One of Whitbread's major crimes in CAMRA's eyes has been its brewery closure policy. Since 1981, it has shut down no less than twelve; an amazing tour of destruction. It now has only 3 real ale breweries and one of those, Boddingtons, was bought as recently as 1989. Their largest brewery is Flowers at Cheltenham, which produces as uninspiring a range of real ales as any in the country. Flowers IPA and Original are the best known and most of the rest are dismal efforts bearing the names of long-closed breweries like Fremlins and Bentleys. Boddingtons in Manchester was bought to cash in on the undeserved cult reputation of its straw-coloured bitter. Relentless advertising has seen an enormous growth in the sales of this pleasant but frankly average brew.
Finally there is the small Castle Eden brewery in the north-east which somehow miraculously survived the closure offensive and, for the moment, seems safe. Castle Eden Ale, a sweetish but well-crafted beer, is its product most often seen round here.
All the closures left Whitbread with insufficient capacity, so the brewing of some beers is contracted out to regionals e.g. Wethereds by McMullens, Strongs by Morrells. The company has also been brewing a series of seasonal ales. Some of these have been a bit gimmicky (Christmas Pudding, Chocolate Mild) but generally they are quite distinctive, e.g. the overtly malty Green Bullet or the tart Scarlet Lady, and occasionally superb e.g. Fuggles Imperial.
On the pub front, Whitbread locally has concentrated on its larger managed pubs. In Cambridge, five have been converted into Ale Houses - The Bath, The Globe, The King St. Run, The Anchor and the Red Bull, Newnham. All offer a wide range of both Whitbread's own beers and guest ales from smaller breweries. They have, by and large, been a welcome addition to the local real ale scene. The brewery's other main interest is in large family-orientated pubs and it runs two Brewers Fayres and two Beefeaters on the edges of the city.
As for the tenanted houses, it is increasingly difficult to know which are still Whitbread-owned and which are run by pub companies. There are also typically local pubs managed direct from the brewery. However, all sell real ale and many offer guest beers. A fairly random selection includes:
The Carpenters Arms in Victoria Road currently serving Old Speckled Hen, Boddies and West Country Pale (a light 3% bitter) is a friendly locals pub that still advertises an earlier owner, Lacons of Yarmouth. In one of the two bars is an unusual form of skittles which may be played if the pool table is unoccupied.
The Queen Edith in Wulfstan Way is a large, smart, modern pub serving the densely populated surrounding area. It serves Boddingtons through a swan neck, evidently purposefully installed, Whitbread Trophy at £1 a pint and Flowers Original. At the back of the bar is a cardboard stand, proclaiming "if you think the head on your beer is too large - tell us - we will gladly top up your glass", with the rider that the head, by law, may form part of the pint. A nice touch.
Trophy is also £1 per pint at The Five Bells, Cherry Hinton, a thriving local also serving Flowers IPA. When Whitbread have finished this marketing ploy with Trophy, they might try giving it some flavour so it's worth a normal price. At the Rose and Crown, Teversham there has been a good range of the seasonal ales and guest beers; currently the choice is Flowers IPA, Wadsworths 6X and Old Speckled Hen. The pub has retained the sports orientation of former years. A good range of food on the blackboard menu under the title of the Cuisine of South-east Asia indicates an improving food trade.
So what does the future hold for Whitbread in these turbulent times? There are regular rumours that they will get out of brewing al together or merge in some way with Allied. It is certainly diffcult to feel any affection for a company which has axed so many brew eries and churns out so much bland real ale. But give them credit for the Ale Houses and the seasonal beers. And look out for the new Hogshead pub in Regent Terrace overlooking Parkers Piece.