable, given and followed.

When a brewery sells out – and please take that phrase in whichever sense you prefer – that ingredient is removed. It matters more now, because many people feel there is little left they can trust. I know I am committing the ‘sin’ of being serious and political but, as ever, it’s because it is relevant to the pub trade. If your pub is a place people can truly trust in, people may see it as a safe haven in ‘interesting times’. I’m not being flippant, because I know trust is earned and often built over time, but a pub that could promise a politics-free zone (along with the very best beer!) would be one to which I’d definitely go to wind down in. Given that a recent YouGov/University of Oxford Reuters Institute poll found more than a third of us (35%) say we are actively attempting to avoid the news because of Brexit, I doubt I’m alone.

Payment is not just cash

Of course, a good pub doesn’t tell its customers what they should and shouldn’t talk about.

I’m using the above to show the value of trust and to suggest that building and maintaining it should be part of every pub’s business plan. Customers need to be able to trust that they’ll always receive good service from you; only ever be served the best beer; know your food is always going to be worth eating and, if they feel you’ve fallen short, that they can trust you put things right. In return for that trust, a pub gets loyal customers who return time and again. ­The more trustworthy you can be, the more customers you’ll get through the door.

­The fly in the ointment in all this talk of trust is the pubco model. If the public becomes more aware of how it operates, and the many struggling licensees, they might start to feel like those whose favourite brewery has sold out to a multinational.

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