Craft, Cask and Cider, tales of innovation from Mitchells and Butlers

Mitchells and Butlers (MAB) may be one of the UK’s biggest hospitality companies, from which its brewing roots have long since been severed, but its beer range is arguably one of the most innovative in the country. Certainly, when you add in the scale of operations then there can be no doubt that its beer offering is a leader of the pack.

Ben Lockwood is the (MAB) Procurement Manager for Beers and Ciders across the c.1,600 outlets and 15 different brands that they trade under. We meet in the famous White Horse pub on Parson Green.  The imposing tanks of Pilsner Urquell installed to our right. This unfiltered and unpasteurised original Pilsen from the town of Pils, is replenished every week direct from the brewery in the Czech Republic. It demonstrates the trend that is so current in beer and one that Ben is keen to point out. Today’s beer consumers are interested in depth of flavour, ‘the rawest, realest beer they can get’ in Ben’s words.

Beer became a monolithic category in the 1980’s and 1990’s. There were just 142 breweries in the UK in 1980, 92 in the US. Nearly four decades later and there are nearly 2,000 in the UK and 5,301 in the US (2016 Brewers Association).

In the 1990’s Scottish Courage sold one third of all beer drunk in the UK.

So the changes in this industry have been as dramatic and speedy as in the tech industry. Representing not only the change in demanded drinking styles themselves, but also the speed of change in large hospitality businesses is a huge challenge.

Every drinks category is in positive growth in MAB and that is with a beer list in The White Horse that is bigger than many a wine list. Although Ben is quick to point out that this pub is an outlier and that the average for a Castle pub is 14 beers on draft as opposed to the 30 in the White Nag and perhaps 8 in Harvester or Toby which would include Guinness and Cider.

Most of MABs outlets are not in the fashion victim London vortex but outside in the more conservative towns and cities of the Midlands, West, North, Scotland and Wales. Despite the phenomenal craft growth, the category still only represents 6% of the total UK beer mix. And yet the number of breweries keeps growing, whether it is sustainable or not remains to be seen. It has been so far.

When does craft become mass-produced? When it is listed in supermarkets. As opposed to some in the hospitality industry, Ben sees that there is some overlap and benefit in the supermarket business. They give national presence and visibility to brands which otherwise would struggle to get traction in MAB outlets. There aren’t too many of these examples – Brewdog, Shipyard from Marstons, with Adnams and Fullers on the peripherary of the national territory.

Soon to be making an appearance is the Australian Little Creatures Pale Ale, originally from Geelong, industrial heartland west of Melbourne, will make an appearance. It is a nod to the international nature of craft brewing.

Perhaps a little surprisingly World Lager is also in growth. Peroni, Veltins, Estrella, and Corona – not exactly small concerns – contribute to 9% growth.

Premiumisation, the feeling that consumers want to feel special somewhere somehow and trade out of the mainstream is central to this trend.

The intricacy of the beer and cider range management programme throughout is evident. Pubs that used to receive tankers of beer in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s now expect 30 litre kegs – 52 pints a go and lots of them, as seen up to 30 different ones on draft.

However it is not as simple as ‘make it expensive’, Ben is clear that you can’t serve craft beer in the way that you might a mass market lager. The education, glassware and quality all have to be demonstrably better.

Camden Hills, Thornbridge, Meantime contribute training on a category and product basis. Every brewery that delivers to MAB in any form is encouraged to produce a 90 second training video that gives a category perspective and a product sell.

Perhaps this is where the difference is made. The quality communication programme run by Emma Sharp internally is responsible for its delivery. This is a contemporary training programme offering the flexibility for staff to learn in downtime, of split shifts or on public transport journeys. How up to date knowledge is all delivered to through the staff is critical to ensuring good quality delivery to the consumer as far as Ben sees it.

MAB also now work with a number of regional brewers and now have 800 pubs pouring a beer brewed within a 40 mile radius of the pub.  The challenge is whether they can bring that localness everywhere. Scotland and Yorkshire, maybe not surprisingly score really well on this count, others hav some work to do.

Cider hasn’t quite yet caught the craft bug in as dramatic a way. Without fruit cider then the category might be looking a little thin. But as Ben says if you don’t have a fruit cider on draft then you may well be missing out on a significant sales line.

Ben is a passionate beer lover. He was from the moment 9 years ago when being plonked in a Beer academy course to make up the numbers he was given a glass of Innis and Gunn with Apple Pie. The former made up for the lack of ice cream and the penny dropped.  Yet his favourite is probably Duchesse de Bourgogne, a Flemish red ale, which has a characteristic sour and fruity flavour. This is a long way from the cask ale that Ben enjoyed in Wakefield, Northampton, Eastbourne establishments that he has worked in.

So if you find him in his favourite pioneering bar in Leeds at 10pm ask him if he wants a Duchesse de Bourgogne.

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