Interview: Chris Holmes founder of Castle Rock

Photos: Dom Henry
Interview: Samuel Rogers
Sunday 01 April 2007
reading time: min, words

"We’re now the largest brewery in Nottingham, which seems just daft really"


Chris Holmes is a former chairman of CAMRA - the Campaign For Real Ale – who set up the Tynemill company in 1977. Since then, he’s built up an empire which contains twenty pubs and the award-winning Castle Rock brewery…
When you first opened the Old Kings Arms in Newark thirty years ago,  did you ever imagine you’d achieve success on the scale you have?
No, because it was never the intention. The intention then was to prove a point and to break monopolies in Newark, as there was no real ale available. Having a simple free house in the middle of a town with a row of hand pumps serving real ales was a revolutionary concept then.

We’re sat in the Canalhouse, which is Tynemill’s latest acquisition. What’s your plans for the place?
I don’t think it’s ever really been exploited properly, to be honest. The room upstairs is perfect for small gigs, for example.  It was only in July last year that we got control of it - we’d always had a minority share before then. I’d like to see some music here, it’s definitely big enough to put live music on. We’ll wait ‘til Easter but that’s the plan.

Tynemill pubs tend to be quite different to each other inside. What makes them all individually so successful?
Well…some of this stuff sounds pretentious, but the core philosophy was always about providing choice. There’s now a big choice of genuine continental beers, a good wine list and our own chefs make all the food from fresh. We also let the managers have a lot of say in what goes on, so their personality, taste and preferences are reflected in what we do. In our pubs we don’t have any toys or machines and we’re very strict on bad behaviour. I don’t care how much money someone has to spend; if they are going to upset other customers we don’t want them.

What’s your opinion of chain pub brands like Wetherspoons?
I’ve got a lot of respect for what Wetherspoons did in the early days, and I will never publicly criticise anyone else in industry. But I do think the local pub industry becoming corporate is not in the public interest. One of the problems has been that city centres have become no-go areas for people over 35 - it’s either too noisy or they just feel a bit out of place.

What do you think it is that stops Tynemill becoming more commercial or corporate?
As someone once said, “not many people want to drink in a brand.” That’s why I like going to places like Amsterdam, Brussels or Prague - where if you go out for a drink virtually all the bars and restaurants are all individually operated and owned.
If you could pick one beer to represent Nottingham, what would it be?
Well, what do you think I’m going to say? Harvest Pale. It’s our most successful beer by a long way now.

More so than the Gold?
Oh yes. Harvest Pale is hugely successful, and not just in Nottingham. It gets all round the country. If you say ‘beers of Nottingham’ though, I think it’s a bit of a joke. Since Hardy and Hanson’s closed we’re now the largest brewery in Nottingham, which seems just daft really.

Do you swap beers with other local breweries like Magpie?
We’re using Magpie and we use Mallards. We’re very happy to support all the microbreweries in our area and we make a point of selling microbeers. We don’t feature any of them as permanent installations, but they’re regularly coming round on the guests. Our customers expect there to be a variety of different beers on.

What’s your opinion of lager?
We now sell lots of lager in our pubs. Carling and Grolsch are the only UK ones, but some of our places will have Staropramen on or Nastro Azzuro or Bitburger. I think Grolsch is a good, well made beer that to me tastes very similar to the Grolsch you’d drink in Holland. I think Carling is the best of the UK mainstream lagers. There’s a big market for that and it would be very arrogant of us not to sell that sort of product. But what we do find is that a lot of our customers drink lager in their early twenties and then move onto drinking ales, because palates do mature. Drinking real beer is a bit more demanding than drinking relatively flavourless lager.

What would you say to anyone having a go at brewing their own?
I think it’s great, because if people start to get an interest in making beer than it makes them more interested and they’re more likely to go out and try different drinks when they go to the pub.
What’s your favourite beer of all time?
My favourite beer of all time is Boddingtons circa 1965. I’m from Manchester and that was when Boddingtons was an independent brewer. The old bitter that was produced in the 60’s and 70’s was fantastic. Unfortunately, the beer that is now branded as Boddingtons bears no resemblance.

Is there anything else you’d like to say to LeftLion readers?
Only to keep doing what you are doing. Go out and experience live entertainment in Nottingham and go to watch movies at the Broadway as opposed to the big chains. It’s essential for us that people go out. We’re not really competing with the pub and bar down the road, we’re competing for the disposable income people have and if they’re spending it all on DVD’s and takeaway food and sitting at home then that’s not good for any of us. What we need is a vibrant industry where people go out to eat and drink and be entertained.

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