PUBLICAN AWARDS 2023

Meet the finalists: Best Brewing Pub Company

By The Morning Advertiser

- Last updated on GMT

Information pumped: we’ve looked into the Best Brewing Pub Company finalists in detail
Information pumped: we’ve looked into the Best Brewing Pub Company finalists in detail

Related tags Pubco + head office Multi-site pub operators Events Publican awards

The award for Best Brewing Pub Company recognises businesses that operate a successful brewery and pub estate.

Big Smoke Brew Co

Big Smoke has emerged as a serious player in the past couple of years, expanding both its brewing operation and its outlets bringing together a blend of modern beers served in largely traditional pubs.

Crucially, the appointment of former Beavertown head brewer Jenn Merrick as managing director of the brewery has given James Morgan and Rich Craig, who founded the company with the Antelope in Surbiton in 2014, the time and scope to deploy their undoubted retail skills to develop and hone the pub estate.

Eight sites were added in 2021 and the company now operates 11 leased pubs to the west and north of London, plus four franchised bars at airports and a taproom at the brewery that hosts regular events.

Some 60% of production is sold through the Big Smoke estate, and following a brief period of consolidation, the estate is set to grow once more with four or five openings planned.

Its welcoming, comfortable locals are set apart from the competition by an astonishingly broad choice of beers, both keg and cask, that might include Big Smoke’s seven-strong core range, specials and well-chosen guests from independent brewers around the UK and beyond. Food menus offer the kind of dishes that go with beer, using fresh seasonal ingredients.

This year, expect to see taps pouring a series of collaborations with some of the country’s most respected brewers.

Such an extensive beer list could be intimidating but accessibility is key to Big Smoke’s success and customers are guided by knowledgeable staff, all trained by the company’s own academy where beer curation manager Katie Arabella has devised training materials designed to school new starters in a thorough understanding of styles.

It adds up to an operator that meets the needs of the modern market with great pubs, a brewery that couldn't be in better hands and enthusiastic people with an independent spirit.

Brewhouse & Kitchen

Europe’s second-largest chain of brewpubs, founded in 2013 by Kris Gumbrell and Simon Bunn, Brewhouse & Kitchen operates 22 spacious, high-quality sites across southern England and as far north as Chester.

Each has its own working brewery on view to customers and a dedicated brewer producing their own take on cask and keg beers to style, based on framework recipes devised by group head brewer Pete Hughes.

To make that work, Brewhouse & Kitchen has pioneered brewing apprenticeships, training the next generation of brewers. Its success is reflected in a string of awards.

Having a brewer on site means cellar management is in the hands of experts, and bar staff have access to their skill and knowledge. That goes for customers, too. Each pub offers a range of beer experiences from tastings to the chance to spend a day brewing, providing an extra, fast-growing, profit stream for the business as well as engaging consumers and educating them in the important subject of beer.

Alongside the home-brewed beers, which always includes a seasonal special on cask, variation is provided by guests on tap – and, as the name suggests, a Brewhouse & Kitchen isn’t just about the beer. More than a third of sales come from food.

An all-day menu offers pub classics, burgers and the group’s signature beer can chicken, plus roasts on Sundays, attracting a wide customer base and bringing an opportunity to introduce more people to the diversity of modern brewing. The pubs are also big enough to provide bookable desk space for those working from home.

The latest brewpub opens in Chelmsford this spring and there are opportunities for the company to develop more accommodation at its larger sites.

Arguably against the odds, Brewhouse & Kitchen has made a success of a difficult business to manage, with its 22 breweries, and has done so thanks to a determined focus on training and a belief in the power of beer.

Lincoln Green Brewing

Founded by retail executive Anthony Hughes a decade ago, Lincoln Green’s 10-barrel brewery stands over a former coal mine in Hucknall, on the outskirts of Nottingham. It opened its sixth pub in January 2023.

The company specialises in traditional community locals, refurbished to high standards, emphasising familiarity and comfort, and cask ale-led. It has made its mark turning around failing businesses and, against the market trend, it has seen sales grow strongly in the past year, a reflection of its commitment to cask beer supported by strong retail skills.

It has also begun to develop a ‘craft’ range under the sub-brand Blackshale, a name that will also be used for an ambitious new retail concept. Lincoln Green’s seventh pub, opening soon, is the White Lion in Beeston. Closed for five years, it will be reborn as two pubs – a traditional local at the front and a food-led Blackshale Bar & Kitchen at the back.

Across the estate, the people behind the bar have a close relationship with their customers and the group’s loyalty scheme enjoys a membership 10,000 strong. The discounts it offers have helped ease the impact of the cost-of-living crisis.

All staff receive special training in beer quality, profitability and food matching in the brewery’s ‘Green Room’, delivered by Chris Holden of Ashdale Consulting. The course is also extended to staff working in the brewer’s freetrade accounts.

Pairing beer with food plays an important role in engaging regulars at its flagship Station Hotel in Hucknall, while other pubs offer simpler menus suited to high volume beer sales.

Lincoln Green is demonstrating that community pubs can work, and that cask ale can be a growing part of the business. And in Blackshale it shows it has the vision to broaden its customer base and explore the potential for craft beers and food served in a modern setting.

Salt Beer Factory

Starting out as a brewpub in old tram sheds in the Unesco World Heritage Centre of Saltaire, West Yorkshire, in a few years Salt Beer Factory has expanded into a chain of 10 venues clustered around two breweries. A second, larger production site has opened in Deptford, London to satisfy the demand for its beers.

Launched by Ossett Brewing’s Jamie Lawson, Salt is run as a separate company with its own team led by managing director Nadir Zairi, who has been responsible for developing a brand strong enough to find a regular spot on supermarket shelves.

While the Saltaire site is two outlets in one, a more traditional pub in front and a brewery and taproom out the back, the Salt taps that form the rest of the estate are modern city bars.

Alongside the Salt keg range, you’ll find cask ales from Ossett plus guest beers, creating a diverse and comprehensive offer that attracts a broader customer base than you might expect. Solids are provided by local operators offering a diverse variety of street food.

The company has a strong culture among its people, developed through formal training programmes, regular meetings and, simply, the attraction of its brand.

Brewers are given plenty of scope to experiment and create challenging beers at the cutting edge of craft, yet visitors to a Salt Tap need not feel intimidated. The brewer is on a mission to introduce more people to good beer by keeping the messages simple, the branding clean and clear, and by making sure there are friendly and knowledgeable staff behind the bar.

It’s likely that more of the country will have a chance to try the Salt experience in future, as the company plans more brewing ‘hubs’ around which it can build a growing tap estate. It’s an ambition that will bring something new and exciting to the UK beer scene.

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