Friday, 17 September 2021

Have a free pint and reconnect with your local

FROM giving away beer to raising thousands of pounds for charity, Brakspear is making a concerted

FROM giving away beer to raising thousands of pounds for charity, Brakspear is making a concerted effort to strengthen its links with the Henley community.

The pub operator and brewer, which was founded in the town more than 300 years ago, is offering a free pint of Brakspear bitter to every Henley Standard reader this Christmas.

The company’s chief executive Tom Davies hopes it will encourage people to frequent their local more often.

It is the latest in a series of goodwill gestures which Brakspear has made to prove its commitment to Henley and the surrounding villages.

Earlier this month it announced plans to raise £50,000 in 12 months for the Sue Ryder hospice at Nettlebed through events at its pubs.

Last year the firm began producing its seasonal Blooming Marvellous ale to support Henley’s Britain in Bloom bid.

This was made at its microbrewery at the Bull in Bell Street and sold at 11 pubs during June, with 20p from each sale going to the Henley in Bloom committee.

Brakspear, whose head offices are in Bell Street, also sponsors Henley’s annual 1.5km Club to Pub swim and brews its Two Bells ale for the occasion. Each participant receives a free bottle at the finish.

Originally called W H Brakspear & Son, the company was launched in 1711 and operated from its brewery in New Street until it closed in 2002. The premises are now occupied by Hotel du Vin.

J T Davies & Sons, Mr Davies’ family venture, merged with Brakspear in 2007 and the 35-year-old took the helm three years later. At that point, he says, many people still resented the brewery closure and it was his mission to improve the Brakspear name.

He says: “We felt the business had lost touch with the people of Henley and vice-versa. A big part of our journey has been re-engaging with them.

“The closure angered a lot of people and the previous management had retreated into themselves instead of addressing the issue.

“Relationships with tenants became strained at times and there’s no doubt that Brakspear’s reputation within the wider community had been damaged.

“We’re making a concerted effort to turn that around and there’s strong evidence that it’s happening. You don’t win awards if you aren’t doing something right.”

In 2013, the firm was named tenanted pub company of the year in the Publican’s Morning Advertiser awards.

It opened its microbrewery at the Bull later that year and has just been shortlisted in the brewing pub company category of the 2015 awards.

Mr Davies attributes Brakspear’s success to its “industry-leading” support for tenants, which includes specialist advice on finance and marketing.

He says: “Our first step was successfully improving relations within the business and now we’re expanding our focus to the communities where we operate.

“Things like bringing back the brewery are small but important steps in changing how we’re perceived. Ultimately, we’re a small family business that wants to be in Henley for many years to come.

“Brakspear is a historic name and we’re determined to restore trust and understanding in it.”

Since Mr Davies took over, the firm has faced criticism for shutting a number of pubs. These include the Rose and Crown in New Street, Henley, which shut in 2013.

Brakspear was refused planning permission to convert the pub into a house and the property remains vacant.

The Four Horseshoes in the village of Checkendon closed in the same year.

Planning permission was awarded to turn it into a village shop, tea rooms, a post office and a private house but the scheme is on hold while prospective tenants are sought.

In 2011, the Dog and Duck at Highmoor was shut and put on the market for £495,000.

Mr Davies insists he “hates” closing pubs and will only do so if he is convinced they are no longer viable.

He says: “I can’t justify losing money and threatening the livelihood of the individual or couple who are coming in to run it, which is what can happen.

“I have a moral obligation to ensure that anyone I put into a pub stands a chance of making a success of it. If I don’t believe that’s possible, I won’t let it carry on.

“Take the Rose and Crown, for example. Far too many people had lost their shirt on it and I wasn’t making money from it either. At some point, someone has to see that it’s crazy to keep trying. People might not like that but I refuse to set anybody up to fail, which is what I’d be doing if I carried on re-opening them.

“I’d lose sleep if I thought a tenant was doomed to lose everything.

“This is by no means a local problem. In fact, we’ve closed far fewer pubs than the national average by a country mile. We keep them open for as long as we feel is sensible.

“Unfortunately, some pubs are only used infrequently and that’s not enough to keep them open. It’s all very well going once a year at Christmas but they need more support.

“People might like the idea of having a pub on their doorstep but, like in the old saying, they have to ‘use it or lose it’.

“I have no doubt that pubs can still be relevant — a thriving rural community deserves a thriving rural pub. The two go hand-in-hand and can’t exist without one another.

“When it works, it works brilliantly but pubs must be respected as living assets. They aren’t just going to sit there if people stop visiting.

“We give our landlords a lot of support and the freedom to try different things to attract business. There’s no magic formula but great food and drink is at the heart of it.

“More than 90 per cent of our tenants said they would sign another agreement with us and that tells me that most of them are happy.”

Mr Davies believes the beer giveaway will help put Brakspear “back at the heart of the community”.

He says: “Christmas is a community-spirited time and we wanted to give something back.

“We’re reaching out to people who haven’t been to their local for a while. We hope they’ll enjoy it and there are no strings attached — it’s just a festive present on us.

“There is huge competition for the leisure pound these days and our industry is seeing a wide range of challenges.

“People are more health-conscious and don’t want to drink as much while coffee shop culture has just exploded — just look at the number there is in Henley.

“On top of that, people have more comfortable homes with big televisions and the supermarkets are selling alcohol cheaply.

“Pubs have a lot to contend with, especially in rural areas, but they can remain relevant by adapting to the changing times.

“That’s why we hope that people who wouldn’t usually go to the pub will consider coming back when they’ve seen what it has to offer.”

• Don’t miss your offer of a free pint of Brakspear Bitter only in next week’s Henley Standard.

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