Christine Lawrence tracks down an exciting new pub venture in Fratton created by two men with a passion for good ale.
Walking north from Fratton Station, along Fratton Road just past St. Mary’s Church, stands The Florist, a distinctive old Brickwoods building built in 1924 by Portsmouth architect Arthur Cogswell. It’s splendid with its own ‘witch’s hat’ turret, tiled brick facade and black beams. Peering through the windows you’ll see that the front bar is in the middle of a make-over. Empty for most of this year, after a series of unsuccessful attempts to make something of this little town pub, it’s now been taken on by Oakleaf Brewing Company of Mumby Road, Gosport. The owner of the company and the future manager are both inside wielding paintbrushes as the interior is transformed from a building site into a bright, contemporary bar.
So you may wonder what’s this all about? Why open a pub at a time when it seems that pubs are closing down all over town? What will be different about this one and how will it be able to compete with the established companies such as Weatherspoons?
The answer to that, according to Dave Pickersgill, director of Oakleaf Brewing Company and Martyn Constable, manager of The Florist, is that it will be different to what everyone else is doing, at least at the end of town where this pub is placed. Dave describes it basically as being similar to a ‘trendy wine bar’ but for beer. They don’t plan to stock Fosters, Stella or Strongbow – the idea is to sell ‘craft’ beers, specialist beers or beers that are unusual and that will be available for limited periods only. The aim is to provide a service to the more discerning drinker who likes trying new beers.
They plan to serve their own Oakleaf and other local beers, as well as ones from small brewers all over the country. They will also be selling foreign brews from Belgium, Germany, Norway, the United States – anything that’s good quality and not expensive to import. Dave and Martyn attend trade fairs looking out for new products and buy from small traders on-line. ‘The nice thing is,’ says Dave, ‘if they’re only fairly small barrels, you try one, if it sells, you have it again, if it doesn’t, or it sells slowly then you just put it down the list to try again sometime later.
Martyn says, ‘there are small pubs already locally, with good landlords, that are pleasant places to go to but many others rely on playing loud music, with karaoke nights, and selling cheap products.’ By contrast, The Florist will not have a juke box, pool table or live music. There will be background music at a low level, maybe classical or folk. You will be able to hear yourself talk in this pub, relax and meet new people as well as old friends.
I asked Dave and Martyn how they got into the brewery trade. Dave explained how his daughter was studying at Portsmouth University when she met Ed Anderson who was at that time brewing for Fullers. She brought Ed home to meet her parents and after two years of talking Dave eventually agreed to start a brewery with him. Dave had been in the army for 25 years and had other jobs after leaving the army. He then sold his house to buy the brewery. He hastened to add that his wife was fully committed to the project – ‘we both jumped in, both committed’. Now, after fifteen years of successful brewing, and winning several awards, Ed is still the head brewer of Oakleaf with a staff of six, and Dave feels it’s time to expand the business by taking on his own pub.
Martyn has worked in the pub and brewery trade for many years. Previously a pub manager and area manager, he was working for another brewery when Dave finally talked him into coming to work for Oakleaf. Martyn says that he likes the fact that it is a small brewery making a good range of beers. ‘So many breweries,’ he says, ‘just concentrate on hoppy beers or brown beer. I believe in the Oakleaf product because we do a good lager, a good stout, different styles of beer – I like their ethos because it’s more about the product than making the last penny of profit.’
The Florist is just the start of something exciting for beer drinkers in the Portsmouth area. Dave and Martyn intend to make this the first of a small chain of pubs. If The Florist does as well as they hope and they get it running in the way they want, they will put it under management and look to invest in the next one. So far, they are unsure of the location, but it will be a town centre pub similar to this one. They have no specific place in mind as yet, maybe in Portsmouth, possibly in Chichester, or Winchester, maybe Gosport.
The beauty of The Florist is that it’s only ten minutes walk from Fratton Station which makes it easy for people to visit from outside town or from other cities, and for locals to reciprocate visiting other locations. Martyn states that people would probably visit once a fortnight in this way. A lot of other smallish brewers are already opening their own pubs but Oakleaf is the only brewery in the South of Hampshire to have actually got hold of a premises of its own.
So what would you expect to pay for a pint in The Florist? ‘Anywhere from £3 to £8,’ says Martyn. ‘If you want beer that’s been brewed in small batches, that perhaps has come half way around the world, unfortunately you have to pay more for it. People in Portsmouth already pay more than that for a specialist ale that’s really unusual, something that’s only going to be there once.’ Martyn feels strongly that the ethos is about paying for quality, as you might pay a higher price for a good wine.
The Florist will also cater for wine drinkers. Although it’s not professing to be a wine bar you would definitely get a nice grape here. There will not be a fixed wine list – they’ll get a couple of cases of a wine in and if it goes well, they may keep it on for a while. If not, they’ll give it a rest – they may bring it back later – they may not. They will be constantly looking for new ideas, possible selling some local English wines. The same ethos will follow on in the selling of spirits. They want to sell quality spirits, not house doubles or the cheapest thing you can buy from cash and carry. ‘People want nice gin, nice tonic,’ says Martyn.
There will also be a good coffee machine to cater for those who like a coffee as an alternative to alcohol although they don’t intend The Florist to become just another coffee bar. They will only be open during the day on some days but not too early; there is little footfall outside at 10.00 in the morning but this has to be tested and tried. If they are busy as soon as they open, they may open a little bit earlier.
The interior of the pub is split into two bars and the front one is being decorated to be a bright and contemporary space with a large table at the rear surrounded by seats for sociable drinking. It’s an ideal place to meet new people or for a catch-up with old friends. The lounge bar is more traditional, with wood-panelled walls and an open fireplace, a cosy and quiet area filled with small tables, ideal for small groups or couples to enjoy a pleasant evening. The rear of the building boasts a good sized town pub garden, still looking like a building site at the moment, but with potential for many a pint consumed in the evening sunshine.
At present, Oakleaf Brewing Company only have plans for the ground floor of The Florist, although there are rooms upstairs that could in the future be used, perhaps as a manager’s flat, or maybe a small function room. Martyn sums up by saying, ‘There’s lots of things we don’t know about it yet, we’re just going to get the pub open, see how it goes. We might go this way, that way, whatever. A work in progress’.
The Florist opens this week at 324 Fratton Road, Fratton, Portsmouth PO1 5JX.
For more information, follow their progress on their Facebook page.