It seems unlikely now, but back in the 1990s when Bath Ales was founded the company wasn’t too dissimilar from any number of other small brewer operators, with an estate of traditional city-centre and country pubs dotted throughout the west country.
Fast-forward a couple of decades and the independent brewer has transformed itself into perhaps the most progressive pub and restaurant group in the south west. This is thanks largely to the opening of Graze in Bristol in November 2009 – an 80-cover restaurant inspired by the chophouses of London and New York. Not only did this move the brewer into the restaurant world proper but it inspired the company to branch out into even more diverse areas of the market and set it on the new and more adventurous course that it takes today.
“Graze was the point at which things changed,” says Robin Couling, Bath Ales managing director. “It’s located in a former post office and is only 2,000sq ft, but it went well from the get-go. If we had the time again we’d have gone for a larger site.”
The grilled meat and fish-led menu has a brasserie format with a tight selection of starters and small plates, followed by a strong offer of meat from a Josper oven, including flat-iron, sirloin and rib-eye steaks as well as pork and lamb chops and poussin and various other mains and salads. Prices are reasonable by London standards, with steak and chips under £20, whole Cornish sole for £14.95 and duck leg confit for £13.95.
“I wanted something that was premium and relevant to beer but relatively straightforward to operate, which is where the steak thing came from,” says Couling. “At that time, Hawksmoor had opened and Goodman was also going and I thought steak was relatively – and I use that word advisedly – easy to cook, providing that you’ve got good ingredients to work with. We want to have sites that can sell a lot of beer but the idea was to get away from what was a very wet-dominated mix. Graze gave us that opportunity to step up the food side of our offer.”
Until this point the company’s sales mix was predominantly wet with an 80:20 split, but “that wasn’t sustainable unless you have lots of prime city centre sites,” he says. At all of the company’s three Graze sites – one other is in Cirencester and its latest one, which opened in December 2012, is in Bath – the split is 55:45 in favour of food, which the company believes is
At just over 5,000sq ft and with 120 covers, Graze Bath is double the size of any of Bath Ales’ other pubs and also the first to feature its own micro-brewery. Yet despite its meat and beer-heavy offer the site, located in a new food quarter in and around the arches of Bath Spa train station, is no drinking den designed to appeal to a masculine audience. Rather, it is a bright, family-friendly space that evolves throughout the day, moving from a relaxing, child-friendly lunchtime space into a more lively evening destination.
“The site lends itself to families,” says Couling. “When we actually saw it we changed the design from being like a bier keller, with bench seating and more of a drinking atmosphere, to something much more all-day dining. It becomes quite intimate in the evening.”
Graze Bath took more than £2m in the first year and has also raised the profile of the business, adds Couling. “It’s still a fledgling concept with three sites and we’re learning as we go, but in terms of property we now have developers approaching us about new areas. We’ve been offered some really good sites on the back of it.”
A many-headed operation
The creation of Graze effectively means that Bath Ales now operates three separate businesses – it is at once a brewer, managed-pub operator and restaurant company. “We don’t make it easy for ourselves,” Couling admits.
However, there are parallels between each of the operations that create a useful synergy. “It’s always worked because the pubs have supported the brewing operation at times, and the brewing side has done the same to the pubs at other times. The reason we got into pubs in the first place was because it was a way of selling beer and generating that all important cash-flow. And, in the context of an increasingly fickle customer base, to have more than one style of operation in your portfolio means that you can appeal to your customers on more than one occasion, which can be quite valuable.”
Couling’s background in the wine trade and hospitality has also made him the ideal man to oversee the new direction in which Bath Ales is moving. After working in a hotel at the age of 16 and then studying hotel management in Torquay, he left to work for off-licence chain Oddbins for five years, both in its shops and in the office. When the entire on-trade sales team was made redundant he used his pay-off to join forces with a friend and invest in the Falcon Inn, a pub in Poulton, Cirencester, running it as a food-led operation. As first the pair both cooked in the kitchen and then Couling moved to front of house. It proved a successful combination, with the Falcon Inn being named Best Newcomer in Gloucestershire in the 2004 edition of The Good Food Guide.
Ultimately, Couling decided to end the partnership with his friend, resulting in his share of the business being bought out. He did some travelling before joining Bath Ales as retail operations manager on his return in 2008, tasked with repositioning the pub estate. In March 2011 he became retail director, followed by managing director in September 2013, during which time he masterminded the Graze launch but also smartened up the traditional pub offer across Bath Ales’ six sites.
“At the time  the pubs were nice quality but traditional. They were quite ahead of their time and well supported by the local community but as the years wore on standards started to slip. The food offer was very confused.
“We were serving classic English craft ales and then all sorts of weird and wonderful food combinations – at one pub it would be nachos; at another the food would be of north African influence or a bit French. We had a very modern approach to our brewing and branding which wasn’t being reflected in the food so I brought it a bit more in step with what we were like as a brewer. In reality I just smartened up the way we worked.”
From Beerd to La Boqueria
Today Bath Ales operates 12 sites, including three Grazes and six pubs, which are predominantly based in the Bath and Bristol area – although one, The Grapes, is as far east as Oxford. Its other three sites build on the experience the company has had with Graze and are once again completely different propositions.
The first is its more edgy craft beer and pizza bar Beerd, launched in 2012 in Bristol. Compared with Bath Ales’ other pubs, Beerd is located in a more off-pitch location and targeted at a younger drinker. As a result, it serves beers developed by Bath Ales’ separate micro- brewery, many of which are much more experimental and trend-led than the brewer’s more traditional ales. These include its Sulis Collection of four punchy Imperial Stouts (from 10-11% abv), matured in different Scotch whisky casks for eight months – Speyside, Islay no. 1, Islay no. 2 and Highland – and some single hop brews.
The other two sites, both of which opened in March this year, have also moved the company into fresh territory. Located in Colston Hall, a music gig venue in Bristol, they are charcuterie bar Gordito and Colston Street Bar & Kitchen.
Gordito is loosely-styled on the tapas restaurants of Barcelona’s La Boqueria market, serving dishes such as jamon croquetas and frito mixto, while Colston Street Bar & Kitchen is more of an all-day offer that Couling describes as a kind of European/American diner. Menu items include salt beef on rye; shrimp po’ boy; hot dog ‘French dip’ style; and salt cod fishcake and chorizo stew.
“Both sites were tailored to the venue,” says Couling. “The building had been refurbished a few years previously and had a few concessions but they never did that well. We were supplying the beer to the venue; the opportunity arose to tender and we wanted to protect our beer supply by not having one of our competitors going in there. The site demanded two levels of offer – one entry-level and one premium – so we had to take a different approach.”
Couling considered putting a Beerd into Colston Hall but decided to stick to more off-pitch locations for future launches, of which there are likely to be a few. Beerd is well-placed to ride the current craft-beer movement – although Couling says competition has become fierce in the space as a result of more breweries opening up in recent years – and growing acceptance by consumers of locations in less salubrious or mainstream places, led by the likes of operators Loungers and MeatLiquor.
“From a commercial point of view Beerd has got legs,” Couling explains. “It’s simple, high quality, offers high margins and is bang on trend. It hasn’t got a steady day offer, but rather it’s more of an evening place, which means that it suits some of
the grittier areas.” Cowley Road in Oxford – a popular student hangout – is one such area where Beerd might work effectively, he believes.
Graze also seems ripe for rollout, tapping into the trend for Josper-grilled meat and high-quality beers, although Couling is against any rapid expansion for the brand and has ruled out any imminent move to the capital.
“Graze is becoming an operation we can duplicate and of which we’d like to do more. It’s a brand and concept that will translate well everywhere. But, operationally, we are nowhere near sharp enough. I have lived in London and it’s not for the faint-hearted. But if you get it right it’s fantastic.
“There are no aggressive expansion plans in place. We’re not planning to do a Côte or a Loungers or anything like that, although I have respect for what these companies do. We’ve never been driven by a strategy to reach 50 sites, make a huge profit and sell.”
In the short term, the company is ploughing funds into a new brewery that will significantly increase its capacity once it is up and running. Such investment in that side of the business, however, does send out a strong message about the group’s expansion ambitions and its ability to be able to supply future openings. It will also make the company become even more attractive to private equity companies – which have already been circling – keen to see evidence that supply can keep up with future demand.
For Bath Ales expansion isn’t going to be rushed but is likely to be a smooth and satisfying process. Just like its beer, that will make for a refreshing change.