Published on April 4, 2018 | by Alastair Gilmour


All fired up

What is it with the Head of Steam success, asks Alastair Gilmour

Read this in the voice of former BBC Sports Report announcer James Alexander Gordon. “Here are today’s premier draws: Newcastle 2 Leeds 2; Sheffield 1 Birmingham 1; Hull 1 Nottingham 1; Huddersfield 1 Leicester 1…”

It’s not the definitive list, but an indication of the number of Head of Steam pubs there are – 13 come May – stretching across the nation from their base in Hartlepool. This is surely a pub phenomenon. The brand, developed by licensed trade entrepreneur Tony Brookes in the mid-1990s then sold to Camerons Brewery in 2014, has since taken on a new life – but has remained true to the original Brookes ideal of quality venues and knowledgeable staff with the emphasis firmly on an adventure in beer.

“We’ve kept close to Tony Brookes’ roots,” says Yousef Doubooni, head of marketing at Camerons Brewery. “In a Head of Steam there’s a great range of beer plus recognisable brands on the bar. We think that’s important – people like something new and exciting while others want something they’re familiar with. Some might be looking for Belgian beer or a different British beer while others are happy with the big brands.”

But there’s infinitely more to it than that – these days, size matters. For example, the new Nottingham site features 19 keg lines and the Leicester venue has 20 keg beers available, both of them offering a selection of rotating craft beers plus eight cask ale lines each with beers sourced from their local area as well as brewers across the UK. A selection of premium cocktails, wines, spirits and soft drinks completes the drinks range.

“Of course, it’s about the beer but the food side is developing the way it’s supposed to,” says Yousef.

“Certain elements run right through every Head of Steam. It might be how the beer is set up; there’s always one wall in the pub with distinctive images of their host town or city; it could be the chandeliers; it’s definitely the high standard of finish; it’s in the innovation and the enviable amount of free rein the managers enjoy.

“Head of Steam managers are trusted; many have been promoted from within, plus there’s an ability within the company to pinpoint a site and be certain of its future position within the family. It takes a while to absorb the Head of Steam vision. We have exceptional bar staff and we have expanded to developing that vision the way it’s always been while stretching ourselves at the same time. People are now very much aware of who we are – from Newcastle down through the country, city by city.

“I walked past a site recently and thought ‘that place is wasted, it would make a great Head of Steam’. I can’t reveal where it is, but we’re now well down the road to securing it.

“It takes a lot of getting right. We don’t open a pub while there’s still a smell of wet paint about it; we have eight to ten days of dry runs and staff training. We have a target of opening six pubs a year but we’re nearly up to that now, so I think it could be ten this year, I really do.

“Another thing about the Head of Steam and the Tony Brookes ethos is that someone might come in with a puzzled look on their face but our staff can help them through that scenario and take them on a journey. We put them through a beer sommelier scheme and run masterclasses which helps everybody.

“I met a lady who said she didn’t like beer. That’s fine – but you should be able to go into a Head of Steam and say that. There is a beer for everybody.”

The managers are encouraged to go to the brewery and brew their own beer. For example, Graham Frost at Tilleys in Newcastle (part of the group though not branded Head of Steam) has brewed a White Chocolate Stout and Spencer Pritchard-Owen at the Quayside Head of Steam has developed a dry-hopped Bourbon-infused brown ale.

Yousef  Doubooni says: “The interesting thing here is that the pubs in the Camerons family which are not branded Head of Steam as such are run in exactly the same way. The managers are at the coalface; they’re the best market research ever, they listen to bar conversations and take the positives and negatives. They know what will work in their bars.”

As Spencer says from bitter experience: “You roll with it, it’s a two-way thing, an open dialogue, which is refreshing.”

The Head of Steam legacy appears to be honesty and integrity, 100% behind beer quality and beer education. Anybody can open a bar but what the Head of Steam has created is a place to relax, to chill and settle in. Tony Brookes will raise a glass to that.

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Alastair Gilmour

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