Sun business editor Steve Hawkes weighed-in on behalf of Britain’s struggling pubs on Tuesday, calling on the unusual combination of the Institute for Public Policy Research and CAMRA to issue a ‘Plea for Dying Boozers’. The IPPR has claimed the “social value” of a good community pub is up to £120,000 a year to the local area. Not sure how they work these things out, but I reckon News International could let go one of the 300 editorial staff said to be on six figure salaries, and plug the hole in the community left by one of the 1,078 pubs to have closed in the last two years. I couldn’t reach Mr Hawkes on Twitter, so I’m guessing he was down his local.
The big red dragon may be all over the City Arms on Quay Street, but a visit gets you much more than a watery pint of SA for your troubles. Brains have let one of their flagship city-centre pubs off the leash since landlord Chris Partridge took over in September last year and it now stocks a range of guest ales alongside the standard Rev James and Brains Dark. It’s also one of the most inviting watering holes in Cardiff with a permanent ruddy glow drawing-in regulars and passers-by alike from the capital cold.
Brains have allowed Chris a free reign on which guest ales he gets in and these are rotated every two or three days. Combined with a range of ciders and continental lagers, this has made the City Arms a proper drinkers pub.
Here’s Mr Partridge on beer, Brains, and the new direction the City Arms has taken since he poured his first pint here more than a year ago:
The range of craft beers Brains will be bringing out in the new year has Chris excited. The company is responding to the rise in the number of small brewers in the last decade and to pub-goers who want more to choose from now their pints cost so much more than they do in the supermarket
Brew Wales blogger Arfur Daley is positive about what this means for the City Arms. The organiser of the Great Welsh Beer and Cider Festival also contests the charge that Cardiff has always been dominated by Brains pubs. “Ten years ago there was choice in Cardiff. I was running a freehouse in the city at the time and we did not have the competition from superpubs such as Wetherspoon, or the smoking ban. Brains have lost a lot of their Cardiff pubs since the 1980s due to the city centre being rebuilt and have expanded their estate outside of the city and even into England,” he says.
Mike is 24 – “born 35!” – and a Pembrokeshire-born City Arms regular. He also recognises that Brains have broadened their horizons and thinks this is a good thing for his pub of choice:
Derek, 55, and from Cardiff has also become a fixture at the City Arms since Chris took over, even though he lives outside the city. Alongside his partner Sarah, he chats amiably to Mike who is less than half his age and their group exemplifies the mix of customers the pub attracts from older drinkers to students and young professionals. He doesn’t think pub-goers lack for choice in Cardiff:
But this isn’t the view of the clutch of CAMRA members I came across on an earlier visit to the City Arms. Steve Avery tells me: “The landlord keeps his beer very well which is good for Cardiff – because there is sod all around.” Fellow drinker Norman Jenkins chimes in: “Brains is alright, it’s just the fact it’s so dominant. We would drink Brains if there was nothing else. A well kept pint of Brains Dark is fine.”
It seems that either as a manager, tenant or patron you’ve got to meet Brains in the middle in Cardiff. Rhys Gwn Lewis, landlord of the Royal Oak in Adamstown, knows the clout they have.
“You can strike deals with them, you can meet halfway in the middle really. They are a good company to work for; it’s give and take on both sides. They do put money back in. Some landlords will tell you they are a waste of space but me personally I have a good relationship,” he says.
Is it good for Rhys that Brains have so many pubs in Cardiff? “For Brains yes, for me no. There are two other Brains pubs within walking distance. Some people will only drink in Brains pubs,” he says. Still, Rhys has signed a ten-year contract with the company where the normal length is three. “We get on, we click. You have to click with Brains and if you don’t that’s it,” he adds.
Arfur Daley argues: “Brains remain a family-owned brewery and the pubs have changed, for the better over the years, with food becoming an important part of the business.” For beer enthusiasts like Arfur, it is always preferable for a pub to be owned by a brewery rather than a pub company.
So whatever you think of how Brains run things in Cardiff, at least they know about beer and have given Chris Partridge the chance to put his passion to work in a thriving pub with a viable business model. As CAMRA member Jim Conway puts it as he sups a pint in the City Arms: “There are bigger brewers than Brains but for this area they are huge. It just happens to be Brains here; they are just part of the game.”
Find the City Arms:
This blog may abhor the Yates and Wetherspoons of this world, but there’s no escaping the fact there aren’t that many free houses in Cardiff. SA Brain & Co are an inescapable presence in the pub trade and across the city in general be it on the side of bridges, or the pitch at the Millennium Stadium. The company claims its beers are “the toast of a nation,” but if none of what they offer is to your taste, then you may struggle to find a place to drink in the capital.
Royal Oak owner Rhys Gwn Lewis says: “Some landlords will tell you they are a waste of space but me personally, I have a good relationship with them.” But it’s not hard to find different views. A regular at another pub says the rates they charge his local are “extortionate,” while one of a clutch of CAMRA members drinking in the Brains-owned City Arms, says to me: “Brains is alright, it’s just the fact it’s so dominant.”
With the brewery expanding more into craft ales, taking on a restaurant and even buying up a coffee chain, there is no doubt the 127-year-old concern is continuing to grow. But how Brains treats its tenants and managers, the quality of the beer they supply and the uniformity they lend to so much of Cardiff’s pub scene, are more pertinent issues the bigger Brains gets. Without doubt, Brains have got plenty of brawn in Cardiff.