The bigger pub companies like Punch, Enterprise and Admiral have come in for much criticism in recent times, particularly over how they operate the beer tie. Tenants could only buy beer through the pub co who charged significantly more than the free trade price. The choice of ales was also restricted, with few small brewery beers available to tenants. In 2009 the House of Commons Business & Enterprise Committee issued a critical report on the pubcos an the Government has given them until this June to come up with reforms which address the main competition issues. The signs are that they seem to be moving in the right direction.

His, then, seemed like a good time to find out what Punch are up to locally so we were pleased that Jean-Paul Russek, the Business Relationship Manager who covers most of our area, agreed to attend one of our Branch meetings. Jean-Paul has been with the company for a year and looks after 40 pubs in Cambridgeshire and Essex. He has persuaded four of them to start selling real ale and only another four remain on keg (none in our area). He confirmed that real ale is the main significant growth area in the on-trade with sales 8% up for two years running – hence why he's keen to encourage his pubs to sell it and to keep it well (and it no doubt helps that Jean-Paul is a real ale enthusiast himself and a CAMRA member to boot). He also has the highest number of Cask Marque members in any Punch area in the country.

In terms of real ale availability, Punch's “core list” continues to expand with the likes of Woodforde's and Adnams as well as more mainstream beers. Tenants who turn over sufficient cask ale can qualify for the “Finest Cask” scheme which offers monthly guest beers, many from smaller brewers. Punch has also just launched its Punch Buying Club Agreement, designed (in their words) “to dispel myths around how the tied business model works”. The new lease offers free-of-tie pricing on tied beer as standard, or the option for licensees to pay less rent in exchange for lower levels of discount on tied beer supplies. In a major step forward, the new lease also enables licensees to stock locally produced ales on a free of tie basis, as well as using Punch's buying power to get the best deals for its licensees on wines, spirits and minerals.

Punch has also announced that licensees across the country who wish to further enhance the local feel of their cask offer will, from June, have the option to access ales supplied through the Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA). Punch licensees who are Cask Marque accredited and who already run a successful cask pub business (50 brewer's barrels or more per annum) will be able to complement their existing offer by sourcing ales via SIBA from local breweries.

We gave Jean-Paul details of our local breweries, including the two new ones (Fellows and Lord Conrad's) and he will see what can be done about getting their beers into local Punch pubs.

Something else which Jean-Paul has been pushing is in-house Beer Festivals which he sees as helping build the profile of particular pubs as well as stimulating interest in real ale. The company offers licensees training days and other support to put on these events and they can order any beers they wish. Locally the Boot at Histon had a festival at the end of January with 12 beers.

Jean-Paul feels that there is still a way to go on real ale but that there are plenty of opportunities to capitalise on the growing interest in the product. From Punch's point of view it makes commercial sense to encourage the market through additional choice.

We thanked Jean-Paul for taking the trouble to talk to us and agreed that we'd explore ways in which we can work together such as our forthcoming Local Pubs Week.

The Punch pubs in our area are:

Cambridge: Geldart, Bun Shop (now Jolly Scholar), Haymakers, Great Northern, Earl of Beaconsfield, Flying Pig, Punter, Queen Edith, Waterman, Man on the Moon, Golden Hind
Dullingham Kings Head
Elsworth Poacher
Fen Ditton Ancient Shepherds, Kings Head
Fulbourn Six Bells
Girton George
Grantchester Green Man
Histon Boot
Impington Railway Vue
Over Exhibition
Saxon Street Reindeer
Waterbeach Sun