Wednesday 10 September 2014

Humphty Dumpty had a Great Fall

Humphrey Richard Woolcombe Smith
If you're in a pub and see the man above,  do not approach him. Do not get into a debate about cask ales and NEVER a debate about being served a full pint.

My personal acquaintance with the Samuel Smith Brewery has been limited.  I once went on a day trip to Chester and did a tour of the city centre pubs.  Eventually, I chanced upon The Falcon on Lower Bridge Street.  Walking inside, I was bemused to see the kind of pub decor I'd not seen since the few times I was allowed inside licenced premises back in the early 1980s.  Looking along the bar, I failed to see anything I'd heard of.  "Hmm.  Well.  I'll havea pint of the Old Brewery Bitter" I thought "How bad can it be?".  I took out three pound coins in order to complete the transaction.

"One pound fifty", said the barmaid.
The Falcon, Chester

I'm glad I hadn't started drinking at that point, otherwise I'd've sprayed the entire bar area with brown Yorkshire bitter.  I had never paid so little for a pint, not even back in the last century when I started drinking.  I even checked the pump dispenser to see if I'd ordered a non-alcoholic beer by mistake.

It certainly wasn't the best beer I'd ever had, but I reasoned you get what you pay for.  Looking round, I realised there was not one single recognisable brand of drink, snack or anything else - a deeply unsettling experience in the 21st century.  I finished my pint and left for the Bear and Billet down the road, which turned out to be less unnerving despite being packed with Welsh Rugby fans.

Being me, on my way home, I had to find out exactly why these events happened.  I got out my laptop and looked it all up on the train home.  Yes, the Falcon was a Samuel Smith Old Brewery Pub and I found an independent forum that deals with the issues surrounding them.  To say the brewery owner is not positively depicted therein would be an understatement.

The most tactful way of describing Humphrey Smith is that he's a traditionalist.  He's inherited his family's brewery and runs it the way he wants to, as is his right.  Unfortunately, he doesn't seem to appreciate the difference between respecting the traditions of the 19th Century, and living in them.  Tales of him treating his pub managers like serfs, his pubs like a landed estate and technology like the sign of the apocolypse are many.  And woe betide you if you want any more beer in your glass than he's prepared to give you.

Humphrey will be 70 in December.  Rumours of his retirement abound, but it never seems to happen.  In fact, he's been taking more and more responsibilities at the brewery over the last few years, leading to many unsatisfactory practices, as described here in a flabbergasting article by one of his erstwhile relief managers.   .
Ye Olde Blue Bell, Preston

In so many ways, this situation is a shame.  Apparently (I've not been in the Preston Sam's, The Ye Olde Blue Bell), Smith's pubs are a throwback to the days when they were all places of cheery banter, gossip and cheap beer.  Or so Mudgie says, and he'd know.  The SSOB bottled beers have been recently lauded by Boak & Bailey of all people (though they admit "Sam Smith's is not a trendy brewery. Nor even likeable")

The main hope of many of Sam's slowly dwindling group of fans is that HRW Smith goes before the company does.  His son, Samuel is apparently being groomed to take over, but is only 26.  I say, as many commentators do, that it's sad to see a company of such potential being slowly squandered by one man's intransigence.


  1. I wrote this in 2009 about the two Sam Smiths pubs in Whitby:

    Two Sam Smiths pubs, the Plough and the Jolly Sailors, had Old Brewery Bitter for under £2-00, but owing to the eccentricity of the brewery, there can be no music in these pubs as they refused on principle to buy the new-style licences 2 or 3 years ago. I don't understand a principle that turned the Plough from a large pub that was heaving during the 7 days of folk week with music sessions in 3 separate rooms and another in the large back yard, weather permitting, to one that looked almost deserted most of the time. Doesn't Sam Smiths want to make money?

    The Plough really was so busy that I wouldn't have been surprised if its takings during Folk Week alone had been enough to pay for all the licences of the entire Sam Smiths estate. The last time I looked in, this enormous pub had about 6 people in at the height of Folk Week instead of the hundreds it had had before the licensing system changed. Despite the subsequent abolition of music licences for venues with a capacity below 200, the Plough still won't allow it and remains music-free and empty. The real ale has gone too; presumably not enough people were drinking it.

    I've also heard of Morris dancers being refused service in a Sam Smiths pub because the bells on their kit constituted music, for which they had no licence.

  2. So long as there are daytime drinkers, those hardy middle aged men that refuse to work, live on the sick with a faux bad back. So long as Ian Duncan Smith doesn't get to them. So long as there is a giro day. So long as there are odd bits of work in the black economy for cash in hand. So long as people engage in a bit of light shoplifting and want a place to hawk it....

    There will always be cheap, low end boozers.

    For what it's worth most Sams own brand products are not too bad. The stout is better than Guinness, the double four better than most cooking lagers. The old brewery is tasty and the sovereign is okay if you like your bitter chilled. As for the short measures, company policy or not they appear no worse than many other pubs. Plenty of pubs serve froth on a pint.

    I like a cheap pint as I'm a cheap skate and don't mind the rough clientele. No one forces anyone to go anywhere. If you prefer £8 for a craft beer in a trendy gaff more power to you. If you like sub £2 pints and run out of Spoons tokens, Sams it is.

  3. Life would be very boring if everywhere was the same, wouldn't it?

    And I'm surprised that as a Preston resident you've never been in Ye Olde Blue Bell - even I've been in a couple of times, although the last was probably twenty years ago. Give it a go and see if it confirms your prejudices ;-)

    While I accept that the clientele of Sam's two Stockport pubs can be a bit down-to-earth, the same isn't true of pubs like the Bird in Hand in upmarket Mobberley.

    1. The Ye Olde Blue Bell is on Church Street where, to be quite honest, grown men fear to tread these days. Derelict shops, takeaways and the frankly terrifying Bears Paw are there. There'll be a Spoons there soon, which can only be an improvement.

      Most of the pubs outside the main streets of Central Preston have closed in the last 20 years. The Sam's is one of the few that remain.

  4. The poshest Sams I've been in is in Lincoln. It's frighteningly trendy. Sams prices, though.

  5. I'd imagine some of the ones in London are pretty posh. The Boot on the Rows in Chester has the typical urban Sam's clientele, though.

  6. Most of London isn't posh. Most of it is a shit hole. London isn't the gentrified bits full of beer bloggers eating overpriced pulled pork and drinking £8 cans of beer.

    Most of London is as Obi Wan described Mos Eisley, You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. Beer blogger hipster ville is a lone outpost being circled by angry and violent natives.

    If you want posh, pop to Alderley Edge.

  7. For years i was buying Yorkshire bitter from M&S.It was years later while in London that i saw a bottle of Sam Smith OB bitter. The moment it hit my lips, i thought wait a minute, this is what i have been drinking all these years from M&S without knowing who brewed it.