Thursday 31 January 2013

I'll Still Have a Pub to Go To

I've been a bit busy lately with CAMRA stuff recently and not really been able to keep up with blogs as much as I'd like and consequently have neglected my own. A temporary stare of affairs. One bit though I read yesterday, made me sit up and take notice. I was going to go for an afternoon kip, so knackered am I after National Winter Ales Festival, but Zak Avery's post here got me thinking instead. It is about the decline in beer sales against a background of a rise in the number of brewers and itself follows on from points made here..

 That bubble will bust many say and it no doubt will. At any rate it is hard to see anything other than a decline in the rate of increase.  I kind of believe that far from the smoking ban which saw a load of (mainly) older drinkers decide not to drink in pubs, there is wider societal change that means the number, type and quality of pubs will change. The anti alcohol brigade, through lies and distortions, have managed to scare off many from pub going, the pub companies have driven many pubs into the ground, the quality and business nous of many a landlord is clearly questionable and the days of a pub on every corner, while not entirely gone, are in decline. As working class areas change their populations, many have seen their pubs die as well. Unemployment, high prices, poor facilities, rotten welcomes, generational indifference to the pub as a social outlet and much more have changed the pub from the "must go to" haven it used to be, to an occasional treat, or even an imposition. For many young people the constant need to produce ID has driven the under age out of pubs and social interaction can easily be achieved electronically.  I dare say too these days,  there is much more chance of other more enticing horizontal delights too.

So why go to the pub? Remaining bottom end pubs are no go areas, road house pubs have either gone or become family oriented eateries, estate pubs have closed, slowly, one after the other as drinkers can drink and smoke cheaply at home, town centre pubs can be hell holes at weekends (or magnets for a certain kind of young drinker) and deserted during the week.  Good honest locals are struggling too. My observation too is that many young drinkers that do find their way to the boozer, aren't drinking that much by way of beer, but ready mixes, exotic ciders and gaudily coloured spirits with Red Bull.  A grim picture in some ways, but the young won't stay young forever and they will change. Predicting how might be worthwhile.

 But what of these brewers? Still coming out of the woodwork and despite the occasional failure, still doing reasonably well overall, as pubs become more open to them through being re-opened or re-invented as free houses, ties being loosened and wise entrepreneurs seeing gaps in the market. In addition - and these are very prevalent in Manchester - there is the cafe bar which will likely sell bistro style food, and a mixture of craft and cask beer. Craft beer bars are booming as operators see that in any bad situation, there are still people with money to spend, that want something that bit different. By operators, I mean both those that make beer and those that retail it.  Brewers with tied houses are increasingly turning to food as the answer and for some it will be, but it still leaves a lot of pubs with a need to change their game. The world of beer is changing and if those that sell beer, pubs and brewers, don't find a niche, be that craft, cafe, alehouse, circuit pub, family pub or whatever, they are doomed.  And they better get a move on. The big brewers see that as an attractive and fertile piece of the action too, particularly Molson-Coors.  I also see the market as being more segmented than it ever was.  The old days of the pub being that easy social mix of all types, is in most cases, a thing of the past.

The market is in some places at least, adapting to changed social conditions and those pubs and businesses and, yes, brewers, that are wily enough to see niches and gaps will do well. Pubs have always adapted or died and what is happening isn't really new, though some would argue the scale is different.  Brewers have to change too.  While there may still be scope for more tie loosening and therefore more opportunities for brewers, the need to be different is just as strong here.  It is no longer good enough to churn out a bog standard, bitter and golden ale.  More is needed and increasingly this "more" will be filled by smart brewers catching the mood of the moment, be that craft keg, cloudy beer, Imperial this or that,  or whatever.  I for one, as an aside, am gratified to see how many brewers see the possibilities in good British brewed lager, but that's a separate post coming soon.

Above all, quality is the key. Prices are high and while at one end (the cheap end) consistency is expected, above all, beer has to be of great quality, served in top condition in places where clearly you are valued as a customer.  Many pubs and brewers are still failing that test.

I fear for them, but not for the pub as a whole.  There will be less of them, (and probably less brewers too) but they'll be of better quality.  Good pubs will survive and do well as they always have.  They'll see me out for sure.

There is also an attractive argument that declining large brewer volumes paint a distorted picture of the brewing scene today.


py0 said...

Good summary TM. What do you think will be CAMRA's role in all of this?

Cooking Lager said...

Interesting and insightful as always.

However no one has a crystal ball that works, matey, not even you. As clued up and plugged in as you are you have a better perspective than most but the second law of thermodynamics, the one that infers the law of Entropy, will come you a cropper.

I mean, you never know, nutters like Mudgie may win, reverse the smoking ban and save the great British boozer. Unlikely, but you never know.

Still, decent try, one I suspect is better than most.

Martyn Cornell said...

Good analysis, but

"The old days of the pub being that easy social mix of all types, is in most cases, a thing of the past."

I'm not sure that was ever true. Even within individual pubs, bars were segregated by class right through to the 1960s, via the public bar/saloon bar split, unmarried women without male accompaniment were unwelcome in many/most pubs through to the 1960s as well, and the "strictly locals/strangers unwelcome" pub was a long-lasting phenomenon.

Bailey said...

Love this.

That more pubs will close is inevitable and, in cold supply-and-demand terms, I don't feel inclined to fight against it. (Of course it is sad from the point of view of people who will lose their homes and livelihoods (such as they are), and from a heritage perspective.)

The fact is, many towns, like the one I'm from, are stocked with enough pubs to serve vast numbers of beer drinking workers from factories and docks that don't exist anymore. These towns don't need a hundred empty, dilapidated pubs, on every street corner; they need about ten really comfortable, lively ones.

If pubs do have a dramatic comeback in years to come, there's nothing to stop some of those Tesco Locals being converted back...

Tandleman said...


CAMRA, like everything else will have to adapt to changing tastes and circumstances, but like everything else, it will take time. I don't, by the way, necessarily mean the fight for real ale should be compromised.


Fair point, though you still got a fair cross section of society.


I agree.

Tandleman said...

Ooops. Forgot His Cookiness.

Mudgie a nutter. Shome mishtake Shirley.

Zak Avery said...

I love the idea that vertical drinking is being displaced by horizontal jogging.

Curmudgeon said...

Hmm, your third paragraph almost sounds like me ;-)

It could be argued that you still get a wide mix of different types of clientele and different purposes of pubgoing in your average Spoons.

However, it's certainly true that the appeal of pubs is a lot more "niche" now than it once was - it is more geographically limited and the social range is narrower, too.

One thing I've noticed is that you don't see couples, whether courting or married, just going out for a drink in a pub to anything like the same degree as you once did.

Robert the Brews said...

I wonder how much profit brewers make from off-trade sales verses on-trade sales? Do you think some of the newer and 'craft' brewers rely on this more?
I assume the traditional brewers still do better out of on-trade than off?

py0 said...

I'm sure a lot of them must do, seeing as its so difficult getting their beer into the majority of pubs.

Stono said...

I dont disagree with most of it, but why do you say it will be essentially no longer good enough to churn out bog standard bitter and golden ale

fair enough it might just be me :) but breweries chucking out new brews like they are going out of fashion doesnt in my view build enough of a base for repeat custom.

people go to pubs to socialise or relax with beer, they dont go with the purpose to continually try new beers.

the majority of pubs certainly in rural areas have 2 or at most 4 hand pumps, they want a bog standard bitter/golden ale to sell,no ones going there for an imperial something brand of the week theyve never heard of.

Neville Grundy said...

I think Stono's right that most drinkers have a drink they regard as their drink: Carlsberg, Tetley Bitter, John Smiths Smooth, or whatever. The drinker who flits, as a lot of us do, is the minority.

Tandleman said...


I should have perhaps added "only". If you take the example of Thwaites and Adnams, their cask revival has been built around increasing the range and quality of cask beer.

That's what I'm getting at. Not just a bitter or whatever. Of course there will always be a place for a lesser range, but the quality will have to get much better.

py0 said...

Those who drink Smiths or Carlsberg don't think too hard about what beer they're buying in my experience. They drink Smiths because its the only smoothflow on tap, they drink Carlsberg because its the cheapest lager.

Take them to a different pub and they will switch to whatever smoothflow is on tap or whatever lager is cheapest without barely noticing the difference.

However, all the market data points to the fact that this is the sector of drinkers that is shrinking most rapidly.

It only takes one fussy drinker for an entire group to go to a different pub just because they have a mild on (or something like that). That pub then sells 5 pints of milds and 20 pints of macrolager, so you might naively conclude that it was the presence of lager that attracted the group of drinkers. Its not; its the choice. You can get lager anywhere, you can't always get mild.

Tandleman said...

Zak. If there had been more horizontal attractions available in Puritan West of Scotland, I'd have spent much less time in pubs.

Or less time watching TV. No. That's it.

Publican Sam said...

As always, the piece and the comments make interesting reading and just to "add to the mix" can we not forget what is to become a once in a generation chance to put the pub trade and (by dint of their consumption of beer) the brewing industry back to the centre of social life in the UK ... I refer to the upcoming consultation by HMG into regulating the dreaded "pubcos".

Having been poacher turned gamekeeper turned poacher during my career I have some insight into both these industries and believe that a crucial point is upon us; driven by both political and popular will to see pubs, their customers and their suppliers some special consideration.

Based upon the "over-arching principle" being mooted in Parliament/Government and within the pub trade that "no tied licensee should be worse off than a free of tie licensee" I believe that all "stakeholders" (hate the nomenclature but hey ho) have a fantastic opportunity to influence the up-coming regulation of the pubcos.

Putting the tied tenanted sector of the industry into a position where it can offer true choice to consumers; allow tied tenants sufficient profit to live an re-invest in their businesses and create the "welcome" and high quality offering required by the modern consumer; is a chance none of us should squander.

So when the consultation process is published I would urge all who have an interest in beer and pubs to make a contribution so that, for once, it is consumers and those at the sharp end of the industry (i.e. publicans) who are heard above the ruthless self-interest of the pubcos and what will undoubtedly be a huge propaganda offensive on their part.

This truly is a case of "use it or lose it" ...

Stono said...

certainly Id agree with an added "only" :) but I do have reservations that the increasing range thing actually delivers real gains. Because I just dont see that many people drinking them, and I wonder more if the adoption of smaller capacity "craft" plants is less about getting on board with the experimentation thing, but a tacit admission the large volumes just arent there for them.

Treble9man said...

@ Bailey
"there's nothing to stop some of those Tesco Locals being converted back..."

Can you imagine it, a Tesco Local, local..... makes me shiver