Pubs Need Casuals, Not Stakhanovite Drinkers

Efforts to boost the pub trade often focus on nagging those who already go to go more often, and to more pubs, and drink more while they’re there. This seems misguided to us.

We go to the pub several times a week — more often than most of our friends and family — but sometimes feel under pressure from the collective weight of pub campaigners, messages from the trade, and fellow enthusiasts, to pull a bit more weight. Don’t ask us for specific examples — this is just a sense we’ve picked up over several years drifting about in the conversation.

But we reckon the saving of the pub (if it needs saving — an entirely different conversation) is in making it a normal part of everyday life for more and different people. We have plenty of acquaintances who used to go to the pub, who have a good time at the pub when they do, but just… don’t.

Why not?

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All Things in Balance

@gaedd: 'We can't build a great British brewing industry on cheap beer, so I'm shredding these.' [Wetherspoon's Vouchers]

The above heartfelt Tweet from brewer Eddie Gadd kicked off another round of debate on beer pricing, Wetherspoons, pub preservation and the purpose of the Campaign for Real Ale this week.

We can see where Mr Gadd is coming from, but we can also see Tandleman’s perspective:

@tandleman: "@gaedd Beer for the rich? Good slogan. Concerned about this sort of casual thoughtlessness."

But, after a decade or so thinking about all this stuff, we now feel quite capable of squaring the two: Spoons can be a problem, but it is also part of the balance.

We wrote a post about ‘healthy beer culture’ a couple of years ago and, in the meantime, it’s become something like a philosophy for us. A Britain with nothing but 3.5% cask ales would be miserable and monotonous, as would a world with nothing but Foster’s and Stella, as would a diet made-up only of keg IPAs.

A situation where every pint costs the equivalent of £5 would be exclusive; but if every pint cost less than £2 (barring sudden massive tax breaks) we’d have very little choice and probably very few really great breweries.

The reason we’re not very good at taking sides is because we don’t want any particular side to win. The ongoing tension is what keeps things vibrant.

The comparison that often comes up, and came up in the debate this week, was corner shops and supermarkets. Supermarkets (with which Wetherspoon pubs have much in common) are said by their opponents to suck life out of town centres and to make it impossible for small businesses to operate. But we find it hard to imagine that if our local Tesco shut everyone would suddenly start shopping at the local Deli or Farmers’ Market. They simply couldn’t afford to, even if they were so inclined.

Similarly, we find it hard to imagine that if every Wetherspoon pub shut down, it would do much to help non-chain pubs. Perhaps they’d feel a slight bump but many of those exiled Spoons drinkers would just give up on pubs altogether and drink at home.

In fact, lots of people, like us, probably do a bit of both: supermarket for bulk products and to fill up the fridge with affordable every-day beers; specialist suppliers for oddities, treats and things where (unfortunately, in some ways) we’ve learned to tell the difference. And a mix of trad pubs at £3.40+ a pint and Wetherspoons to make the money go further.

Wetherspoons sign: All Ales £1.69.

Wetherspoon pubs are now an essential part of the mix. (It could be any value-focused chain but they won that battle.) They make interesting beer (terms and conditions apply) and nights out accessible to people with less cash in their pockets and/or in towns where there’s otherwise not much going on. But they shouldn’t be allowed to completely dominate and need to be kept in check — perhaps the reason there isn’t much going on in some towns is partly because Spoons arrived? As it is, a balance seems to be found quite naturally in most places. Penzance, for example, has a busy, popular Spoons, but also plenty of busy, popular proper pubs too.

(We do think CAMRA’s relationship with Wetherspoon’s is ethically tricky: a consumer organisation sponsored by a retailer is clearly problematic. But that’s a separate issue.)

QUICK ONE: Strange Times

Illustration: Shining beer.

If we’re in a bubble, then the bubble is getting bigger, or getting crowded, or leaking, or something.

There is a prevalent idea that beer geeks over-estimate the impact of what’s going on with beer at the moment because they’re — we’re — in a kind of echo-chamber. We’re inclined to agree with that up to a point, but then things like this do keep happening.

1. A friend from university who as far as we recall had no particular interest in beer back then, has started a brewery in Japan. A proper one, and apparently successful. He was in the UK recently taking part in a collaboration brew with a well-established British outfit. It’s all over Facebook and it weirds us out, in a quite delightful way. (Hakuba Brewing Co.)

2. Another old pal tells us that his best friend from secondary school has opened a specialist beer shop, where he was himself working the occasional shift until recently. (The Dronfield Beer Stop.)

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How We Choose What to Drink

You walk into a pub or bar and are faced with, say, eight or more beers. Which do you go for, and why?

We were trying to work out if we have a system, subconscious or otherwise, and here’s what we reckon our order of preference is.

  1. Anything that’s on our wish list.
  2. Something new by a favourite brewery.
  3. An old favourite we don’t see often.
  4. A beer we’ve tried but want to give more thought to.
  5. Something from a new brewery we’ve heard is interesting.
  6. Anything new that doesn’t ring alarm bells.
  7. An old favourite we have all the time.
  8. Whatever vaguely OK but boring cask ale or ‘craft beer’ they’ve got.
  9. Guinness, or gin and tonic.

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Defining a ‘Classic Pub’

We recently exchanged a few Tweets with pub blogger Martin Taylor (AKA @NHS_Martin) about his term ‘classic pub’ — what does it mean? Does such a thing exist?

There is the abstract idea of the perfect or ideal pub, explored most famously in George Orwell’s rather over-quoted 1946 essay ‘The Moon Under Water’, and at length in a book it inspired, The Search for the Perfect Pub by Paul Moody and Robin Turner, published in 2011. Moody and Turner conclude that perfect pubs are those that possess

individuality, wit and wisdom… which fly the flag for independence in the face of corporate domination and the onset of a homogenised ‘clone town’ Britain: the ones which feed the community yet give back in double measures, at happy hour prices.

We reckon that in this context, perfect and classic are synonymous — both imply a quality that bears reflection, that goes beyond mere function, and to which the drinker has a reaction deep in the soul.

The thing is, Orwell tried to draw up a set of rules — no music, cheap food, pink mugs, and so on — but that’s a flawed approach because it just invites a different kind of homogeneity, and homogeneity (as Moody and Turner suggest) is the enemy of character, which is what causes a pub to latch on to your heart.

Inside the Hunter's Inn, Devon
Inside the Hunter’s Inn, Devon.

On the whole, we prefer pubs with lots of dark corners, but there are pubs which have that but that we don’t like at all, and pubs with bright open spaces, chrome and stripped wood that (against the odds, perhaps) we love. We’ve fallen for pubs with food, and pubs without; pubs with jukeboxes, and those as silent as monasteries; crowded pub, quiet pubs; Olde Inns, new builds; round the corner from our house, or on holiday; full of friendly locals, or big-city-aloof. And so on.

Where this conversation so often goes wrong is in the idea that only pubs that match the observers’ particular preferences (which might take a decade of therapy to understand) are Proper Pubs — TRUE pubs. But pubs have been all sorts of things mixed up and inter-mingled since they faded into existence over the course of a few centuries — wine, beer, gin, food, music, art, theatre, children, bareboards, plush furnishings, cut glass, spit and sawdust — you name it. They’re all part of what is and has been The Pub.

Window of the Star Inn.

And when we talk to people for whom a post-war prefab was the Local, their memories are as fond as yours might be of a favourite Victorian corner pub or distant craft beer bar.

Ultimately, for us, the only defining feature of a pub is that we can walk in off the street without making an appointment and drink a beer or two without eating. (And, we suppose, without being made to feel guilty for not eating either.) Beyond that, what defines the meaning of Pub is its diversity, and what makes for a classic pub is that it gets to you, that you remember it and (optional?) that you find yourself longing to go back.