To many beer drinkers Samuel Smith has achieved a status that many other breweries and pub companies would very much like to attain but it takes a lot of effort to maintain ownership of a business for almost 260 years and to incredibly still be up with events in terms of trends. It’s clearly a hard act to match.
For a business with over 300 pubs and a brewery that exports around the world – to much acclaim especially in the US where they even have an annual ‘Salute Sam’ week – it is not a business to shout its mouth off about its accomplishments. I don’t know of any time when the business has spoken publicly about anything whatsoever.
As a beer writer it was therefore something of an achievement (miracle, maybe) that I unexpectedly bumped into Sam Smith (son of the current leader of the company Humphrey Smith) in one of their pubs – the newly refurbished Cock Tavern on London’s Great Portland Street.
With responsibility for its pubs in the South of England, including an unrivaled portfolio in the capital, he was enjoying the pub in its new found splendour (especially the upstairs room that has some fine cornice work) having just re-opened following a major overhaul.
Agreeing to speak with me a couple of weeks later was a rather welcome surprise as the silence the company has maintained over many years has resulted in lots of rumours and myths about the business – whether true or untrue it has simply been impossible to know.
This was a great opportunity to hear about the philosophy behind the company and what it thinks about itself. What came across from Sam was the commitment to maintaining standards – for both the beer and its pubs – with nothing getting in the way of this primary objective. It’s unwillingness to adapt to current trends and industry thinking is idiosyncratic and unusual. But this has hardly done it any disservice.
Quite the opposite. It has stood it in good stead because the decisions it has made – largely on instinct – have proven to be almost a work of genius now that we have the benefit of hindsight. Maintaining the brewing of traditional old British styles like Pale Ale, Nut Brown Ale, and Oatmeal Stout gave it massive respect in the US and helped it play a part in kick-starting the craft beer movement over the pond (and now over here). The market has only recently been catching up with them.
The brewing of a high quality British lager in the 1960s was way ahead of the game. Only now are we starting to see other UK brewers take up this style, with great success. It followed this up with a wheat beer, fruit beers and cider, again years ahead of others in this country. It’s removal of all branded snacks and other alcoholic drinks from the large manufacturers and instead working with smaller, high quality suppliers is gaining ground today as people increasingly turn away from goods from big corporate entities in favour of artisanal producers.
And its accumulation of a portfolio of blue chip pubs in London over many years has given it some of the best boozers in the capital that other brewers and pub companies would now kill for. Yet again, Samuel Smith’s got in their first and it now operates wondrous Victorian pubs including Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, The Champion, The Chandos, The Windsor Castle, the Princess Louise and The Cittie of Yorke.
All these moves have been undertaken simply because the brewery wanted to take them, It wasn’t about shareholder value and short-term gains. It was largely driven by a desire to mix things up, keep things exciting, remove the risk of becoming bored, and to take advantage of the skills of the brewing team.
With Sam Smith possibly being lined up (they still won’t talk about these sorts of things) to take over the reins of the business at some point in the future I’d say he’s more than well versed in the idiosyncratic ways of the company, which should ensure it continues to operate in the same vein as it has successfully in the past. No doubt taking a route that others in the industry will find themselves following many years down the line.