An Ode to Humphrey Smith

Sam Smith pubs are a bit like Marmite – you either can’t live with them or can’t live without them. And so, it would seem, is the owner.

I use ‘owner’ loosely because Humphrey Smith is a man who wields incredible power and influence across his inherited Sam Smiths empire. Along with his brother, Oliver, he controls over 300 pubs, a brewery (or perhaps two), owns most of Tadcaster and the surrounding agricultural land and swathes of commercial land in Leeds and prime London spots. It would be impossible, given the guarded nature of the Smith family, to give an accurate estimate on their wealth, but estimates range from £750 million into the several billions.

Still, Humphrey hasn’t let his fortune change his outlook on life. It is rumoured that his daily routine remains unchanged, picking up a couple of rashers of bacon, sausage and an egg from the local butcher each day before going about his business. Stuck in his ways, some may call it, but the company is all the better for it.

You see, nothing much changes in the Smith Empire. The Old Brewery at Tadcaster, established in 1758, still functions by-and-large as it would have done in the eighteenth century, brewing with water for the ales and stouts that is drawn from 85 feet underground, using old fashioned varieties of hops and fermenting ales in traditional Yorkshire stone ‘squares’. Grey shire horses are kept in the stables and still make beer deliveries and the brewery still has its own cooper making and repairing oak casks of different size and varieties, named ‘patsy’, ‘chive’, ‘adze’ and the like.

It is also the Smith family’s resolute determination to stick to conventional operating practices that make its pubs among the best in Britain. A new book exploring the Great Pubs of London, written by George Dailey, features several Sam Smiths pubs among its collection of historically and architecturally significant boozers. Indeed its front cover image is that of the Cittie of Yorke in Holborn, where giant oak wine barrels adorn a bar that is perhaps one of the oldest working Tudor taverns in existence.

But more than Humphrey’s resolute determination to hang on to the historic ‘infrastructural’ parts of his business, it’s his philosophy about the role a pub should play as a community gathering spot that really sets the man apart. You see, to him, pub utopia is doing the simple things well, AKA, good beer in a good environment at a reasonable price. That’s how it used to be, and the bits we have added since – jukeboxes, live sport, karaoke, pool – have only served to erode from it. How much extra on your pint do you think you pay for the privilege of watching Burnley v Stoke on a Monday night, for example.

When you walk into a Sam Smiths pub you can always find a room that feels like a second home, where you can unwind with a good book or have meaningful conversation. Sport is a distraction, music drowns out the chitter chatter and pool is just a game for people who have nothing better to talk about. So why change a pub that eschews these auxiliary extras?

There are rumours that his son – named Sam – is looking to modernise the business to rub with the youth of today. Some changes will be welcomed. This forum highlights several outdated working practices which, if true, should be rectified. But as for recommending music in venues and taming the company’s almost stubborn insistence to remain the same, I’m sorry, but that’s not for me. Mr Humphrey may indeed be a tight-fisted grumpy git, but trust me, so are most of the best landlords I know.

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