A sip of the season will go down well

Festive ales can bring a spike in sales in coming weeks

• Publicans agreed that guest ales perform well all year round, but enjoy a lift at Christmas.
• Publicans agreed that guest ales perform well all year round, but enjoy a lift at Christmas.
A GOOD ale offer can pay dividends for life, not just for Christmas, but that doesn’t mean publicans can’t hope for a boost in throughput at the hand pumps this festive period.
With seasonal ales a fixture of bars across Scotland at this time of the year, two operators with a passion for ale explained how they keep their offer consistent in such a complex category.
Matthew Bennet, general manager at The Marine Hotel in Stonehaven, said he sells a lot of cask ale all year round, but recognises the opportunity Christmas provides.
“We generally have a good turnover of cask ales as we’re known for it in the area,” said Bennet.
“[But] from now we expect it to go up over the Christmas period.”
The Marine Hotel is owned by the team behind Six Degrees North, which operates the Six Degrees North brewery in Stonehaven and eponymous bar in Aberdeen, so it’s no surprise that the hotel bar has a beer focus.
The downstairs bar has six cask ale pumps comprising a mix of core and guest ales with an additional three in the hotel restaurant.
“Right now we’ve got two regulars, Timothy Taylor’s Landlord and our own [beer],” said Bennet.
“We’ve got our own brewery here that does a Belgian pale blonde seasonal ale. We’ve been brewing here for about 18 months.”
And Bennet acknowledged that consumer tastes tend to change throughout the year.
“In the summer we always have a cider line,” he said.
“That’s standard now for the summer. We try and have one dark ale on for the winter.
“During the summer we find it hard to sell dark ales, but in the winter it’s a lot easier.”
Beyond the core range and beers from the venue’s own brewery, Bennet stocks a mix of known and lesser-known brands to keep customers coming back to the guest ale taps.
Ales from the Cromarty Brewing Company, Fyne Ales and Highland Brewing Company are regular guests that perform well, and other guest ales are often introduced after breweries approach the hotel directly.
In terms of seasonal ales, Bennet turns to supplier Belhaven to help him find interesting examples.
“We don’t use Belhaven much in the summer but when it comes to winter we tend to order most of the [festive] stuff from them,” he said.
And although Bennet wasn’t convinced there’s much crossover between keg and cask ale drinkers, that doesn’t mean the keg crowd will miss out on festive products.
“A lot of the cask brewers do [their beer] in keg,” said Bennet, adding that the keg formats of seasonal beers should also prove popular.
In Edinburgh’s Stockbridge, Archie Carmichael, general manager at The Stockbridge Tap, is also no stranger to seasonal ales.
“We do seasonal ales throughout the year, not just December,” said Carmichael, highlighting autumnal pumpkin ales and dry green hop IPAs during harvest season as examples of the seasonal flavours available at the venue.
The Stockbridge Tap has seven hand pumps split between five guest ales and two core beers: Stewart Brewing’s Pentland IPA and Alechemy Brewing’s Ritual Pale.
Carmichael claimed there are benefits to weighting the cask line towards guest and seasonal ales.
“It keeps it a lot more interesting and gives [the customers] choice,” he said.
“It means every time they’re [regular customers] in there’s a different selection of beer.”
When it comes to sourcing guest ales, like Bennet at The Marine Hotel, Carmichael tends to be approached by brewers directly. “But if I hear of a new brew that’s going well I try and seek it out in another pub and try it,” he said.
And keeping abreast of cask ales and breweries isn’t just for publicans, as The Stockbridge Tap’s successful ‘meet the brewer’ events have
“We try and do meet the brewers whenever we can,” said Carmichael.
“It definitely does [bring more people to the bar], maybe people that don’t normally come down this way will pop in.”
The festive period may bring a welcome boost in footfall, but when the Christmas lift comes, publicans can’t let standards slip in the cellar, according to Carmichael.
The Stockbridge Tap was named CAMRA City of Edinburgh Pub of the Year 2014 and when it comes to cask sales, Carmichael said it’s “all about reputation”.
The reputation for quality cask ale at The Stockbridge Tap has been built on well trained staff, according to Carmichael.
“Cask-wise it’s myself, my assistant manager and two other key holders [who handle the cellar],” said Carmichael, who added that although it may be a bit more work, seasonal cask ales are “definitely” worth doing.