Words by: Ian Cameron
Journalist turned hospitality entrepreneur Charlie McVeigh is the brains behind the small but fast-growing Draft House specialist beer pub chain.
My first memories of pubs are from quite an early age. I was born in America but moved here when I was eight and there was a pub near my school, a gastro pub of its day, that sold this incredible pea and ham soup. There is a photograph of me and my grandfather drinking out of a dimpled glass - he was probably complaining about the beer being thin and warm.
It was when I was at university in Edinburgh that I learned the difference between good and bad beer: what was fizzy, thin shite in one place would be an incredible, foamy, lively beer in the other. My friends and I became real nerds and we would try and find bars with the best beer, and realised that there were perhaps only four or five pubs in the whole city that stood out.
The idea of a pub focused on beer shouldn't have been revolutionary, but it was. The inspiration came in 2006. I had inherited a failing restaurant and we were planning to turn it into a gastropub, but then Duncan Sambrooke came in, told us he was opening a brewery (Sambrooke's) around the corner. That was really unusual at the time, you just didn't hear of it happening - and it was just as Young's brewery left Wandsworth. I drank a pint of Sambrooke's Wandle ale, which was delicious, and remember thinking that things were changing. Our plans quickly evolved to creating a beer pub.
We grew the beer collection ourselves. We have a great relationship with individual brewers, and we're constantly trying to find people making great beer, primarily in the UK. One of the most extraordinary characteristics of this recession is the upsurge in the number of breweries, though I spend a lot of time batting off lots of weird beers. As for international beers, the choice is still fairly limited. If you want anything other than standard you have to make a real effort. For Australia Day (26th January) we're bringing over kegs of Little Creatures and White Rabbit. There's been a ridiculous number of emails going back and forth organizing that.
I'm quite keen that our sites are all different. I think modern chains need individual designs and getting the sites to feel local is every important - identikit doesn't work, especially in pubs, and our site locations are not in super prime locations so we need to also function as a traditional pub. I hope Draft House is a pub in the pure sense of the word. I find people use the individual site handles rather than just saying Draft House.
There are fewer bad pubs now than there once were. The real dog days are gone. The Campaign for Real Ale's greatest achievement is educating people how to keep cask ale well. Pubs are still closing but I think people have realised that well-run pubs can be incredibly profitable businesses. The pub concept is so broad, I remember Luke Johnson once gave me a book, The Moon Under Water: in search of the perfect pub. It basically said there is no definitive pub, it's all about their eccentricities.
The scariest pubs are definitely still in Glasgow. I used to go to a lot of gigs there, some were like pre-fab sheds, with those really high, thin windows, practically bullet proof glass, and it was hard to find someone that wasn't absolutely deranged or desperate for a fight.
If I'm asked to pick my favourite beers, I'm always going to include Wandle. I love the idea of an English beer full of flavour and body and it's below 4% alc./vol.. No other country is really able to make low abv beer with such body and flavour. I'm not that interested in strange, though Dark Star in Sussex has just put out a bottled beer that's a hybrid of a golden ale and with a heavily hopped fruity American style IPA. It's 7.2% and I've got two cases at home, so I'm probably going to be hammered all through Christmas. I love dark wheat beer too.
I don't want to be so arrogant as to say I reinvented the pub, but I want people to feel glad when they see the Draft House rays shining down from the sign. That masks a financial ambition, but if we achieve that, and if they say we played a role in modernising the traditional pub but kept its values in place, everything else will be easy.