Before going in, we had decided that we would pre-judge the Garden House, which had been a marvellous pub and then Craft Union took it over. I haven’t been since that takeover, but Craft Union have in my experience been reliably terrible with clunky makeovers and a poor range of drinks. I’ve never been quite sure what the word Craft is doing in their name, trying to cash in on craft beer when that’s not something they have any focus on. So, my expectations really weren’t very high and I’m used to Craft Union not even offering real ale, so we were wondering whether we’d have to fall back on something like Guinness.
The welcome offered at the entrance was excellent and verging on exceptional and I understand it was the landlord standing there taking charge of that. That was a positive first sign, as being made to feel welcome really is a skill that some pubs struggle to get right and it shouldn’t be that much of a challenge. The second positive sign was that list of real ales, as Theakston’s Old Peculier is what I consider to be a very good option to have, as is Timothy Taylor Landlord. It’s also really useful when pubs write down the beers that they have, as staff trying to remember what they have is not an ideal situation as it’s often poorly communicated. But here, there was clarity, friendliness and a self-assured service style all as part of the initial greeting, which is rather lovely.
There’s a large beer garden and that is apparently the reason the pub was named the Garden House because of that rather useful feature, although for reasons unknown, the pub name was changed for a short period in the 1980s to ‘Fridays’. Today, the garden area is all organised and there’s an area with an external television and seating area. That the pub can show live sports is not much interest to me, but I can see that it’s a very useful thing to have to help them serve the community. The pub is using a clunky app provided by Craft Union, which reminds me of the Greene King app which really isn’t very focused on proper beer, as neither can cope very well with real ales. This wasn’t a problem here, a staff member was able to take our order as she confirmed real ale can’t be ordered using the app. As another little bonus, the prices charged for the ales, and indeed most drinks that I saw, was towards the lower end of the scale.
This is my problem with the Craft Union name, it implies to new customers that they focus on craft beer. Their advertising is actually more focused on drinks such as this, which is entirely fine (and, a bit secretly, I wouldn’t turn any of those down…..) but not keep in fitting with their name. Craft Union is now part of Stonegate, who are probably going to do a better job than the complete disaster that Enterprise Inns made of most things when they operated it.
Anyway, my issues with the national brand aside, this pub was very well run and the customer service was faultless. The beer was well kept, the choice was better than my expectations and the environment was comfortable. It’ll take me a while yet to be convinced about Craft Union, but this was a rather positive experience. It does show though that when they find an excellent operator that the concept they use (where the operator is self-employed but gets 18% of the take for themselves and to pay their staff) is one that can work.
It’s a reminder also to us that we shouldn’t really pre-judge pubs as often they can surprise and delight.