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Further thoughts on the pubs of InBetweenland

A couple of weeks ago, in our Saturday round-up, we linked to a very informative, honest and thought-provoking piece by David Hayward at A Hoppy Place.

In it, he wrote:

“One thing that I am certain of – is that this ‘great unlocking’ has been far from that… To be quite frank, it’s been pretty shit.”

We’ve been thinking and talking about various things in this article ever since and thought we’d respond with a similar level of honesty about how our habits have changed.

Obvious caveat upfront: we are massive pub enthusiasts. We go out of our way to try new pubs and, in the beforetimes, would probably indulge in at least one multi-pub crawl per week. That preference underlies what follows.

First, then, we are probably drinking out slightly less overall than we were before. This is despite being several months double-jabbed and not that anxious, at this stage, about catching COVID.

When we say slightly less, what does that mean? We’re probably now having two pub sessions a week, maybe three, whereas it would have been three, maybe four, most pre-pandemic weeks. Our pub sessions are also shorter and we’re visiting fewer establishments per session.

We don’t think we’re drinking at home more, in terms of volume or occasions. We are making more of a fuss about it, so rather than mindlessly necking a few favourites in front of the telly, we might sit at the table, listen to some music, talk, and make an effort to try new beers or new breweries.

We very much recognise David’s point about the dangers of breweries selling direct to consumers like us. We have tended to order reliable beers from breweries we already know.

During lockdown, however, we did also try on a few occasions to mix things up, ordering selection packs from indie beer shops.

Now we’re out of lockdown, if we’re honest, our online ordering is probably focused on getting in staples and favourites – ironically, often from our closest brewery, Lost & Grounded.

That’s because we’ve been hoping to be able to try new stuff on draught when we’re out and about, rather than from cans and bottles.

We’re spending less time in pubs for a variety of reasons. Partly, we are still conscious of the risk of contributing to the spread of COVID, so we’re tending to space out our pub sessions so we can be reasonably certain we’re clear of infection before going out.

And, like many people, we’ve got a backlog of family and friends to catch up with and not all of those occasions take place in the pub, despite our best efforts. Some of those people are vulnerable, too, so we’ve been minimising other social contact before we see them.

We’re also in a new bit of Bristol so we’re still getting to know which pubs, bars and taprooms work for us. (Anecdotal evidence suggests lots of people have made bigger moves than this in the last 18 months, to new cities, or to the country, so maybe this is behind the more general issue David Hayward has noticed.) 

All of the above are temporary factors that might point to a recovery in our pub going habits at some point.

Having said that, we have also discovered new hobbies and exercise regimes as a way to stay sane during lockdown. That means there are now more things we want to fit into the weekend than before. As a result, we’re less likely to spend an entire afternoon and evening out on the sauce.

Working from home also means we’re less likely to do a big post work session in the town centre in the middle of the week or on Friday evening.

We find our tastes have changed, too. We’re now favouring pubs with outdoor spaces and taprooms, particularly when meeting with other people.

To our minds, a drinking session outside doesn’t really count as a risky activity so we don’t need to ration those in the same way as a visit to a cosy indoor space.

One final point impacting on volume of drinking out, and hopefully this is also temporary, is that, frankly, the quality of the beer available hasn’t always been the best.

This is not surprising given fluctuating supply and demand – but it’s felt unhelpful to point this out when the industry is clearly struggling.

To improve quality, most pubs we can think of are offering a smaller range of beer, which is a sensible response to unpredictable demand, but it has also tended to mean less variety, not just during the session but also from visit to visit.

We’ve had a few weekends where we’ve deliberately tried to drink new things and have had to go out of our way, or resort to ordering things that we suspect we’re probably not going to like. 

We’ve had a number of pints that are not bad, as such, but not especially good, either. Just ever so slightly tired.

Of course, we’re no strangers to a mediocre pint and they’re not the end of the world. It’s part and parcel of the pastime. However in this case, we’re talking about places that we know usually do excellent cask ale, so this must be a direct result of unpredictable customer flows. We’ve even heard bar staff indiscreetly saying as much when challenged.

So if you are running a pub, what can you do about us fickle customers?

Ultimately, it’s going to depend on the type of pub and the target market. Are your customers just being slow to return, or are they gone for good?

While you work that out, we’d suggest it makes sense to stick to what you’re best at. If you’re known for your cask ale, make sure it continues to be of an excellent standard and try to balance reliable favourites with both new things and bona fide classics. We’d happily trek across town to anywhere with Jarl on tap, for example, if we saw a post about it on social media.

Clear communications about rules and COVID precautions might help. While some people may not care, others do. We are aware of people who are less comfortable going to pubs now that there are no restrictions.

Unfortunately, it may be a case of waiting it out a bit longer and we think there will be long term winners and losers.

City centre pubs will need to find a raison d’être beyond cramming in office workers for two hours on Friday night. Previously unloved suburban locals, on the other hand, may find themselves with new customers, particularly if they’re clear about their offer.

A final note on micropubs, some of which are very dear to our hearts. The very thing that makes the good ones good – the cosiness, the chance conversations with strangers – are the sorts of things which will be the last things to come back in pub culture because of the very specific nature of this virus.

We’re hopeful and optimistic that they will eventually return but perhaps micropubs will need a little further help to weather the storm. Continuing to do takeaway seems sensible, for example.

We’ll leave you with a note of optimism. Last weekend, we went to The Drapers Arms. After a while, a couple of friends walked in and before we knew it, we were in the midst of the kind of casual chat we’ve really missed. The beer was great, the company was great, and we could see the path out of the woods.

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