The Young Ones

Wetherspoon's engraved glass "Est 1979".

Young people might not go to pubs but they certainly go to Wetherspoon’s.

A discussion about this broke out in comments a few months ago. Our position then, as now, is that people shouldn’t be too pessimistic: the pub is too ingrained in our culture to be abandoned overnight, and people are often drawn to it as they get a little older. But we have been observing with this question in mind and it’s true: ‘proper pubs’ (smaller, characterful, brown, bordering on grubby) do tend to be dominated by people in their forties or older.

(Research for our forthcoming book suggests that it has always been that way, really, despite repeated efforts by brewers to make pubs appeal to younger drinkers who they feared losing to the cinema, coffee bars, burger restaurants, discos…)

The reasons for that seem obvious to us. It’s partly a matter of atmosphere but more importantly, we’re certain, one of cost, with pints of even quite ordinary lager or ale costing between £3.50-£5. People on minimum wage part-time jobs, living off student budgets, or even pocket money, can’t afford to spend £15 before they even start to feel mildly merry. A few weeks ago a young couple (perhaps 19 or 20-years-old) sat next to us in the Farmer’s Arms and made a half of bitter each last an hour while they listened to the band, rolled their own cigarettes, and counted coppers for their bus fare home. It didn’t look all that much fun.

But there is one kind of pub where we’ve noticed the clientele skew consistently youthful and that’s the Wetherspoon’s chain. It’s odd, that, in some ways, because it doesn’t necessarily match the stereotype of a ‘Spoons drinker, and there are certainly plenty of older people there, too. But from what we’ve seen, and dredging our own 20-year-old memories, it does make sense.

‘Spoons is an easy place not to drink, for one thing. The younger drinkers we’ve noticed are often on hot chocolate, frothy coffee or pounding cans of energy drink. A typical party, sat near us about a fortnight ago, between them had one pint of bitter, two of lager, a can of Monster, and a pint of Coke. They were all eating, too, treating it almost like a diner.

Which is another point in its favour. The menu is large, varied, and makes eating out, at a table with cutlery, accessible in towns like Penzance where otherwise it’s a tourist-price ‘bistro’ or Domino’s pizza with not much between. We’ve quite often seen groups of what must be sixth-form students having their tea together, perhaps prior to the cinema or some other activity.

It has room for the packs in which young people like to roam, too. Groups of six, eight, ten, with piles of rugby kit, or guitars, or costumes for a party, rarely struggle to find three tables to line up in banqueting formation.

And, being huge, it is relatively anonymous. They can shout, squeak, flirt and generally mess about without actually being the centre of attention, which they certainly would be in most other pubs in town. When Boak used to drink in the Walnut Tree in Leytonstone in the mid-1990s this was the main reason — because it felt safe and mixed, because she and her friends could sit in a corner and not be bothered.

If you’re a young parent, south of 25, ‘Spoons also seems to work. It is big enough and sufficiently noisy that your kid’s shouting and crying barely registers, and there’s plenty of room for push-chairs, colouring books and all the other accoutrements.

The question is, does all this breed new pub-goers, or only new ‘Spoons-goers? And that’s part of a bigger question about whether Wetherspoon pubs are really pubs, or only some strange, pub-like fast food outlet. It must be heartening, surely, that young people are out at all. If it was purely about cost, they’d be at home or in the park drinking supermarket beer which is cheaper again but, no, there’s an irresistible pull towards a shared public space.

It’s Not Just Beer: the Craftication of Everything

Illustration: perfume.

Not being habitual wearers of perfume we had no idea there was such a thing as ‘niche fragrances’ until last week when we heard a report about them on the radio promoting this exhibition at Somerset House.

Now, bear with us as we stumble clumsily through the history of an unfamiliar world: for a long time, it seems, there were two types of fragrance — established brands, and cheaper substitutes, both equally conservative. Then, in the 1970s, a third way began to emerge:

L’Artisan Parfumeur was the result of a challenge, a plaisanterie. Due to his training as a chemist, a friend asked Jean Laporte if he could create a banana scent to wear with a costume of the same fruit to a gala evening at the Folies Bergères. This was quickly followed by grapefruit and vanilla fragrances… He experimented and created original scents with ‘natural essences’. With the success of his first line of fragrances, Jean Laporte was named L’Artisan Parfumeur – the craftsman of fragrance – by perfume enthusiasts.

It’s our old friend natural vs. chemical! And grapefruit! Accounts of the birth of artisanal perfume often also mention ‘passion’.

In the decades since niche perfume has become a significant segment of the market as summarised by Reuters:

Niche brands differ from their bigger rivals in that they focus more on the originality of the scent than the packaging and the image projected via a celebrity. They also usually use higher concentrations of perfume extracts and more natural ingredients which tend to last longer…

There are now niche perfumes designed to evoke everything from fairground log flume rides to a seduction ritual in Mali. Some are stunts, not really designed to be worn so much as collected and shown off, while others have become bestselling standards in their own right. The only rule seems to be that they shouldn’t smell of, you know… perfume.

You’ll be glad to know that niche in perfume, like craft in beer, ‘is ceasing to become meaningful as a descriptor’ at least in part because bigger producers have jumped on the bandwagon and also bought out smaller houses (Reuters again):

Estee Lauder Companies which owns Jo Malone – which used to be regarded as niche – just bought Le Labo and Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle and consolidation is set to continue as big groups hunt for what could be the next big perfume brand

But, anyway, perfume isn’t the point — it’s that this hammered home how easy it is to see everything from within a silo and thus fail to recognise that developments in your field are part of wider changes in society. Craft beer (indie beer, boutique beer, whatever you want to call it) developed at the same time as, and alongside, things like modern sourdough baking, natural wine, niche perfume, upmarket street food, gastropubs, and no doubt a thousand other class-bending trends in fields about which we know nothing.

Niche, the perfume world’s choice of descriptor, is an interesting one because in a sense this is about levering a space between, and maybe a bit to the left of, existing polarised segments.

  • Beer > Craft Beer < Wine
  • Perfume > Niche Perfume < Brand/Designer Perfume
  • Camping > Glamping/Boutique Hotels < The Hilton

Whether you like it or not, this bit in the middle seems to fulfil the needs of a generation whose members perhaps don’t understand class the way their parents and grandparents did, and who are every bit as appalled by tacky gilded visions of LUXURY as they are uninspired by the mainstream bog standard.

Suggestions for other sectors where boutinichecraftification has occurred, as well as for further reading, are very welcome — leave a comment below.

QUICK ONE: Experiences vs. Commodities

Sometimes you just want to watch whatever is being broadcast; other times only a particular film will do, even if costs. Is that also how beer works these days?

Last week the cultural and political commentator John Harris (@johnharris1969) took a pause from the frenzy of post election analysis to make an observation about beer:

Tweet: "The 'craft' beer worry. £3.50 for a can/bottle of Beefheart IPA (or whatever). This: £1.25 from Lidl, & very nice."

Our instinctive reaction to this was, frankly, a bit dickish: ‘Ugh, what is he on about?’ Much as we imagine he might have responded to a Tweet saying, for example: ‘Why buy the expensive new Beatles reissue when Poundland has a perfectly good Best Of Gerry and the Pacemakers for £2?’

But of course, in a sense, he’s right: if you aren’t obsessed with music, wine, clothes, or whatever, you shouldn’t feel obliged to spend loads more money on a version of that thing that is no more enjoyable to you than the readily available, budget version just because of peer pressure or marketing.

The problem is, once you do get into beer, the generic doesn’t always cut it. If you just want something to absentmindedly sup while you socialise or watch TV then whatever is on special offer this week is probably fine, but if you’ve got a particular yen to wallow in the pungency of American hops then LIDL’s Hatherwood Green Gecko just won’t do the job. If you’re really in deep you’ll probably even turn your nose up at about two-thirds of supposedly ‘proper’ craft IPAs, too. And you’ll be willing (every now and then) to pay a bit more for a particular experience — a rare beer, a curiosity, something with a particular cultural or historical significance.

Criticism: Generally Good, Personally Painful

Illustration: "Criticism". (Mouth spouting critical jargon.)

The debate about whether bad reviews help or hinder never goes away.

Broadly speaking there are two points of view:

1. Publicly criticising breweries is unhelpful. It plays into the hands of the bad guys by harming struggling independent breweries in particular. And, anyway, it’s more fun to concentrate on writing about things you like — do these miseries who moan constantly actually even like beer?

2. Only writing positively about breweries is unhelpful. It plays into the hands of the bad guys by depressing expectations of the quality of beer from small, independent breweries in particular. And anyway, cheery-beery Everything is Awesome writing is boring — how can you trust someone who apparently never encounters a bad beer?

We linked to posts broadly aligned to each of those arguments in Saturday’s news round up but there are plenty of others. Here’s Jenn at Under the Influence, for example, arguing in favour of emphasising the positive.

We think that the tension comes from the difference between the general and the specific. Brewer X might agree in the abstract that honesty is the best policy, and that consumers ought to be demanding, perhaps on the assumption (subconscious or otherwise) that such a culture will favour their lovingly-made beer over lesser products. By all means, expose those charlatans!

But when Blogger Y states bluntly that, actually, Brewer X’s beer isn’t much good, it’s hard for Brewer X not to respond by kicking the wastebasket. Don’t they know how hard we work? Don’t they know how tough the market is?

If there’s a downside to negative beer reviews beyond that unpleasant thump to the chest for the brewer it’s that they might contribute to some hive-mindery, leading people to mindlessly dismiss a beer they would otherwise have enjoyed. But we think that influence is actually more likely to go the other way, generating positive responses to beers that aren’t really that amazing.

Meanwhile, at their best, what bad reviews can offer is a kick up the bum. We’re certain that, even if they play it cool, there are some breweries out there whose response to a run of criticism has been to review their approach and up their game.

Bad reviews also increase the value of good reviews: if everything is great, then nothing is great.

On balance, we think people should review beer in whichever way they feel comfortable — there are audiences for both approaches after all. We’re going to keep being as honest as we can, which means being disappointed more often than not, but we won’t judge anyone else for doing otherwise.

What really matters, and what really is good for the industry, is the idea that beer is worth thinking, talking and writing about, whether negatively or positively.

QUICK ONE: In My Day, 2017 Edition

A smartphone against the backdrop of a pub.

‘Whatever happened to having a conversation, instead of tapping away at screens? That’s what I want to know.’

We’ve been on the receiving end of a version of that heckle twice in the past month. What we did to earn it was, of course, being caught in the pub with one or more smartphones out.

There are all sorts of good reasons for looking at your phone in the pub, even in company. In our case, we’re often taking notes for one project or other, tinkering with a photo of the very pub we’re in for social media, or looking up the answer to an important question that’s come up like, what is the etymology of the word ‘poo’? (Only used to refer to faeces in the UK since the 1960s, apparently.)

In other words, it’s part of the way we make conversation, not an obstruction to it.

And, anyway, we’ve been together for very nearly 20 years so if one of us does want the other to put down their phone, we’re pretty comfortable just saying: ‘Oi! Give me some attention! You’re being boring.’

Both times we’ve received this kind of telling off it’s come from older men and hasn’t felt friendly, or as if was intended as a conversation starter — just like a kind of drive by judgement.

Why do people do insert themselves into other people’s business this way? And does it bother you to see people looking at screens in the pub?