When you think about great places to drink in Birmingham city centre then the Craven Arms has to be very close to the top of the list. It has been around for quite a while but it wasn’t until Chris and Sharon Sherratt took it over in early 2013 that it started to become the beer nirvana we all know and love now. So, with Chris being a Burtonian like fellow blogger Dave Hopkins I thought it was time for the two of us to have a chat with him for the blog to discuss his beery past, how he became a publican, and his plans for the future. It became clear to us that it was this journey, and Chris’s beery adventures that led to him and Sharon being such fantastic publicans and making The Craven Arms such a great pub.
Where it all started
We began by discussing his formative years in the old home town where his first loves were the Porter from the Burton Bridge brewery, a beer fondly remembered by Dave as well, and DBA at Ind Coopes social club.
‘I was quite a late starter really! My Mum and Dad very rarely drank, so there was very little alcohol in the house, other than the odd can of Sainsbury’s light ale, but not really anything that was worth talking about. I remember at around 15 or 16 going down to The Bridge in Burton and drinking porter. We started going down there and having the porter because it was different. In those days, Bass and Pedigree were decent beers, so we drank a lot of those. Bass was still a separate company that was brewing beer, and it was good. I used to drink that when I went in the Blue Post, who started introducing Guest Beers, so it was quite interesting to try beers that you’d not seen in Burton in before. And Marston’s at the time, with Paul Bailey the head brewer were doing the Brewers Choice. So there were two different beers each month, and they were pretty interesting. I also used to drink DBA quite a lot. I’ve always been quite into beer and don’t think I’ve ever really drunk lager in a pub. I’ve always been an ale drinker. ‘
His first period in Birmingham was at University where he frequented the Unspoilt by Progress and the Flapper before going back to Burton to begin his career in teaching. By 1998 he was back in Birmingham discovering the Anchor and the Waggon and Horses in Halesowen before carrying on his beer education in Nottingham, Derby in 2001 at the Flowerpot and Brunswick, and Sheffield during which time he became a bit of a ticker.
‘I then did a PGCE where I just did a lot of normal weekend drinking. In 1998, I then lived in Birmingham for a while and re-discovered The Anchor, where the beers were always changing and were in decent condition, so that was my first taste of Coniston and Harviestoun.’
A Beer Epiphany
Like many of us beer geeks there is often a specific beer that hooks you in, often called an Epiphany Beer.
‘For me it was probably Roosters – either ‘Yankee’, or ‘Special’. Basically anything by Roosters really! And Oakham beers too. They were the first regularly seen beers that were pale and hoppy and that was probably mid to late 90’s where there was something just a bit different. Before that, most of the beers were brown and although weren’t necessarily rubbish beers it was just nice to see something new and different. If I compare those beers now to what I had back then, I don’t think they’re what they were. But is that me looking back with rose coloured spectacles of the type of beer they were, or is it that they have changed the beer? I suspect it’s a bit of both, that actually the hops they use now are different, the malt, and the yeast can have an impact, but I just don’t think they’re the beers they were.’
Variety and Exploration
It is this time in Birmingham that helped to form Chris’s interest in variety and interesting beers.
‘I then later discovered The Wagon in Halesowen where they had 16 beers, and I just enjoyed drinking different beers all the time, experiencing as many different styles as I could.
In 1998 I also joined CAMRA and there was also the Figure of Eight on Broad Street where there were always some great guest beers on in there – it was a really good Wetherspoons at the time. And then I moved to Nottingham where I first experienced rapidly changing beers where I was on the CAMRA committee. It was a really good experience of being able to look into the ins and outs of ale and it was a really decent CAMRA branch. Then, in 2001 I moved back to Derby and drank in some great pubs in Derby including the Alex Brunswick. Derby was great, and was an education in beer really – had great access to Oakham and Rooster beers and pale, hoppy beers. And then we discovered Sheffield, which was a revelation – that’s where I started collecting beers. There was one year where I made a conscious decision where on January 1st, I decided I wanted to try 1000 different beers within the year, which I’d done by the August!’
The opening of The Wellington in 2004 meant he could further his beer knowledge, but by 2007-08 he began to feel the UK beer scene was beginning to stagnate. And then came another epiphany with 2 trips to New York and their enthusiasm for beer which was all served in (whisper it) keg. Like other drinkers who had visited the States, he realised that it was more than just Bud & Miller and wondered ‘Why not in England’? Fortunately a new breed of Breweries in the UK such as Kernel came to the rescue and kick-started the UK scene that we all know and love.
The Pub Comes a Calling
Chris and Sharon’s journey across the Midlands exploring beers, and their passion for beer led them to the decision to make a major change in their lives and become publicans, something that Dave and I, along with fellow Birmingham drinkers, are very grateful for.
‘When did you make the jump from teaching to working in and running a pub, and why?’
‘I did a beer order for Derby Winter Ales Festival in 2011 because I was a bit bored of the beer choice at beer festivals. It always felt pretty safe, so I did the beer order for them and got 10 Brodies Beers in, 2 Kernel Casks, which at that time was still difficult to get hold of as they were still very small, but I managed to persuade them. I also managed to get loads of Buxton as well, as that was a similar time to when they’d just started taking off with Axe Edge and Imperial Black which were fantastic.’
‘From there, I handed my notice in and did some training with Everards, as initially I wanted to run a pub with them. So I did cellar and bar training with them, did some experience in pubs, and then I worked for Blue Monkey and managed the Organ Grinder in Nottingham for about four months, where I got lots of Brodies and Buxton in there for them, just to spoil Nottingham’s taste buds!!’
The Craven Arms
Chris and Sharon wanted to return to Birmingham and fortunately for all of us beer drinkers our very own @mediocre_dan (find his most recent blog here) tweeted about the Craven being on the market, so they asked Black Country Ales and the rest is history. The pub was closed for a short period to refurbish it and turn it into a fairly typical BCA comfy pub. Initially they had 2 free pumps to pick their own beers rather than going from the Black Country list, but after the success of the first beer festival in the summer of 2013 they were allowed to do their own thing much more, and also increase the range of keg taps.
‘By this time, I knew I’d had enough of teaching and was really keen to move careers. Once I’d generated some experience and the training, I then approached Black Country Ales and told them I was interested in running one of their pubs, but was keen to be able to select some of my own beers. Initially we were offered the Robin Hood at Willenhall, but on Twitter had noticed that they’d just bought the Craven, so I spoke to them about this place instead.’
‘When was it you opened the Craven Arms?’
‘It was 2012 we looked into it and it was 2013 Black Country re-opened it. It moved quite quickly. I think we started looking at it in around October/November time and then it was closed for around six weeks before we took over in early 2013. As soon as Black Country Ales had stamped their style on it, it felt like it started to work. Initially we had to choose off the Black Country Ales list, but for me it was a financially risk free strategy, because the thing with Black Country is they don’t require money upfront, so it was just a case of them employing us and we get a percentage of the takings.’
‘Why did you choose this site?’
‘We’d walked past it when we’d been to see gigs at the O2, so we knew that it existed, but it was the fact it was Birmingham City Centre, and the fact that Birmingham City Centre still doesn’t really have enough decent pubs that just do beer.’
‘When you started here did you have a plan of what you wanted it to be like?’
‘Yeah, I wanted ,if we could, to get our own beers on, but that just happened naturally within the first six months. Initially, we were offered two free choice pumps, and then it spread over the rest. So now we’ve got up to eight guests of my choosing, plus the keg as well and that happened quite quickly as well. After about seven – eight months we could get most beers we wanted.’
Becoming a Legend
In our opinion what makes The Craven Arms stand out is its keg range and the great quality of their cask beers. It is the quality of the cask beer that has led Bob to change his mind and begin to love beer from hand-pull.
‘Do you think your background in science has enabled you to keep better beer?’
‘No, not at all! I drink my own product, so I want it to be good. I just enjoy it, and want to aspire to have something that’s worth drinking. It’s not rocket science, so it still puzzles me as to why places can’t get it right. They’re not difficult to look after, it’s the basics – keep your lines clean! I know a lot of people blame the brewers or the beer, when it so often isn’t the brewers’ fault if the beer is bad – there’s more to it than that and how it’s kept is so important.’
‘When did you add keg and what was the thinking behind that?’
‘I’d been to The Grove in Huddersfield a few times, where they have loads of keg and cask in the same place, and London pubs started to do it as well, so we wanted to try it. We started off with two, and then we went up to four and then that slipped up to six! I think it was 2014 we started doing keg. I’d love to do more keg lines, but we just don’t have the space to do it here.’
Opinion on the current Birmingham Beer Scene
We started this blog because we are passionate about the Beer Scene and we are keen to see it grow, (Read Bob’s opinion blog on the scene here). It is fantastic to hear Chris feeling the same. We believe the more the people of the scene work together the more likely we will see the improvements we want to see.
‘How do you feel about where Birmingham is currently at with its beer scene and do you feel there is anything missing?’
‘I personally don’t think it’s very good. It’s got some good places like Tilt, Original Patty Men, but you have to compare Birmingham with other cities, and the ones you compare it with, like Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield and it feels like we’re behind. I think we need something like ‘Tapped’ or a ‘Craft Beer Company’, but they don’t seem to be opening, and when places do become available, they seem to be snapped up with the wrong types of places. We don’t need any more cocktail bars! I also feel there needs to be a bottle shop in the centre. We’ve got two great bottle shops with Stirchley and Cotteridge, but we’ve not got anything in the centre.’
Chris and Sharon are not standing still, they are continuing to develop the The Craven Arms and have plans to make more positive impact on the Birmingham beer scene.
‘What do you plan for the future at Craven Arms?’
‘I think we’re planning on having some more ‘Meet the Brewer’ sessions – they’ve worked really well on a Monday night. I’d be interested in doing something with Buxton here, and I’d also be really interested in doing a Beavertown Cask versus Keg event. We’re also looking at doing a Wild Weekend of Wild Beers at some point. I think the main thing is looking for another place as well as this, just to help with the scene as it feels so fragmented.’
‘What do you see for your future?’
‘I’d like to open a keg micro pub. I think Birmingham could do with another place, and I’d want somewhere that had more keg lines.’
It was wonderful to chat to Chris and learn about his passion for beer and how this has led him to making it his career. It was also great to hear how his beer journey and experiences have led to all the elements that make The Craven Arms such a fantastic pub.
By Dave Hopkins & Bob Maxfield – We thank Chris for giving up his time to speak with us.