Why and when are pubs heaving, or dead?

With enough data you could probably predict when pubs will be busy, or quiet. But, occasionally, it seems to be a mystery.

Years ago, Jess was involved, at a remove, in the management of a hotel-restaurant-pub, and sometimes worked with the manager to attempt to anticipate the ebb and flow of business.

They’d take into account various factors:

  • bookings
  • day of the week
  • payday
  • NHS payday
  • school holidays
  • bank holidays
  • general tourism data
  • weather
  • events and festivals

Sometimes, they nailed it.

Other times, they’d double the kitchen order and bring on extra staff, only to have them rattling round a mostly empty bar.

Or, alternatively, bank on a quiet one only to run out of chips and cask ale by 2pm on Saturday.

We’ve often pondered on the longer-term patterns that might be at play.

For example, if December 2021 was quiet, does that mean December 2022 will be extra busy? If people go abroad one year, will they stay at home the next?

And different pubs, in different towns and cities, have their own rhythms.

In Bristol, you definitely need to know when City or Rovers are playing.

Last weekend, we struggled to get into pubs in Bristol. The Good Measure (quiet back street), The Portcullis (ditto, but with Belgian beer festival), The Kings Head (east of city centre) and The Barley Mow (back street) were all rammed.

We ended up at the Moor taproom, because it’s on the way home and usually has space, and even that seemed busier than usual.

When we asked about this on Twitter, someone pointed out that last Friday, the last Friday of the month, was payday for many people. But not for everyone. The 28th of the month and last working day of the month are also common.

Our best guess, observing the crowds, was a mix of:

  • World Cup
  • last opportunity to meet mates before Christmas obligations kick in
  • people in town for Christmas shopping
  • people calling Christmas early to counter the general bleakness

Or, to put that more simply, football + early Christmas.

We’re tempted to discount football, though, because most of the pubs we wanted to go to didn’t have football on.

Maybe this is what Christmas was always like and we’ve just forgotten after several really weird years.

Oh, who knows. It’s clearly complicated.

If you run a pub, how do you go about working out how busy you might be? What patterns have you spotted?

20th Century Pub beer and food

When did coffee in the pub become a thing?

Here’s a gripe of traditionalists and pub staff alike: people ordering hot drinks, especially when there’s a queue at the bar.

Of course pub companies and breweries like offering hot drinks:

  1. It enables them to compete with Costa and Nero.
  2. The markup is good.

And, as drinkers, we’ve often found it handy when we’re with a designated drinker or teetotaler.

But only the Wetherspoon chain seems to have worked out how to handle it without disrupting everything else.

That is, by selling customers an empty mug and making them self-serve from that machine over there… no, further… keep going… Bit further…

We’ve been wondering about when coffee in pubs first became an option.

Our guess is that it started in earnest in the 1950s and became more common in the 1960s – but no doubt with odd outliers long before then.

Let’s test that assumption.

Espresso in pubs in the 1950s and 60s

We know from the research we did for 20th Century Pub that Italian-style coffee, and coffee bars, came to London from 1952 onward.

There’s even an entire episode of Hancock’s Half Hour built around this trend – ‘Fred’s Pie Stall’ from 1959.

But how early were pubs in getting in on the game?

Dipping into the marvellous British Newspaper Archive we instantly found an answer of sorts, in an article from the West London Observer for 6 June 1956:

“A coffee bar attached to a pub is something new in London life. But the Venetian (that’s the coffee bar) opened at the Royal Oak in Bishop’s Bridge Road, Paddington, seems, after only a few weeks, to be firmly established… There you can have just espresso coffee, a chocolate, a light ale or whatever ‘yours’ may be. They pass the drinks which are a bit stronger than coffee or chocolate through a hatch which connects Venice (the decor is so realistic) with London… When I dropped in there the other day I heard a queer round ordered: a coffee, a coffee and brandy, a chocolate and a glass of stout.”

Going back a little further we can find notice of the opening of this coffee bar in December 1955. It replaced what had been the ‘ladies’ bar’.

The moaning started early, too. On 7 August 1957 Arthur Eperon wrote a piece for the Daily Herald in which he mentioned The Royal Oak and a nameless pub in Cambridge as signs of the grim future of the pub: “They are going to make us sup our pints elbow-to-elbow with addicts of sundaes and coffee…”

In 1961 Maurice Gibbs, consultant surveyor to the Brewers’ Society, predicted there would be more coffee in pubs, as reported the Coventry Evening Telegraph for 5 July that year:

“Because of the high cost of building new houses. brewers are likely to seek ancillary sources of attraction and profit. It is more rewarding to sell either a cup of coffee, a bowl of soup or a sandwich than a glass of beer. and possibly a hairdressing shop in a pub would be popular if customers could enjoy any of these things while they waited their turn.”

But was he right? Did it take?

Well, not really. Scouring our collection of pub guides from the 1960s and 70s, we can’t find many examples of pubs with coffee as a selling point.

The Tiger at East Dean in Sussex, mentioned in Sussex Pubs from 1966 is an exception: “The house purveys… morning coffee freshly distilled from ground beans and not out of a tin…”

Green and White’s London pub guide, in its 1973 edition, lists all sorts of features of pubs, from drag acts to wine menus, but doesn’t mention coffee.

Pub Catering is a very boring but extremely useful book from 1986, edited by John Fuller. Among pages and pages of advice about spuds and gateaux it has two paragraphs on coffee:

“A number of pubs are now serving coffee, both as a separate service outside licensing hours and as an after-dinner drink. The publican must assess how this affects his sale of liquor…”

And, of course, we’ve got the evidence of our own memories to rely on here.

As recently as the mid-2000s, it seemed remarkable to us to see an espresso machine in a pub.

We also know that Wetherspoon pubs started selling coffee nationwide in 2000 and that St Austell launched its Brewer & Bean sub-brand in 2014.

So we can probably say it’s really a 21st century phenomenon – and almost certainly a reaction to the arrival of Starbucks et al from the late 1990s onward.


News, nuggets and longreads 26 November 2022: The Onion Song

We’ve bookmarked a bunch of good writing about beer and pubs in the past week, including notes on onions and old ale.

Dark Star (Fuller’s (Asahi)) has brewed a version of Gale’s Prize Old Ale which is now, on and off, available to buy. The first batch went onto the online store this week and promptly sold out. We’re told another 1,300 bottles will be up next Friday, 2 December. Martyn Cornell explains in this blog post why you should care, and why you should join the queue:

15 or so years ago, the appreciation of sour ales that there is today, and Fuller’s sales team simply did not understand Prize Old Ale, what it was and what it could be. Fortunately John Keeling resisted their calls to pour it away down the drain, and kept 80 hectolitres or so hidden in the Griffin brewery. Earlier this year Henry Kirk had some of that beer conveyed to Sussex, where he brewed a fresh batch of Prize Old Ale to the original Horndean recipe, carefully blended that into the old, well-travelled beer, and then waited while the aged yeasts and bacteria did their job… The result is a marvel: an amazingly complex beer for a brew in one way so young, the sort of deep and fascinating palate (and palette) that beers such as Rodenbach or lambic achieve only after years in Belgian foeders: but then, parts of this beer have been around for a century.

Illustration of a dimple mug of brown bitter.

Just one question, just a small question, just an easy one, from Pete Brown: what is beer?

I’ve always had a very simple distinction. All fermented drinks are based on sugars that yeast converts to alcohol. If those sugars come from fruit, the drink is wine (real cider is, effectively, apple wine). If those sugars come from grains the drink is beer (which is why Japanese sake is technically rice beer rather than rice wine)… Ah. Says [the Beer Archaeologist Travis Rupp]. But of the starches in the Natufian beer, only 34.2% came from grasses. The rest were a mix of starches from a wide variety of plants including lentils, tubers, leaves, even flowers. Fruit was likely added not primarily for flavour, but because the yeast on the skins would have started the fermentation… So is this still beer?

Keg taps.

Almost three years since the start of the pandemic, many people still haven’t returned to city centre workplaces, fundamentally changing the feel and flow of cities. Jeff Alworth has explored this topic before and returns to it now with more data:

This summer, researchers at UC Berkeley found that of 62 cities in North America, only four saw their downtowns recover from Covid; a third still had half or less traffic than pre-pandemic… But here’s the thing—it wasn’t just downtowns. Cities as a whole were still suffering. According to that  same UC Berkeley study, only 16% of cities saw life return to normal across the metro areas. People hadn’t switched from having that after-work pint downtown to heading out of the house for one at the neighborhood local… Once people were in their homes, it seems, they were less likely to go back out…Earlier this week, I met with a brewer for an article I’m working on. He told me his taproom volume came back after the pandemic, but only to about three-quarters its original level.


Liam at Beer, Food, Travel is on a roll. This week, he delivers a torrent of lovely 19th century slang, from ‘crappers’ to ‘hinions’, in a post on ‘summut’:

Leaving all of that aside, the big thing here is an onion being served in a pint of porter and whiskey – or at least that is implied by the comments of Mr. Mulvey. This seems odd to the extreme and I can find no other reference to either a ‘summut’ or the practice of serving onion in a beer anywhere else – as of yet.

Reminds us of the ‘Pondicherry Pearl’, which makes us think Liam might be onto something when he suggests the whole idea of summut could be a gag.

Food at The Island Inn, West Bromwich.

Now, a couple of pieces that echo each other. First, for Pellicle, David Jesudason writes about the role of Desi pubs in the Midlands in making football more diverse:

Inside the Red Cow, Bera [Mahli], who is 65 years old, is frantically running from three different sets of customers; in the room above the packed pub of football fans, he’s catering for two different parties… But the football fans are his stock and trade. So much, in fact, he charters fleets of taxis for them before the match. He did this because he used to run Redfort Social Club, which was nearer the ground, and when he moved to the Red Cow he had to come up with a novel way of keeping his Saturday customers.

And at Good Beer Hunting Amy Lo answers a question we’ve all asked from time to time: why do so many London pubs serve Thai food?

The Churchill Arms in Kensington is a Fuller’s pub, one that looks exactly like the sort of pub you probably imagine when you think of England… Unexpectedly, it is also widely considered to be the first pub in London with a Thai kitchen, thanks to a chef named “Ben” Songkot Boonyasarayon, as manager James Keogh tells me. “He was running a restaurant in Earl’s Court back in the late ’80s, and he just happened to be a customer of the pub here, and he asked us if we would try Thai food here in the pub,” Keough says.

Finally, from Twitter, a mystery…

…and from Mastodon, a bedtime story:

Dr Christina Wade
Did you know one of the first European children’s picture books featured people brewing? Written by Jan Komenský, the Orbis sensualium pictus, published 1658 and trans. to English by Charles Hoole in 1659, told children:

Where Wine is not to be had, 
they drink Beer, 
which is brewed of Malt,
and Hops in a Caldron,
afterwards it is poured into Vats.

For more good reading check out Stan Hieronymus’s round-up from Monday and Alan McLeod’s from Thursday.


News, nuggets and longreads 19 November 2022: Discount tents

Another week, another collection of essential reading on beer and pubs. This week we’ve got old breweries, breweries on the move, and mulled porter.

First, some news: in recent years, Dark Star was bought by Fuller’s which was bought by Asahi, which is now moving production of Dark Star beers to its Meantime Brewery in Greenwich. The positive spin on this is that Dark Star, the beer after which the brewery was named, was born in London, so this is kind of a homecoming. And, so far, Fuller’s/Asahi have done a good job maintaining the quality of the beer despite pragmatic goings-on behind the scenes, such as a change of yeast. But this does rather feel like the moment when it becomes a brand rather than a brewery.

The Hook Norton brewery
SOURCE: Good Beer Hunting/Jonny Garrett

Speaking of breweries, as opposed to brands, Adrian Tierney-Jones has been exploring Hook Norton’s brewery in Oxfordshire in the company of managing director James Clarke. It’s the usual mix of impressionism and detail we’ve come to expect from ATJ, both contributing to the romance these Victorian industrial buildings embody, and commentating on it:

His grandfather Bill Clarke, who then held the post that Clarke now occupies, brought him along on those early visits. Now in his early 50s and a respected figure within British brewing, Clarke can still recall the impressions that a trip around the brewery made on his young self. “It was always a mystery to me, and I was still finding different rooms until my teens,” he says. “There was a lot of romance. You could see the building on a foggy night and it was quite eerie—or also at night with all the lights on.”

Mulling machinery

Every now and then you read something that brings some new detail to your mental model of life in the past. This week, Liam at Beer Food Travel wrote about mulled porter and mulling machines in the 19th century:

Mulled porter appears to have been relatively popular in public houses Ireland at this time – perhaps less so elsewhere – and there were even specific lemon and spice extracts and liquid spiced syrups available to the publican to quickly and easily spice their porters. It would be great if some of the dispensers still existed in public houses somewhere in the country – if you spot one please send me a photo… It would also be nice to be able to walk into a pub in Ireland now and get a glass of spiced porter in a nice pewter mug on a cold winter’s evening, served from a shiny brass and copper barrel on the bar…

Lager illustration.

For Pellicle Will Hawkes has written about lager and its importance to the culture of Washington DC:

Once you’ve visited a few Washington DC breweries, you start to get the message. At DC Brau, the city’s first production brewery for almost 60 years when it opened in 2011, a sign inside demands “Statehood for the people of DC”… City-State Brewing Co., founded in 2021, has also tied its identity to that of the city, and Right Proper Brewing Co’s glassware declares the beer was “made in the Douglass Commonwealth”—the name DC would take upon statehood… No brewery in DC embodies this difference, and the battle for statehood, more than Right Proper. This brewery is centre stage in a political struggle that uses the city’s Germanic lager-brewing past in an attempt to forge a different, perhaps better future.

A pumpclip for Old Speckled Hen.

Beer marketing veteran Marc Bishop has been putting some of his professional memories together in blog posts at Beer Marketeer. This week, he told the story of Old Speckled Hen, a brand that’s hugely popular in pubs and supermarkets but less so with hardcore beer geeks:

Firstly, the Monopolies and Mergers Committee reported into the beer industry with what would turn out to be far reaching changes and alter the brewing and pubs landscape forever. One of the recommendations was that national brewers, all of whom had large pub estates, must allow their pubs to offer a guest cask beer. Secondly, Morland had a failing lager brand called Kaltenberg Braumaster (see my other blog for the story), that already had a sizable marketing budget of £100,000 per annum. Thirdly and perhaps most importantly, the then marketing manager, a very clever man called Gerald Pridmore, was bright enough, bold enough and risk tolerant to take advantage of this situation… Morland never had a cask beer suitable to make great strides as a guest beer so they would need to invent one, but Gerald saw the opportunity and duly worked with Bill Mellor to introduce Old Speckled Hen on draught. A new brand also needs a marketing budget so Gerald took a risk and unbeknown to the then CEO, used the existing marketing budget set aside for Kaltenberg to put the building blocks in place for OSH.

A jumble of pubs.

We don’t tend to listen to podcasts but this episode of Gone Medieval caught our attention. It asks how long we’ve had pubs, and which can really claim to be the oldest. Worth a listen.

Finally, from Twitter…

…and Mastodon, where The Session seems to be making a comeback:

A Toot from Thomas Gideon: "Hello, friends in beer! I am curious, what beer first ignited your passion about beer, as a drinker, a brewer, or both?"

We’re enjoying Mastodon, BTW, and are there as much as we’re on Twitter: If you’re thinking of having a look around, this guide is helpful.

For more good reading check out Stan Hieronymus’s round-up from Monday and Alan McLeod’s from Thursday.


News, nuggets and longreads 12 November 2022: The Big Combo

Here are all the beer- and pub-related links we bookmarked in the past week, including plenty of challenging stuff about who belongs in beer.

This could almost be boilerplate text: BrewDog has not had a good week. After launching a big marketing campaign criticising FIFA and World Cup hosts Qatar, there was significant backlash. They’re still showing World Cup games in their bars, it turns out, and have sold beer to the Qatar state alcohol distribution company recently. Even people on LinkedIn (generally pro-business BrewDog cheerleaders) were annoyed by this one.

A little more news: Estrella Damm has bought the Eagle Brewery in Bedford, formerly home of Charles Wells, from Carlsberg Marston’s. That means beers such as Young’s Original (AKA Bitter, AKA Ordinary) will be brewed elsewhere in the UK. The link to where these brands are from and where they’re made was broken a long time ago in most cases but, still, this feels like another step along the wrong path. Keith Flett has opinions.

Lad culture: an old beer mat with the slogan "Strongarm and darts with the lads".

Good Beer Hunting is hosting posts by the winners of Diversity in British Beer Grants from the Guild of British Beer Writers. This week, it’s a piece by Damian Kerlin about how lad culture gets in the way of gay men enjoying, and getting involved in, craft beer:

[Among] the gay men I spoke to, there was an early awareness that beer was “a man’s drink.” As I was growing up, I had a heightened sense of what was “manly” and what wasn’t, an acute awareness that my interests did not align with what I was told I should enjoy. And beer was always manly. You would only have to watch TV to see beer adverts aimed at straight men, or look at photos in national publications of pints being consumed by men staggering out of sport stadiums, to understand that. When you see a drink associated with interests that are opposed to yours, you unconsciously learn to avoid it. 

Children's tricycles in a pub garden

For Pellicle Jemma Beedie has written about the difficulties of being seen with a beer in your hand while you’re breastfeeding a baby:

Cultural gender roles mean that women who drink may be stigmatised, and new mothers who have a drink may be criticised, either by society at large or, worse, by their families, friends and partners… New fathers are encouraged out to ‘wet the baby’s head’ but we shy away from serving new mothers a glass of wine. We don’t see men drinking as shameful or unnecessary. Many decades of marketing tell us that it is manly to drink beer. We’ve all hung out with a pair of new parents while the dad drinks beer after beer and the mum is on duty because she’s breastfeeding—the primary parent no matter the situation.


We were surprised and pleased to see a post by Michael Tonsmeire pop up in our RSS feed this week. His last was in 2020. It’s a pretty dense technical piece about yeast management in small breweries but some of you will no doubt revel in that:

When it comes to brewing delicious beer, there are few aspects more important than the yeast. A healthy fermentation allows the malt, hops, and adjuncts to shine. Pitching the right amount of healthy cells helps ensure that the finished beer has the intended alcohol, expected residual sweetness, and appropriate yeast character… Over the last four years at Sapwood Cellars we’ve slowly improved our yeast handling. We’ve noticed improved fermentation consistency, and better tasting beers. Most of our process is excessive for a homebrewer, but it might give you some ideas!

An engraving of a barque (ship)

At Beer is for Everyone Ruvani de Silva has interviewed David Jesudason about Empire State of Mind, the beer he brewed with London’s Villages Brewery:

“Desis wanted to hang onto our cultural heritage, which we don’t have that much of. We have very little to hang onto when it comes to our heritage, so we see something that looks Indian, like Jaipur IPA by Thornbridge. We don’t want to pull it down, but now we can view this through a specifically desi perspective – our own perspective. All of this is a desi thing – it’s a British-Indian thing. It’s up to us to do this – we are British – there’s no other way of looking at it. We are who we are. We can’t change – British culture is part of us.”

The cluttered bar area of the Poechenellekelder
SOURCE: Belgian Smaak/Cliff Lucas.

At Belgian Smaak Cliff Lucas provides a photo portrait of Poechenellekelder in central Brussels:

The peeing boy attraction, known as Mannekin Pis, is so disorientating and bizarrely unimpressive, that visitors often need a drink afterwards to digest the experience. Nearby Poechenellekelder, however, offers little relief from the bewilderment: its eclectic wall art, peculiar hanging puppets, and strange antique photographs are nearly all dedicated to this small peeing boy…

From Twitter, an excellent newsletter worth signing up to:

We got the first edition yesterday and it is, as you might expect from Will Hawkes, great.

Finally, from Mastodon

Andreas Krennmair: "Today's #SteinkrugOfTheDay is from Brauerei Schnitzlbaumer in Traunstein, Bavaria. The line measure has a capital L but is right next to handle, which indicates it's most likely from the 20th century. Judging from the print of the brewery logo and name, this is more likely from the interwar period.

Brauerei Schnitzlbaumer was founded in 1575. In 1889, it was sold to Bernhard Schnitzlbaumer I. and his wife, who then grew the successful business."

For more good reading check out Stan Hieronymus’s round-up from Monday and Alan McLeod’s from Thursday.