Fighting for independents

It’s good to be able to report a successful pub story at a time when so many have closed or are threatened with the axe. The word “success” scarcely does justice to Ye Olde Fighting Cocks in Abbey Mill Lane, downhill from the abbey, and proves that a vigorous beer and food policy can pay a rich dividend.

Christo Tofalli reels off statistics at such a speed that he almost defies my creaky shorthand. He manages the pub – Britain’s oldest inn, according to the Guinness Book of Records – and says that business has increased by 20 per cent in the first three months of 2015 compared to the same period last year. The most remarkable stat comes from his burgeoning beer sales: he now sells double the amount of real ale as lager or keg beer -- and that’s a complete reversal of the situation when he took over in April 2012.

In modern pub terminology, Christo is the “lessee” of the pub, which is owned by one of the country’s biggest pub companies, Mitchells & Butlers. He says his sales of real ale are up by a staggering 40 per cent so far this year. This is due, he thinks, not only to the national swing to cask beer but to the fact that St Albans has an especially knowledgeable customer base, fuelled by CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, with its head office in the city and to the large number of tourists that visit St Albans.

“Tourists now want to drink real ale,” Christo says. In common with all lessees who run pubs owned by giant pub companies, Christo has to source his beers from the M&B list but he avoids mainstream brands and chooses beers from smaller independents.

His regular ales are Purity Ubu from Warwickshire and Harviestoun Bitter & Twitter from Scotland. The other beers from the eight handpumps in the heavily-beamed bars change constantly but currently Christo says another Purity beer, Wild Goose, “is walking out the door” and customers are raving about an American-style, hoppy IPA called Apus – a tropical Bird of Paradise – from the Navigation Brewery in Nottingham.

Christo sold 100 different real ales during the course of 2014 and you might think this would keep him in M&B’s good books. But he has had a tussle with the pub company over his choice of beers. His area rep says the pub’s beer sales are “amazing” but that hasn’t stopped M&B from attempting to close down Christo’s range of beers from smaller brewers and force him to take such mainstream brands as Fuller’s London Pride and Sharp’s Doom Bar.

The reason is a simple one: the need for giant pub companies to maximise their profits. The likes of M&B, Punch Taverns and Enterprise Inns buy the bulk of their beers with deep discounts from bigger breweries. Sales of London Pride and Doom Bar are falling in the M&B empire, which explains why the company wants to get them back on the bar in the Fighting Cocks.

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But Christo appears to be winning the battle. He told me last week that, after months of wrangling, M&B says it will have another look at the sales figures in the pub and decide whether Christo can continue to buy in the beers he and his customers prefer. The company has also agreed to reduce the rent Christo pays – currently an eye-watering £100,000 a year. When you add on the percentage of the takings at the pub that M&B takes and the top-dollar price Christo has to pay for his beer and other drinks, it’s a wonder he makes a living.

But he is so committed to the Fighting Cocks that he has bought out his business partner and has busily improved the food side of the pub. His chef is the up-and-coming 26 year-old Ian Baulsh from St Albans who learned the ropes at D’Arcy’s restaurant before working with Michelin-star chef Andrew McLeish.

“We celebrate British food,” Christo says. “We’re not a gastro-pub but we use local suppliers such as butchers and our fish is delivered on a daily basis.”

Around 10 per cent of the food is based on organic ingredients. Christo has two vegetable patches at the pub where he grows organic vegetables and herbs while the Earthworks, the local charity that gives work to young people with learning difficulties, has three beds set aside for supplying the pub with fruit and veg.

As well as such dishes as grilled poussin, roast lamb and fresh lemon sole, there are plenty of vegetarian options on the menu, including gnocchi and linguini.

You can drink and dine in style at the Fighting Cocks. If you go, take a look at the bar. If the cask ales come from independents, you’ll know Christo has won his battle with the pub company. But if you spot London Pride and Doom Bar you’ll know who has the biggest muscles.