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Pub news

A Thornbridge too far?

Last year pubgoers all over Sheffield, and some way beyond, were praising the Thornbridge brewery to the heavens. Its outstanding, innovative beers had already won it a sturdy reputation. Now it was starting to do the business with pubs too. Its instant success at the Greystones seemed a case study in how struggling boozers – loved by neither their distant pubco owners nor their local populations – might be turned around by smaller breweries with great products and an ear to the needs of communities.

This week the news that Thornbridge is to take over the Bath Hotel has been received here in Sheffield with dismay. Not unanimous dismay. But enough to make you wonder whether the takeover will turn out to be a significant own goal.

Thornbridge pump clips along the bar at the Greystones

Some commenters have pointed out the paucity of guest beers in existing Thornbridge pubs. Since the company took on the Hallamshire House last year, for instance, only its own beers have been available on draught. Choice of beer wasn’t the pub’s strongest suit beforehand, though. There’d be London Pride and something local like Five Rivers, which were good, and Doom Bar, which wasn’t.

But one of the reasons Sheffield drinkers appreciate the Bath Hotel is its wide-ranging and frequently rotated beer list. Will this be under threat when Thornbridge moves in? Not according to its brewer Matthew Clark, who has promised that “lots of different beers will be on offer too, not just ours and, fingers crossed, not the same stuff you get elsewhere”.

A second theme of the concerns raised this week is the regularity with which the company is now taking control of new pubs. “Thornbridge are risking doing a South Yorkshire version of Greene King,” commented one user of the Sheffield Forum. “Is it just me, or is Thornbridge taking over Sheffield?” came a tweet from the nearby Red Deer (possibly with an anxious eye on its own takings). Another worrier asked: “Is there any pub in Sheffield not being taken over by Thornbridge or the Forum?”

Well, yes: at least 400 of them. Thornbridge’s estate of pubs extends to about six. The ‘monopoly’ argument is mathematically rubbish. We’re a million miles away from a Greene King situation. We don’t know the company’s expansion plans, but even if these continue at the current rate it’ll be a while before it approaches the sort of power wielded by even a smaller regional brewer such as Robinsons around Stockport.

But the Thornbridge brand started to suffer in this city a few weeks ago when the name of A4e – a company with close family links to the brewery – was tainted by some unfortunate revelations when the government’s ‘workfare’ policy hit the buffers (see Curmudgeon for more). In Sheffield, arguably the least Conservative of England’s major cities, some pubgoers of my acquaintance were quick to start disparaging Kipling and Wild Swan as “Tory beer”.

Price list at the Hallamshire

And there’s a justifiable anxiety that the price of a pint in the Bath could rise by anything from 50 pence to a pound. The Bath is currently one of the cheaper places to enjoy a beer in Sheffield city centre. Thornbridge pubs are not obviously concerned with affordability.

But for me, the observation that’s bang on is that, while it’s been great when Thornbridge has taken over somewhere rotten or moribund, the company should stay the hell away from the Bath for the simple reason that it’s brilliant as it is.

The Hallamshire House, like the Bath, was already an admired pub when it passed into Thornbridge’s hands. It may be a little livelier now than it was then, having drawn away some of the student crowd from the Closed Shop across the road. But the refurb did away with an unusual and entirely beautiful stained glass ceiling. It also introduced a room full of Victorian family photos with no apparent connection to the pub or the community and ugly enough to paralyse a horse. Before, there was an organic, accidental feel about its homeliness. Now it feels planned, calculated and templated.

In short, I like it less now than I did before. I fear the same will be true of the Bath. And, if I worked for Thornbridge, I’d be afraid that the company might now be starting to alienate the very customers to whom it owes its successes so far.

See also
Wee Beefy’s blogpost on this subject

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About Pete Green

Poet and musician. Sheffield. Maps, coastlines, walking, whisky, and potentially dangerous levels of wist. Grimbarian. Pedestrian. King of the impossible. Big girl's blouse.

Discussion

12 thoughts on “A Thornbridge too far?

  1. We stopped going in the hallamshire after it had been ruined by thornbridge, more power to the Cobden and the Blake.

    Posted by james | 26 April 2012, 9:37 am
  2. Do you mean the plastic imitation stained glass ceiling at the Hallamshire??? Taken down, in order to reveal all the original wooden panelling?? Based on range of styles and quality, the beer is 100 times better than before Thornbridge took it over.

    Posted by jezebel | 26 April 2012, 5:09 pm
  3. Hi folks, thanks for commenting. Jezebel, I don’t think anyone would doubt that the beer is nicer at the Hallamshire now, but decor is one of those things there’ll always be less agreement on. At least they kept the snooker table!

    Posted by Pete Green | 26 April 2012, 6:53 pm
  4. Another pub to add to the list, is The Stag on Psalter Lane….they took over there in the last couple of weeks. It used to be a pub that served decent beer and very good food….we’ll have to watch this space to see what the future holds!?

    Posted by Mondayo | 26 April 2012, 9:53 pm
  5. I totally disagree, as somebody who very frequently visits a range of pubs both in the city centre and throughout the suburbs of sheffiled as a real ale lover I can confidently say that bath is my least favourite and one of the worst. Yes I agree a “range” of beer but the “range” is all the same poor quality, boring and bland beer from some questionable and unknown breweries. I know that some people will bang on now about abbeydale beers being served but apart from the unknown part they still tick the other 2 boxes. I have never had a good pint in the bath and although it has a heritage interior I’ve never found it a pub I wanted to sit in nor did I enjoy the atmosphere with some quite suspect clientele. If the new “thornbridge” bath is better I will visit and if you read the posts on Sheffield forum I don’t think I’m alone in my views. I personally think that people are now just thornbridge bashing for the sake of it as its the new thing to do.

    Posted by Kirkby | 27 April 2012, 5:38 am
  6. I was never that keen on the Stag – think it was meant for folk with more money than me! Haven’t been since Thornbridge took it over so I can’t really comment on that one. I’d be interested to hear from those who have, though. Thanks for commenting, Mondayo!

    Posted by Pete Green | 27 April 2012, 8:31 am
  7. Hi Kirkby – thanks for joining the debate. Each to their own, I guess: as the thread on the Forum shows, feelings are strong on both sides. I’ve always enjoyed the Bath. I can’t remember having a pint in there that I’ve not liked; nor have I come across any “suspect clientele”. Hey, maybe I am suspect clientele. 🙂

    Personally I think Thornbridge still deserve the benefit of the doubt, and I’ll be interested to see what happens with the Bath. It just surprised me, when the news emerged about the takeover, how strong the backlash seemed to be. That’s what this blogpost is about, more than my opinions.

    Posted by Pete Green | 27 April 2012, 8:39 am
  8. I couldn’t agree more.

    Thornbridge beer is not great.

    Wild Swan is drinkable and is a reasonable session ale but the rest of the Thornbridge range is characterised by daft (high) ABVs and unpleasant flavours.

    They recently took over The Stag on Psalter Lane – no problems there as the pub was already rubbish with Deuchars being the only proper beer.

    But turning The Bath in to a Thornbridge pub is a different matter – it’s a downgrade akin to replacing The Showroom with an Odeon.

    It’s not that I’m against homogeneity – I’d be very happy if all pubs sold nothing but Abbeydale Deception. It’s low quality homogeneity that I object to.

    To quote a great man “Down with this kind of thing!”

    Posted by Homeless Stu | 27 April 2012, 3:49 pm
  9. It’s been quite interesting coming into this debate as someone who hasn’t lived in Sheffield for long. In Manchester it seemed like only recently have the pubs and bars started paying attention to (good) ales, and the wide range of Robinsons-owned pubs never really convinced me to try more ale. When pubs and bars did start taking an interest in a wier range of beers they were often overpriced (I love Port Street Beer House, and used to live a stone’s throw from it, but my oh my was it pricy), and as such the Thornbridge pubs in Sheffield seemed very exciting when we moved here last summer. Sure, they’re more expensive than some of the pubs around, but hey, compared to what we’d become used to in Manchester almost everything here seems like a bit of a bargain. Now we keep hearing more and more about Thornbridge taking over Sheffield pubs – and now seemingly taking them on when they’re not in danger of closing – and it’s starting to shift opinion a bit. Personally I really enjoy a lot of their beers, and like the atmosphere in the pubs and bars of theirs I’ve been in… but that doesn’t mean I want to lose the great range of choice that Sheffield has in its pubs at the moment. So that’s it from me I guess!

    Posted by Hannah PYT | 28 April 2012, 11:35 am
  10. as the originator of the Greene King comment – my fear is that one of the best things about Sheffield – the great variety of micro breweries and genuine freehouses is beginning to come under threat.

    Thornbridge are a different fish compared to the other small and medium brewcos – founded out of a multimillion pound empire, entwined with directorships of property oriented businesses, and endowed with resources that the local micros could only dream of. it would seem they are keen to grab as large a slice of Sheffield’s burgeoning and profitable real ale scene as they can – eventually it’s going to cost another brewery dear.

    Plus i’m not mad on their beers – mostly overpriced and overhopped for my tastes. As with most, i’m delighted that they are reviving pubs owned by the likes of Punch and Enterprise, but this latest landgrab has likely cost them my custom – i”ll stick to the Blake for now.

    Posted by moke | 29 April 2012, 9:53 am
  11. I’ve never been a fan of Thornbridge beers, with the exception of Brother Rabbit, personally I find Wild Swan one of the few session beers unpleasant enough to push me to a stronger option. So I agree that the lack of guest beers in most Thornbridge pubs is a problem. I came on here wanting a good moan about Thornbridge going a bit too far (partly because two of my favourite barmen have been lost: from Trippets and, now, the Bath, as a result of Thornbridge takeovers) but I realise that i am in fact very ambivalent.

    Price: can’t agree that Thronbridge is too pricey. I always found the prcies at the Bath to be one of the few things that kept me away. You can get a cheaper good pint at Henry’s (from a fantastic ale range) and across the road at The Beehive (watch out for those ‘suspect clientele’ though) or of course ‘Spoons.

    Ale quality: The Hallamshire was always massively better at keeping beer than the Closed Shop and I never had a bad pint. Still a few lengths behind other ‘community’ pubs like the Cobden View though. Thornbridge is at least consistent and takes pride in its ale – just ‘cos I don’t like it doesn;t make it bad ale.

    Attitude: I’m not sure if Mike P is still leading on the ‘pub grab’ but there are obviously hits and misses.. but one thing is sure is that his motivation is always to create a better pub than before – a bit of a problem for those of us that like slightly shabby pubs with good beer. I am slightly worried about the homgeniety argument – but as the pubs get established I am hoping that the shared ownership (or is it ‘franchise’) model that seems to be behind the new projects will mean that once the new car smell is gone a thousand flowers will bloom.

    Politics: the less said about this the better. We have to be careful that someone with ready access to a pot of money to invest cannot be seen to squeeze out the chance for other less well endowed brewers and potential entrepreneurs to get in there. Mind you given the state of the nearest three pubs to me (Star and Garter, Hadfield and Springvale) and many, many others in central Sheffield alone there is, as folk have been heard to say when discussing a Thornbridge sister project, there’s plenty of unemployed to go round.

    So in summary – don’t like the beer that much but on balance better than a bottle of Beck’s in Walkabout. But my number one is still Henry’s “Cafe Bar” for price, choice and service with a smile.

    [I have no association with any trade that remotely connects with pubs, beer or anything else like it – I just drink responsibly in a range of pubs and bars!]

    Posted by stuartastill | 1 May 2012, 8:51 am
  12. Well it’s been a month or so since Thornbridge took over the Stag now. So far it seems “ok”. They’re definitely going more for the family market than just a pub….they’ve put a big fence up, so that kids can play in all the outside space and not run out into the car park or road. They’ve employed a new chef and started doing food again….we went for Sunday lunch yesterday and it was pretty decent, not amazing, but better than lots of other places we’ve been too. reasonable range of the Thornbridge beers on, but looked a little bit light on other alcohol based stock.
    Think it’s still in the transitional stage, so watch this space……

    Posted by Mondayo | 4 June 2012, 7:41 am
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