Generalisations about beer culture pubs

The Ordinary Pub is a Premium Product

A knackered old pub sign.

Once, beer was more or less beer.

Then along came whatever you want to call it (premium/designer/craft beer), and discount supermarket beer, and two extremes were established: bang-for-buck vs. taste.*

In the middle, though, remained good, solid, standard beer — a trade-off between price and taste, affordable to most.

But, we belatedly realised last night, good, solid, standard beer in an ordinary pub has become a premium product, largely due to taxation.

By choosing to drink somewhere other than your own house, you are making a decision to ‘upgrade’ your experience, and paying (where we live) up to an extra £2 a pint for the privilege.

It’s a bit like choosing to eat a pizza in a restaurant rather than at home.

The pubs that seem best equipped to survive in this new arrangement are those which are able to offer something unique.

For example, our local Dock Inn, among its many other charms, has exclusive rights on the distribution of Blue Anchor Spingo in Penzance — a good, solid, standard beer, but a different one, generally served in excellent condition.

* We’ve used ‘taste’ deliberately because it covers both ‘flavour’ and the feeling of exercising ‘discernment’.

23 replies on “The Ordinary Pub is a Premium Product”

Absolutely, and this is a massive problem.

At the price of a pint nowadays, mediocre beer doesn’t cut it. Which is bad news for all the pubs selling mediocre beer.

A lot of truth in this – going forward, pubs need to present themselves as an affordable treat rather than an everyday staple. However, given that pizza restaurants and coffee shops are thriving and pubs in general aren’t, clearly they’ve got some way to go.

Of course pubs also suffer from the declining social acceptability of out-of-home drinking which doesn’t apply to other types of venue.

If you think about it, this explains the changing demand for different styles of beer and other alcohol in the UK perfectly. Our tastes haven’t actually changed at all, its just that the middle classes are the only ones that can afford to drink, and so it is their drinks of choice (premium beer, real ale, wine, gin) that are increasing their market share.

They’re not actually getting significantly more popular, its just that lager and alcopop drinkers have been priced out of the market.

Same argument applies to pubs.

The other obvious point here is that it’s quiet suburban and rural locals that are really suffering. People are still willing to pay extra (and to go a bit further) for a big friday-night-with-the-lads pub or a real ale “destination pub” or a trendy bar or whatever floats their boat, but they aren’t so bothered about nipping round the corner for a couple of pints in the local. As well as all the stuff people have already mentioned, this is presumably also related to the tendency not to know your neighbours so much any more, which kind of undermines one of the traditional selling points of a neighbourhood pub, ie the fact that you can go in there and probably run into someone for a chat…

“the middle classes are the only ones that can afford to drink”

I have to call complete b/s on that. Are you ever in a supermarket?

Which is not to dispute at all the main point being made.

And “Wetherspoons for the cash-strapped alcoholics.” Well, in my local one there is a small (tiny even) element of that, but most of the customers are ordinary (and that is ordinary working class or retired) people. Who during the day at least are I’d estimate about 3/4 dining customers rather than primarily drinking customers. The Wetherspoons is one of three cask ale outlets in town (out of maybe sixty licensed premises) and they generally have a better range of more interesting beers at maybe £1.30 a pint cheaper (eg £1.89 for a very enjoyable pint of Bale Breaker Field 41 this week).

Craft beer presence in the pubs, incidentally, is something approaching zero.

Funnily enough, the premium associated with drinking in the pub is about the same as the premium for upgrading your beer from a £1 can of Carling to a £3 bottle of Thornbridge.

I can’t speak for what’s happening in the UK, but here pubs in general are also suffering loss of business. As I see it, and as far as pubs selling the bigger brands is concerned, that is a result of macro brewers shooting themselves in the foot. They are subsidising the low prices they’ve forced to give the supermarket chains with the sales of keg/tank beer to the on-trade. And it’s ridiculous, the a pub owner will often pay for 0.5l of keg beer the same price, if not higher, than the a 0.5l bottle of the same beer in Tesco. Naturally, many volume drinkers will choose the financial comfort of drinking at home.

I’m obviously missing the point here – it’s always been more expensive to drink in a pub, as opposed to in your own home. Are you saying the gap has widened noticeably in the last few years?

Rod — yes, the gap has widened. Will try to dig out some numbers later, but when we looked into supermarket beer prices c.1978, we were surprised to find they weren’t much lower than the average price of a pint in the pub (top of head, something like 10-15%).

When I was a student 10-15 years ago the price of a pint of Carling in happy hour was the same as a can of Carling from the offie. That is definitely no longer the case.

The price of take home beer is a factor plus the perceived better choice in the supermarkets compared with days of yore when the pub outdoor stocked bottles of Guinness, Brown Ale, Party 4s and British Sherry and not much else. But surely the real reason for declining sales is that 20 years ago the pub was the social media of the time. That’s where the interaction with friends took place and where the opposite sexes met. Today we have Twitter, Facebook, texts, internet dating plus of course unlimited TV channels 24 hours a day. Why go out, especially as evening and weekend public transport has been cut drastically in may parts of the country.

I remember writing about this subject back in May last year :

You have to remember that the raising of beer prices via taxation was a deliberate choice by the Powers-That-Be. They’ve got what they wanted. The rich and middle classes have their Crafty Bars and Dining Pubs, where the workers have an ever-declining number of “scumholes” where everyone “nice” is warned not to go. And Wetherspoons for the cash-strapped alcoholics.

I remember reading that and bridling slightly at the idea of working class people (one of wot I used to be, but have sadly betrayed my origins) being completely passive in this arrangement. I think they abandoned pubs and *then* the middle classes moved in to ‘save them’. (More on this here.)

If ‘the masses’ still felt drinking beer in the pub was a vital part of every day life, then the current taxation policy would be political suicide; as it is, most people have bigger fish to fry.

(Oh, yeah — fried fish — chip shops are also now too expensive to be anything other than an occasional treat.)

I’m suddenly less confident about my second paragraph there — don’t they reckon only middle class people vote these days? — but let’s leave it.

As it goes, I was in a warm, brightly-lit pub this afternoon, with three handpumps and about six keg taps,vaguely festive mirror-ball-type lights speckling every surface, a fruit machine in one corner, a large screen (showing snooker) in another and a clientele consisting largely of groups of women with lots of make-up and groups of men with shaved heads and loud voices.

If working class drinkers have deserted pubs, they haven’t told that one. I haven’t felt so out of place in a pub in years – and I go to Spoons pubs fairly regularly.

Could I just ask why my comments all go into moderation? I may flog the odd dead horse on occasion, but I’ve never written anything here that needed deleting, have I?

Nothing personal: we’re moderating everything at the moment, after that bit of bother the other week.

There are still plenty of resolutely working class pubs around, they haven’t ALL been boarded up or turned into craft beer bars.

I wonder if when the recession is finally over, the tories out, and the working class have some more cash in their pockets, we will even seen some reopen.

Plenty of predominantly working-class pubs still going in and around Stockport, although many are ones that you wouldn’t be hugely surprised to turn up and find them closed and boarded. It’s very noticeable that, while by no means all or even most of the working-class pubs are keg-only, all the keg-only pubs are working-class ones.

I’d be amazed to see more than the very occasional reopening, though.

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