November 2006, March 2007
March 23, 2007
In Lewes, East Sussex, regulars are boycotting their favourite pub because
the owners have stopped selling their favourite beer. Should we care? Yes, says
Tim Minogue, because it highlights how big corporations are destroying local
pubs across the country
Eight-thirty on a Saturday night and the pubs are filling up in Lewes. The
Elephant and Castle is packed with men watching rugby on the big screen. A mixed
crowd is ready to boogie at the John Harvey Tavern, where local Madness-inspired
band the Ska Toons are tuning up. Aficionados of real ale and roll-ups are settling
down in the Gardeners Arms. And the youth are getting stuck into the lager at
the noisy Rainbow.
There's a pub to suit most tastes in the East Sussex town. But the most popular
of the lot, the Lewes Arms, which is normally packed on a Saturday, is all but
empty. The only regulars here tonight are standing outside in the drizzle with
placards and leaflets, politely requesting potential customers to boycott both
the 18th-century pub and its owner since 1998, Greene King plc.
The main room, with its bare boards, sash windows, open fireplace, high-backed
settle, dartboard and notice declaring that anyone using a mobile phone must
buy a drink for everyone in the pub, is deserted. So is the backroom with its
old photos and naval memorabilia. Only the tiny front bar, with a window giving
on to the lane leading to the town's Norman castle, is occupied - half-a-dozen
loud characters who seem to have been there some time. One spots my notebook
and bellows: "Wanker!" The thirsty stranger might conclude it is better
to go elsewhere.
Hundreds of regulars already have. They have been boycotting the 220-year-old
pub since December 11, when Greene King, despite a petition signed by 1,200
locals, including Lib Dem MP Norman Baker, withdrew Lewesians' favourite tipple,
Harveys Bitter, from sale.
Harveys has been brewed a few hundred metres away, beside the River Ouse, by
an independent family firm since 1790. It was voted best bitter in 2005 and
2006 at the Great British Beer Festival. In the Lewes Arms, as a "guest
beer", it outsold Greene King's own IPA, brewed in faraway Bury St Edmunds,
Suff olk, at least four-toone. But GK, as supplier as well as retailer, made
more from every pint of IPA sold than Harveys. Get rid of Harveys, the thinking
went, and the locals, after a bit of grumbling, would switch to IPA and GK would
make more money. But it hasn't worked out that way. According to the trade paper
the Morning Advertiser, the pub has lost 90% of its business since the boycott,
which was 100 days old on Wednesday, and now sells very few pints of anything.
At lunchtimes and weekday evenings, hours go by when no one at all crosses the
But this dispute is not just about beer. Across Britain the traditional "community"
local is under threat as never before. According to the Campaign for Real Ale
(Camra), 56 pubs close in Britain every month, most of them urban locals. Camra's
head of research, Iain Loe, says: "The bricks and mortar are often worth
more, in the short term, for conversion to flats than the place is as a going
concern, even though it may have been making money for 200 years and would continue
to do so. Then people move into the new flats and find there's no community,
no focus, which the local would have provided."
Ownership of pubs is becoming concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. The giant
"pubcos", Punch Taverns and Enterprise Inns, own some 9,000 outlets
each, while Greene King itself has more than 2,600. "If a smaller pub doesn't
fit into their business model they will sell it to a developer to be converted
into fl ats or a restaurant without a second thought," says Loe. Last autumn
Greene King sold 158 pubs, many of which were destined for redevelopment.
Pub owners are also worried about the smoking ban that comes into force in
Wales on April 2 and in England on July 1, and are seeking to maximise profits
before it kicks in. "Wet" pubs, like the Lewes Arms, where most of
the turnover comes from selling drink, are supposed to be particularly vulnerable
to loss of trade, based on the theory that smokers are also likely to be the
heaviest drinkers, and will indulge both habits at home if they cannot do so
in the pub. Research by Camra, however, indicates only 3% of regular pub-goers
say they will stay at home because of the ban. The other 97% - 6.2 million people
- say they are more likely to visit the pub after it comes into force. Another
840,000 who currently don't visit pubs because they don't like smoky atmospheres
say they will after July 1. Greene King intends to encourage them, according
to its chief executive, Rooney Anand, by pumping "industrialscale air fresheners"
through pubs as part of what it calls "Operation Clean and Fresh".
The Lewes Arms is - or was - the community pub par excellence. Martin Crees,
one of the mainstays of the Friends of Lewes Arms "vigil" outside,
says the pub is "like a communal sitting room ... there's no juke box,
no TV, no fruit machines. It's a conversation pub." Mobiles are banned.
Valmai Goodyear, 53, a regular for 35 years, says: "It's the pub where
you go to meet friends. As a woman I've always been comfortable going in by
myself and knowing I'll meet someone worth talking to. I like the continuity.
My son took his first solid food in the Lewes Arms - the corner of a beer mat.
Now he's 21 and captains the pub cricket team. It'll be tragic if Greene King
destroys that sense of community." One octogenarian who remembers celebrating
the coronation in the pub is boycotting it after more than 60 years as a regular.
As befits a community pub, the Lewes Arms has been host to many clubs and societies,
most of which have taken themselves elsewhere, including angling, chess, cribbage,
Scrabble and darts clubs, and three cricket teams. The regulars organise their
own sports day, harvest festival and panto. All this character seems in danger
of being lost. Goodyear says: "The most important thing about it is that
all the activities have been devised and run by the locals themselves. They
haven't been imposed by managers 200 miles away deciding, say, that because
it's St Patrick's Day all the staff are going to dress as leprechauns in standard
uniforms issued from headquarters."
This is the crucial issue for the locals keeping vigil outside - independence
and local character versus the corporate mindset, standardised products and
industrial-scale air fresheners. "In the past every place had its own beer
and its own taste," says radio producer and Lewes resident Dilly Barlow.
"Now Greene King wants to force everyone to accept its taste." This
seems to be the key issue for Greene King, too. The locals hoped that, despite
ignoring their letter-writing campaign and petition, GK would understand the
depth of feeling when the boycott bit into its takings, and gracefully restore
the Harveys. But Greene King doesn't seem to do graceful. Baker, who has tried
to broker a solution, says: "Greene King has conceded that the boycott
has been effective and that takings are substantially down. I have told it that
this is not going to go away, and that its reputation is suffering. It seems
it doesn't want to lose face. But if it restored the beer, or sold the pub to
Harveys or someone else who would run it as before, I would be the first to
Elsewhere Greene King has annoyed locals in London, Kent, Cambridgeshire, Hampshire,
Warwickshire and the Isle of Wight by replacing traditional painted inn signs
with its corporate logo, although some have been restored after protests. In
Wantage, Oxfordshire, the Shoulder of Mutton free house has had threats of legal
action from GK for displaying a "Greene Kingfree zone" banner on its
gable end. Perhaps they need to lighten up a little in Bury St Edmunds.
What has happened in Lewes has come as no surprise to regulars at pubs in Nottingham,
where Greene King took over the 170-year-old Hardys and Hansons Kimberley brewery
in June last year, plus 268 pubs, including the medieval Olde Trip to Jerusalem,
built into the walls of Nottingham Castle. Within months it had closed the brewery,
made 80 workers redundant, and moved production to Bury St Edmunds, despite
a petition signed by thousands. Camra's Nottingham branch has complained to
the city's trading standards department. " It is still selling 'Kimberley'
ale in Nottingham pubs, with a picture of the old brewery on the pump,"
says local spokesman Andrew Ludlow. "How can it be the same product if
it is brewed elsewhere with different ingredients? Someone going into a pub
in Nottingham may have a choice of Ruddles, Kimberley, Old Speckled Hen and
Greene King IPA. But they are all brewed at the same giant plant in Suffolk."
He points to the folly, at a time of worry about carbon emissions, of closing
local breweries and trucking in faux "local" ales from hundreds of
"beer miles" away.
The irony is that "Greede King", as its critics have named it, was
itself once a small independent brewery but grew into a FTSE 250-listed company
worth more than £1bn, largely because of the success of the real-ale revolution
of the 1970s and 1980s. Benjamin Greene founded the Westgate brewery in 1799,
just nine years after John Harvey set up shop in Lewes. Greene's company merged
with another Bury St Edmunds brewery, Kings, in 1887, to form GK. The company
has been listed on the stock exchange since 1955. Last year it made an operating
profit of £191m on turnover of £818m - both substantially up on
the previous year - and now employs some 16,700 people. GK still brews good
"real" ale, but over the past 10 years has swallowed smaller breweries
and pub companies until it now owns 2,680 pubs and is Britain's third-biggest
Takeover by Greene King usually spells death for local brewers. In 1999 it
absorbed Morlands of Abingdon, closed the brewery and moved production of famous
names such as Old Speckled Hen and Ruddles to Bury St Edmunds (or "BSE"
as GK-haters call it). The Ridleys family brewery in Essex was acquired and
closed in July 2005; Hardys and Hansons followed. Other acquisitions have included
the Magic Pub Co, the Hungry Horse fast-food outlets, Old English Inns, Morrell's
of Oxford, and the Laurel Pub Company. One morsel digested along the way was
the 43-pub estate of a defunct Sussex brewery, Beards, acquired for £12.2m
in 1998. In that year all Beards' 43 pubs sold Harveys; the Lewes Arms was the
last to lose it.
Meanwhile Greene King's PR talks up the traditional community pub. It sponsors
the Perfect Pub award and last year hosted the launch of the Publican trade
paper's Proud of Pubs campaign at the House of Commons. Chief executive Anand,
who came to Greene King from the Sara Lee cake company, says GK is committed
to keeping pubs at the heart of local communities. "It's about time society
started standing up for pubs, and recognising them as one of our nation's greatest
assets," he declares. Marketing director Fiona Hope, formerly employed
by Coca-Cola, says: "The pub and the pint are great institutions that play
a positive role in millions of people's lives." The company has launched
a related "I Pledge Allegiance" campaign which, explains Ms Hope,
"gives pub-goers a communal voice in support of great pubs and great beer
... People who care about their local." Down in Sussex, hundreds of people
who care very deeply about their local are not impressed.
I ask Greene King whether the company would reconsider the ban on Harveys in
the face of the Lewes Arms boycott and what it has to say to those who argue
that a company that claims to care about pubs and communities should take more
notice of its customers. Mark Angela, managing director of the Greene King Pub
Company, says in a written statement: "All over the country, brewers sell
their own beer in their own pubs - it's a practice as old as the pub itself.
We recognise that some of our customers at the Lewes Arms don't accept this
practice, but we are proud of our wonderful beers and proud to sell them. Greene
King is one of the biggest supporters of community pubs in this country. Last
year we invested nearly £40m on improvements to our pubs. At Greene King,
we spend a great deal of time listening to our customers. The direct feedback
we receive on a daily basis is central to the way that we shape our service
and our pubs. We have been serving communities by running great pubs for more
than 200 years and intend to carry on doing so for another 200, whatever challenges
are thrown our way." Hmmm. It sounds as if Angela is politely telling the
people of Lewes to get stuffed.
Meanwhile, during an hour with the Saturday night vigil outside the pub, four
people come out - and only one goes in. Three others go elsewhere after talking
to the pickets. Two students, Olga from the Czech Republic and Gloria from Spain,
study the Friends' leafl ets. "You mean, they won't let you drink the beer
you want in your own local pub?" asks Gloria. "These people, they
must be crazy."
November 4, 2006
Bonfire night protest turns heat on brewery
· 60,000 expected to join traditional procession
· Campaigners fight back over ban on local beer
by Nick Davies
More than 400 years after Guy Fawkes tried to blow up the monarch and his parliament,
bonfire enthusiasts in a Sussex town yesterday embarked on a new plot to unseat
a deeply unpopular king.
The pub and brewing chain, Greene King, has enraged the people of Lewes by
trying to ban the sale of the locally brewed Harveys ale in the town's landmark
pub, the Lewes Arms.
Yesterday, they gathered outside the 207-year-old pub in bonfire night costumes
to mock a theatrical Greedy King, who swaggered down the street with a vast
gut and an unpleasant leak from a Greene King beer pump strapped to his lower
Lewes has a bonfire-night history of parading effigies of its enemies through
the streets before blowing them to bits with fireworks. Recently, they constructed
a gigantic Gordon Brown caning a naked Peter Mandelson across the buttocks and
an Osama bin Laden straining on a toilet.
Greene King, whose chief executive, or his effigy at least, was blown apart
three years ago when the company first threatened to stop selling the local
Harveys, can expect a further fiery assault tonight. Up to 60,000 people are
expected to take to the town's streets to watch torchlight processions of men,
women and children dressed as smugglers, native Americans, Venetian boatmen
- and beer drinkers.
Greene King has already incurred the wrath of Camra, the campaign for real
ale, by buying up and closing three traditional breweries - Morlands, Ridleys
and Hardys and Hansons - in a campaign which has left it controlling more than
2,600 pubs around the country. The company last year reported operating profits
of £191m, a 21% increase on the previous year.
The company bought the Lewes Arms in a package in 1998 and, until now, has
sold its own beers alongside Harveys. Campaigners say the pub sells some 75,000
pints of Harveys a year, accounting for 80% of the beer sold across the bar.
They add that Greene King's desire to increase the sale of its own products
by banning a more popular rival is part of a national trend by big pub companies
to transform community pubs into restaurants or even sell them off for housing
to maximise profits. Camra says pubs are closing at the rate of 26 a month,
a rate which is likely to increase when the ban on smoking in pubs comes into
force next year. Greene King yesterday said it would be happy to sell Harveys
as an occasional guest beer but a spokesman insisted the company was not willing
to change its decision to ban it from permanent sale.
At the Lewes Arms yesterday, the locals pledged to carry on plotting. They
describe their pub as a "communal living room" which also hosts the
world pea-throwing championship.
More than 1,000 people have signed a protest petition, including the mayor,
Merlin Milner, and the local Liberal Democrat MP, Norman Baker.