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My last post concerning the difficulties experienced by micro breweries in finding suitable outlets for their beers begs the question how do free-house owners go about selecting the beers they wish to sell? Leaving aside for the moment issues such as loan-tie agreements and other financial incentives, should licensees play it safe and stock well known brands?, or should they be more adventurous and stock something out of the ordinary?

A good licensee will listen to what his/her regulars want and will not be motivated solely by profit. Speaking from my own experience (running an off-licence for five years that specialised in draught ales to take away), I tried to strike a balance by stocking what the majority of my customers wanted (one would be stupid NOT to do this), but also offering a couple of regularly changing guest ales.The two most popular beers, ie. the one's requested the most, were Harveys and Larkins. I therefore alternated between these two as my regular beers. They were complemented by a couple of guest ales, which would be on sale at the weekends when demand was at its peak. I would then gradually run stocks down over the course of the coming week, before repeating the cycle all over again. I also made a point of stocking seasonal ales, in particular old ales and porters in winter (sometimes from Harveys and Larkins), refreshing golden ales in summer and other interesting beers when they were available.

This approach worked, and as well as keeping the Harveys and Larkins drinkers happy I was able to introduce other customers to the delights of brews from both near and far. Near, included the likes of Westerham and Hog's Back, who's beers I took on a fairly regular basis, whilst beers from further afield were primarily sourced through Beer Seller, now known as Waverley TBS, who offered monthly promotions on a wide range of cask ales from both micro breweries and established regionals.

I was also approached from time to time by other micro's, most of whom I was happy to deal with on an infrequent basis, although I did find it annoying when pestered with phone calls by certain breweries trying to persuade me to take another firkin of their beer, particularly when I had only recently purchased one! It seems that once some companies get a foot in the door they just won't leave you alone! (Counter productive in my case, as the more they pestered the more inclined I was NOT to take any more of their beer). Some breweries would offer substantial discounts if one agreed to take several of their beers in one hit. Whilst this made sense for them by cutting down on their delivery costs, and was an obvious attraction for cash-strapped licensees, I seldom went down this route preferring instead to ring the changes and not tie myself down to a particular brewer's products. I also believed that such practices work against more local breweries keen for the chance of seeing their beers on sale.

There was one practice that I thoroughly disapproved of, and still do. I don't know how wide spread it is now, but six or seven years ago it was quite common. I am talking about so-called "badge brewing". This is when a brewery churns out a plethora of different beers, often with silly names, that to all intents and purpose are just a variation on a handful of basic recipes. By doing this they are catering primarily for the "tickers" market, and are duping those licensees foolish enough to believe they are getting something new and different each time. I won't name the guilty parties, but I'm certain many people, both in the trade as well as industry observers, will know who I am talking about!

Fortunately, none of the breweries in this neck of the woods can be accused of this practice, but companies from outside the area that do indulge in it, plus pub landlords who stock their products, are doing a dis-service to local concerns by effectively tying up space on the bar with gimmicky products designed to cater for a small niche section of the market.

I appreciate things have got a lot tougher since I left the trade and that it must be tempting for free-house proprietors to either go for one or more of the deals described above or, more tempting still so far as the licensee is concerned, take out a loan offered by one of the larger regionals, (again mentioning no names!). However, as we all know these loans come at a price, as they normally require the pub to sell a certain barrelage of the company's beer in order to qualify for the low interest rates offered.

What is the way forward then? What should individuals do when they are in the enviable position of owning a free-house and able to afford the luxury of saying "no" to loan tie agreements? My answer is they should follow their hearts and their instincts, and not be afraid to go out on a limb. There is a heck of a lot of good beer out there, providing one knows where to look, and people who get this vital part right stand a very good chance of getting the rest right. I believe this is exactly what those behind the real success stories in the trade are doing, and as long as there still are people with a passion for good beer, people able to brew it, plus of course people keen to drink it, then decent pubs stand a good chance of not only surviving, but prospering as well!