A Bar Too Far?

Keg taps.

When breweries resort to publicly shaming a bar for failing to pay for beer it’s probably a sign that establishment is in the process of failing.

We’ve watched the increase in the number of craft beer bars outside the very biggest urban centres with interest, and perhaps a little anxiety: can small towns, or even smaller cities, really support these kinds of niche venues?

We try not to be excessively triumphalist (‘The victory of Craft is assured — not one step back!’) or overly pessimistic (‘We’re doomed!’) but, on balance, this is a worrying sign — a small crack in the plaster that might be nothing, or might indicate that one side of the structure is about to fall off.

For now, it goes into a slim file of evidence alongside the time we had a small-town craft beer bar to ourselves for two hours one Sunday lunchtime, and this story from our Saturday news round-up about a supposed craft beer bar being turned back into a traditional pub.

We haven’t named the bar or linked to the Tweets in question because, although it was a public exchange, our instincts tell us it’s private business and that people struggling to pay their bills probably don’t need a pile on. The picture is from the Beavertown tap room and is a serving suggestion only.

12 thoughts on “A Bar Too Far?”

  1. Not that uncommon, actually. There have been several craft operations in my drinking area that have closed and have been guilty of that. Sometimes it’s well known before the event and sometimes it emerges after. But anyone familiar with the premises won’t have been surprised as, despite their craft credentials, they all shared a singular lack of custom.

    1. Sometimes a physical premises is just plain cursed, and never attracts any custom, or any of the right custom, so it is always changing hands. In my experience, the smaller the town the more picky people are about where they go to drink.

      So turning it into something very different doesn’t break the curse. In larger towns and cities, crappy establishments often do very well out of a craft conversion; there is always that swing custom.

      Lastly, craft beer retails higher (for lots of genuinely good reasons) and a lot of people still consider price the biggest factor in what and where they drink.

  2. Considering how craft beer has become the “in” thing, for want of a better term, I think there will always be people seeing a new business opportunity and leaping on the bandwagon. And inevitably, some will get it horribly wrong and fail. Isn’t the first year one of the riskiest times for any business? I suspect when the craft beer thing dies down a bit there may be fewer bars and fewer breweries, but the ones remaining will be serving good beer and may have more solid foundations to continue doing so.

  3. I’m seeing more “craft beer” type venues or “offerings” with folk behind them who don’t really know what the hell they’re doing. Some almost certainly are doomed from the outset.

    There are two types of not knowing… one type has never operated in the pub or hospitality sector before and don’t know what they’re getting into. (But do have N inkling of the “craft beer” ethos. (There is such a thing, IMO.)) The other type does know pubs and bars but seemingly nowt about beer, and wants to ride some seeming “craft beer” money-train. Usually you find they’re stocking a very predictable range of trad regional, mega-brew, and BrewDog “craft keg”… maybe a few bottles of the same. But they’re run by folk who can run a bar business so probably have more chance of survival than the former. What works against them is that the offering usually fails to excite, and the pricing fails to retain custom from folk who can’t accept 5+ quid pints.

    I’ve found a few that are a combination of the two. They’re probably doomed. Enthusiastic about beer, yet know nothing about it, have never run any sort of hospitality business, but think they’ve a ticket to ride on the gravy train. Rare, but out there. I shall give no examples I’m afraid.

    The ones put together by folk who both know the pub trade & know the beer seem to be going well.

    Just my observations 🙂 I’d also say “early days still” – with developments & learning curves ahead for all of them. I’m no bar expert – and ride my own rough & wild learning curve.

    1. Depends what you mean by craft. Camden Pale Ale. Or 12% sour bourbon barrel dark gose with kumquats. The latter will always be niche.

      1. Sounds revolting. Gose is pretty grim at the best of times.

        Craft beer, as in, the type and style of beer that was not virtually unobtainable outside of a small handful of specialist outlets 15 years ago, but is now freely available in probably 50% of pubs, to say nothing of plenty of supermarkets.

        If you want to see the future, look across the Atlantic. In the US craft beer is far, far more widespread than it is here. There are barely any bars left that don’t have a craft beer menu proudly displayed above the bar and people buy 12 packs of 7% hop bombs to drink whilst mowing the lawn. Its just so ubiquitous, for a beer lover its utterly glorious.

        1. Craft beer is everywhere, and it is a good thing, but I wonder how sustainable it is? Will the variety remain in the supermarkets and pubs? While I don’t think craft beer in the broadest sense is going anywhere, I’m not sure it will be as ubiquitous in five years. I hope I’m wrong!

          1. I think its more likely that the prices will take a dent, and craft keg will be forced to come back towards cask ale pricing, and some breweries who are reliant on that additional price premium to survive may go to the wall/get acquired at a cut price.

            The bigger craft brewers (by British standards) should be fine. Brewdog aren’t about to go bust any time soon. For others, its a matter of ambition: The demand is such that Thornbridge, Magic Rock, Beavertown etc could easily expand, but do they want to?

  4. There’s a difference between a ‘craft beer bar’ and a ‘bar that sells craft beer’. Just as there is a difference between a ‘real ale pub’ and a ‘pub that sells real ale’. And within ‘craft beer bar’ there is also the distinction Yvan points out, and it is painfully obvious as a customer which it is.

    A lot of ‘bars that sell craft beer’ used to be ones that advertised their ‘selection of world beers’. Yes, they are following the trend but I don’t really see an issue with that. I quite like it if anything because it often means there is something that I actual enjoy drinking if I end up in one. (My local pub isn’t brilliant, has one OK cask on, so it’s quite nice that it has Sierra Nevada PA in the fridge).

    But not paying for beer is pretty common surely? I’ve heard of complaints about pubs not paying for their cask beer lots of times, whilst all the time cask beer was pretty much bucking the trend of falling sales. So I don’t think it is indicative of anything much other than a particular business being in trouble. And that ‘craft’ isn’t a miraculous panacea.

  5. “Getting caught out a couple of times by trying to expand too fast” is different from “contracting overall” though… I don’t think that even the most optimistic craftopian would say that you could just transplant Tørst into Chipping Sodbury and make a killing, the question is more whether there’s an increasing likelihood that you could make a go of it in Bristol, or conversely that you could find the odd keg of Gamma Ray in Chipping Sodbury. And the odd pub or brewery running into trouble doesn’t prove much either way.

    (I haven’t actually checked that Chipping Sodbury isn’t a hidden hub of extreme beer geekery, by the way – if it is then substitute somewhere else…)

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