I went out for dinner in Saffron Walden with my wife a few weeks back and we managed to squeeze in a quick pint in The Old English Gentleman before heading to Dish for some food. I’d never been to a pub in Saffron Walden before, so had to do a bit of googling to find somewhere that looked like it would server decent beer and was relatively near the restaurant. When we got inside I was disappointed to see that the beers on offer were, Adnams Bitter, Woodfordes Wherry, Shepherd Neame Spitfire and Exmoor Gold.
Personally I thought the selection of beer was ridiculously safe and boring, I could probably get the Adnams and Woodfordes beers in a number of other pubs in Saffron Walden (this is obviously conjecture as this is the only pub I’ve been to in the town, but hear me out), I also wouldn’t be surprised to see the Sheps Spitfire as well. One of the main issues I have was the diversity of the selection; Adnams Bitter is brown and 3.7%, Woodfordes Wherry is golden and 3.8%, Shepherd Neame Spitfire is brown and 4.2% and finally the Exmoor Gold is, unsurprisingly, golden and 4.5%.
There was no mild, no stout, nothing that was pale and hoppy and nothing that could be considered strong. Like I said, I thought it was a safe and boring selection and worryingly, it’s a trend I’ve seen in a number of other free houses near where I live.
The Black Bull in Balsham, is in the next village and generally has three cask ales on. I’ve been in there when the selection has all been sub four percent brown bitter, but similarly I’ve been in when they’ve had pale and hoppy beer from Oakham Ales on. However, every time I’ve been there, they’ve also had Greene King IPA on, even though there is a Greene King pub, The Bell, less then two hundred metres up the road.
Similarly, The Three Tuns in Great Abington, a 10 to 15 minute drive away, is a free house and while it’s food led, it’s still a locals pub as well. I was in there a few weekends ago picking up a take away, they do excellent Thai food and I noticed that they only had two cask ales on, instead of the normal three. Yet again, one of those ales was Greene King IPA, but I’ve seen the usual bitters from Adnams, Woodfordes et al when I’ve been in before.
I can sort of understand why these pubs have the beer they have, The Black Bull probably wants to temp drinkers from The Bell, so has their usual on tap all the time, just in case they fancy a change of scenery. The Three Tuns, being food led, probably doesn’t want anything outlandish to scare the diners, so sticks to what most people will know. I’m sure the cricket teams who frequent the bar after a match just want something to slake their thirst before heading home.
At the same time, in this kind of financial climate where hundreds of pus are closing all over the country, I really don’t understand it. Surely you want to differentiate yourself from your competition, so people will come to you because you offer something that those pubs around you don’t. I can get Greene King IPA in literally hundreds of local pubs, including my local, which is about fifty metres from my front door. Why would I want to travel to the next village, or further away, to drink the same beer in a different pub?
I’m not expecting every free house to be like The Euston Tap, or even The Cambridge Blue. So maybe someone could explain the rational behind free houses offering very similar beers and the same beers as tied pubs in the same locality, because I just don’t get it.