When people talk about the growing number of microbreweries in the UK and beyond, one can look to a host of names and brands producing a plethora of different beers. And just as one can look at those smaller breweries opening pubs of their own, there are also a growing number of pubs that are installing breweries within their own sites. But when it comes to sheer scope, it is impossible to look past Brewhouse & Kitchen (BHK).
Founded four years ago by industry veterans Kris Gumbrell and Simon Bunn, the company has recently opened its 17th site – in Nottingham – and since brewed its millionth pint. Across the estate, 18 head brewers have made over 285 different beers. And while the brewing aspect of their business is perhaps the headline-stealer, Bunn and Gumbrell have also been strengthening standards and pushing boundaries across the entire business.
Both Gumbrell and Bunn had been thinking about brewpubs long before they got together to found BHK. Trips to the USA had highlighted the invention and quality Stateside and they were keen to bring those qualities to the UK, but without losing the British identity of their pubs. The idea of a brewhouse chain appealed, with the addition of a kitchen softening the name and providing another on-trend revenue stream.
Each site has four core cask ales produced by its brewer that have local stories and connectivity, as well as a rotating seasonal beer and one more Brewer’s Choice, where the brewer can really show off their creativity. The brewers are also given responsibility for the cellars, line cleaning and beer quality, with new iDraught technology brought in to allow for a more detailed analysis of the quality of the beer being offered to customers. The company initiated an apprenticeship scheme for brewers this year, galvanising the industry around it. Any staff members with an interest in brewing – especially home brewers – are elevated to the course.
“The great thing about home brewers is they have a great amount of ingenuity about them,” says Bunn. “They are able to problem-solve and the problem-solving element of working in our industry is really important.”
In addition to its own beers, the company is also fully immersed in the rest of the craft beer world, with 66 lines at the Nottingham site alone, with bottles and cans featuring heavily. Despite this enormous range, Bunn maintains that the focus is on styles and stability rather than racing too far ahead with overly adventurous choices.
“The problem many craft beer bars have is they just have loads of crazy stuff all the time,” he says. “But how do you leverage that? We have a very stable offering – lots of good quality styles of beer. As you go through each page of the menu, we’ve broken them down into the different styles. For every style we have a draft example, sometimes two, and then bottled and canned examples. I love cans. They’re brilliant containers. They stack really well and they can present really well.”
The focus on styles also allows for greater flexibility when it comes to pairing beer and food. The Kitchen element of BHK focuses on on-trend options, from sharing and grazing food to burgers, but rather than pairing each dish with a specific beer, a couple of styles are offered.
“What we learned from the early days is if you say ‘pair it with Sam Adams’ and then you don’t have any Sam Adams left, the whole thing falls apart,” Bunn explains. “With groups such as ours you have to have a pairing in a certain way and the pairing works as more people talk about it.”
Events and functions are playing an increasingly important role at BHK, with the Nottingham site’s upstairs area enjoying three wedding bookings over the weekend I’m visiting. However, when it comes to events, it is the Brewery Experience Days and Beer Masterclasses that allow BHK to stand out from the competition. Gumbrell and Bunn have been working on these events for six years – before BHK was even founded. Sold through the websites, as well as other providers, there are on average 70 brewery experiences across the estate every week, as well as 140 Beer Masterclasses. People are given breakfast, lunch, a day’s worth of brewing and plenty of beer, as well as a minikeg to take home.
“It’s important to get that right,” says Bunn. “Our experience side is really important. We can develop that and we’re looking at ways to get better. There are lots of things we can do. At the Masterclasses, we talk about the characteristics of each beer style and give samples through the session. I think it’s important to get people to understand what beer is all about.”
Where it can, BHK has always looked to buy freeholds, giving it total control of refurbishments and as wide a range of beers as possible. Given that each site needs to house its own microbrewery, a big footprint is necessary, as well as external trading areas. Bunn cites high passing footfall and a minimum of 100 covers for any site that he would consider. In the modern on-trade, he also highlights the need for space for tables, as drinking cultures move towards horizontal rather than vertical drinking.
“They are sizeable sites, but pubs are different nowadays,” he explains. “Most people now want to sit down rather than stand up. They get some drinks and gravitate to a table where they might do some grazing, some eating or just drinking.”
The company has always prided itself on pushing boundaries in the brewing world, and the refurbishment of its sites is no exception to this, where new ideas are constantly trialled. The Nottingham site has seen Bunn and Gumbrell introduce elements that may well be replicated in existing and future sites. While it could be seen as a redesign, Bunn prefers to think of it as a continuous evolution of the concept, with changes being brought to bear in every new site and then retrospectively introduced at existing pubs.
In addition to the cosmetic side of things, ambitious structural rebuilds are also a big part of the investment in sites, as Bunn and Gumbrell visualise ways to maximise the potential of properties. The transformation of the BHK in Lichfield saw the kitchen moved downstairs, the upstairs space converted into a flexible bar and function room, and the toilets reconfigured to allow for another bookable space. At Southbourne, there is a quadruple garage in the garden in which BHK is going to create a barrel-ageing area, a distillery and an events space. Then there’s the Bournemouth transformation, which was like something out of Grand Designs.
“We bought a very cheap pub and spent a lot of money doing it up,” he explains. “We put a three-storey extension on, but two were subterranean. It was a very complicated, technical build. We’re buried into the hill behind the pub, so the first floor is the ground floor once you get to the back. There’s a vacant plot of ground behind it and we’ve just agreed with the council that we’re going to take it and develop the garden further. We believe it will be the biggest garden in Bournemouth town centre.”
The acquisition of Y Mochyn Du in Cardiff’s Sophia Gardens sees co-founder Gumbrell return to his hometown and brings the estate to 18 sites, with another in legals. After this flurry of acquisitions, the company is closing in on 20 sites, but Bunn isn’t thinking about numbers.
“We’ll probably slow down the openings for a little bit so we can concentrate on developing what we’ve currently got,” he says. “We’re at a good size now. But when good assets come up, you find it hard to resist.”
This constant reinvention and development of the sites and the beer portfolio is all part of a bid to avoid standing still and being overtaken. But they are only part of the constant striving for improvement in all facets of the business. Bunn accepts that other groups can and have copied the design and look of his sites, but he has also sought to improve that uncopiable aspect of the business – the service that his staff provide to customers.
“If you could say we’ve rejuvenated ourselves in design, we’re doing the same with service,” he says. “It’s no different. We’ve got to get better on food, we’ve got to get better on drink, and we’ve got to get better on service, on design, on cost-cutting. We’ve got to get more productive and we’ve got to get better next week, next month, next year, every year.”
To this end, BHK places a great deal of emphasis on establishing, maintaining and improving the overall culture of the company. There is a full-time trainer within the business, initiating new recruits, but also developing existing team members and reinforcing the tenets of the company. BHK recently updated its training programme, where stories, habits and expectations are introduced and explained. Staff need to be ‘bossing the basics’, ‘not missing a trick’, ‘educating each other’ and ‘showing the guests that they care’.
“We’ve got seven habits of highly effective B&Kers, which is in the early stages of being rolled out,” says Bunn. “All of our teams are going through a process. We’ve come up with several stories. We have an internal Facebook page and we encourage our teams to post positive things about what their pub is doing. It is inspirational and any reward and recognition will go on there.”
The craft beer revolution has brought enormous innovation and vitality to the industry, and BHK has been at the forefront of this. However, its success can be attributed to its pushing for evolution and improvement in all aspects of its business, and championing its niche without ignoring, alienating or forgetting about the other myriad aspects that make up a successful modern operator.