Don’t change Draft House

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Draft House: good enough for Rick Astley

For some people among the beer cognoscenti, the Draft House chain of craft beer bars would never be regarded as the coolest places in town because they would always be able to point to quirkier places with more esoteric beer selections. This does these bars a great disservice because when they opened in 2009 they became an early emporium for craft beer. However, founder Charlie McVeigh also wanted them to be accessible and not to become beer geek ghettos.

This ultimately led to a sometimes quite random mix of beers on the bar but in this combination there would invariably be sufficient to keep the knowledgeable beer drinker interested while also appealing to those new to the game tentatively dipping their toe in the craft beer pond for the first time.

I can recall meeting McVeigh for the first time – via a mutual friend – sitting outside the original venue in Northcote Road in south London not long after its opening. He had just thrown out the best-selling lager because he was selling too much of the stuff. He wanted to introduce people to something new so the only solution was to get rid of the recognisable mainstream lager. Instead McVeigh was incredibly enthusiastic that night for bottles of Yeti Imperial Stout from Great Divide brewery in the US that he was very keen to share.

To his credit he also initiated a three thirds paddle for a fixed £5 even though he knew it was extra work for the bar teams and for certain beers of a hefty ABV it meant the margin was not exactly great. The clear intention was to introduce people to new beers and encourage experimentation – damn the profits.

But he’s no mere philanthropist (well he might be now he has just sold Draft House to BrewDog for a reputed £15m) he’s a businessman and he wanted to build a profitable bar chain. It has never been a vanity project. If he hadn’t been just as focused on the P&L as the beer list then I doubt very much the respected leisure and hospitality specialist Luke Johnson would have come in as an investor in the Draft House operation.

Johnson’s involvement gave the business an injection of capital and the push/confidence to take the model to significantly larger (and more profitable sites). When you compare the Charlotte Street site in central London with the two units in the City of London then size-wise they are from different planets. With these chunky openings came tank beer from Pilsner Urquell, which again managed to appeal to more mainstream drinkers while also maintaining the respect and interest of the beer aficionados.

It is this balancing act of appealing to the various camps that I’d suggest has been the most successful aspect of the Draft House business and the legacy of McVeigh. This democratisation of craft beer has also been part of the manifesto of BrewDog. Whereas lots of its soap-box grandstanding has become a tad skewed, hypocritical even in some cases, and rather confused, there is no doubting its constant underlying objective of introducing better beer to as many people as possible is fully authentic.

No doubt this like-minded stance came into the thinking of BrewDog when it approached Draft House with its takeover offer. Now the deal is done my one big concern is the wide choice of beers McVeigh made a core part of the proposition of the Draft House business will be compromised because BrewDog is clearly in the game of selling its own beer.

Rebranding them all as BrewDog bars would also be a retrograde step as it would undoubtedly give the Scottish brewer a rather concentrated central London portfolio and take it a step closer to being an over-bearing presence, just like the monolithic brewers that it constantly rails against.

In the ideal world little would change and Draft House would continue to operate as the equivalent of the JD Wetherspoon of craft beer bars (without the sticky carpets) – accessible to all and always something different you want to drink. I personally cannot think of a greater compliment.

Glynn Davis, editor of Beer Insider
This piece was originally published on Propel Info where Glynn Davis writes a regular Friday opinion piece. Retail Insider would like to thank Propel for allowing the reproduction of this column.