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pubs

Could all this help the neighbourhood pub?

Is it wrong to poke around in the ruins looking for something to be optimistic about? Maybe, possibly, all this will help revive the neighbourhood corner pub.

Of course we can only ever be tentative and won’t be remotely surprised if things go in the opposite direction, towards disaster, but indulge us.

First, we know that city centres are struggling as many people continue to work from home.

The narrative has coalesced around coffee and sandwich shops but central pubs, too, rely on commuters hanging around for a pint or two with colleagues.

Without birthday drinks and leaving drinks and fuck-it-it’s-Thursday drinks, they’re reliant on determined, deliberate pubgoers.

The few times we’ve been into town lately, pubs and bars have seemed quiet – handy for distancing purposes but not if you want to pay staff, pay suppliers and keep the lights on.

Local pubs out in the suburbs, meanwhile, though also struggling, seem to be doing a little better.

After all, sticking your nose in at the local is low commitment: you wander round and if there’s space, you stay; if not, you wander on, or get takeaway. And if it gets uncomfortably crowded, you can go home.

The Foresters Arms, a pub near us, has struggled through the last few years with periods of closure, changes of management and a basic Guinness-n-sport offer in an area which has all but fully gentrified.

Now, though, it’s buzzing seven days a week. We’ve never seen it so busy or so alive. Peeking through the side door on our daily walks we’ve noticed quite a few of the regulars from The Drapers Arms in the (sensibly distanced) crowd – not their first choice, perhaps, but maybe somewhere they’ve come to appreciate in recent months.

We’ve certainly become less fussy. On Monday, at the end of a long walk to Keynsham, we ended up drinking Peroni in an edge-of-town pub and loving it. Well organised, spacious and friendly beats central in 2020.

On that note, we’ve also wondered if this might be the saving of some of those big inter-war pubs you find on the outskirts of towns.

A year ago, people talked about ‘rattling round sterile barns’.

Now, as our ideas of busy and close have been forcibly re-calibrated, that’s distinctly more appealing.

Categories
pubs

Take out to help out

We’re getting increasingly cross at the regurgitation of the Government’s line that the ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme is designed to boost pubs, as in this piece at BBC News.

First, the 50 per cent discount only applies to food and non-alcoholic beverages. That means only pubs serving food can possibly benefit.

But more serious in our view is that the scheme incentivises sitting in. There is no equivalent discount for places operating as takeaways which means that restaurants and pubs which have decided not to open on safety grounds – in the sincere belief that they’re doing the right thing – are going to lose out.

A number of our favourite Bristol pubs such as The Drapers Arms, The Good Measure and The Plough – have made the difficult decision not to open.

And these aren’t all micropubs like The Drapers – The Plough is a fairly normal, average-sized pub.

Sign outside a pub.

This along with the behaviour we witnessed at the weekend has really made us question which pubs we personally want to support, and how, while the coronavirus is still with us.

We’ve now been to the pub, or rather two pubs, four times since they reopened, not counting many trips to the Drapers for takeaway beer.

It felt important to at least try going to a pub or two once they had reopened. After all, we write about beer and pubs and desperately want pubs to survive. We’d also rather the economy didn’t crash further. And Government messaging around “enjoying what you used to do” probably played its part, too.

In both cases, days apart, we went to pubs that were part of large chains, with apps and carefully stated rules, which provided some initial reassurance. Both are also pubs that we’ve visited a lot and would like to see stay open. (There are many more pubs in Bristol that also fit that criteria, of course).

But both also have food offerings that will allow them to benefit from the VAT cut and the discount scheme, so perhaps they’re not the pubs that need our love right now.

Six weeks ago we wrote fairly positively about the plans for reopening pubs and our thoughts still remain the same. The true pub experience for us is not about an economic transaction – it’s about really enjoying a space that isn’t yours and mingling with others. And we think it’s almost impossible to achieve this while also maintaining social distancing. We’re sure the people taking the piss in the pub on Saturday weren’t doing it maliciously, they’d just had a few and wanted to socialise properly, like they would have done pre-pandemic.

Government messaging has not helped, with the emphasis on getting back to normal, rather than reinforcing the point that you’re still supposed to be distanced from other households even if you meet up with them down the local.

Either they have no idea why people go to the pub or how they behave, or they know and are choosing to keep the message vague in the vain hope that a few extra pints sold will somehow save the hospitality industry.

As everything in life is now reduced to risk assessment vs economic benefit, this makes the case all the more plain for continuing with takeaways for most of our Bristol drinking. The pub (The Drapers, primarily) gets the economic benefit and it remains much less risky for them, for us and our community.

This is our personal decision. We’re not criticising those who want or need a cheap meal out at this time – anything to stay cheerful, really.

Nor are we having a pop at those whose only option for human contact is to visit a pub, or who need to spend some time outside their house to keep their brains healthy.

And, of course, we appreciate that being able to enjoy an off licence experience at home while happily paying pub prices for beer is a sign of our privilege.

Categories
pubs

Initial thoughts on the guidance for reopening pubs

The government has published its long awaited guidance on safely opening pubs, or to give it its full title, ‘Keeping workers and customers safe during Covid-19 in restaurants, pubs, cafes and takeaway services’.

It’s written for employers and business owners, but here are some thoughts from a consumer perspective. 

The language is very much should and not must. So although there is talk about apps for ordering and disposable cutlery, these are not mandatory.

This is helpful for businesses as it allows flexibility and puts the onus on their risk assessments and their decisions about what is safe.

While some people may object to this, it would in practice be impossible to legislate for every leisure and hospitality business. And we think that customers will vote with their feet if they don’t feel businesses are operating safely.

On that latter point, we think it’s a no-brainer for pubs to share their risk assessment, or at least evidence that they have done one.

It’s a really good way for them to reassure customers that they have thought about everything from a customer and an employee perspective.

It’s also a good way to deflect potential criticism such as “Why aren’t your staff wearing facemasks?” As the guidance says, “face coverings are not a replacement for the other ways of managing risk”. You could cover of all your other decisions with reference to the guidance in the same way.

We also think it’s interesting that keeping customer data for 21 days is only a should. We’d be pretty happy to provide contact details to a venue, as tracking and isolating is going to be the only way to return to anything like normal.

People may have concerns about data protection but it’s all covered by GDPR, and it can be as simple as a behind-the-counter visitor book, with the relevant pages destroyed after 21 days.

Incidentally, there is a slightly mysterious line in the guidance about government working with the industry to design a suitable recording system for customer contact, which rather implies pubs won’t need to worry about this if they don’t already have something in place.

A couple of other things really grabbed us:

  • There is advice to keep background music and noise low to discourage shouting. This is likely to have as many fans as detractors. 
  • Public transport limitations still apply so venues are encouraged to think about providing bike rack space or other ways to discourage travel by public transport. Obviously this is going to impact more on venues where people are going to become intoxicated. So pubs will need to think about who is within walking distance, which may not be their existing clientele. 
  • Limits on gatherings still apply – although this will be relaxed to being able to see another household.

The latter is probably the most important point for us.

As we wrote in our newsletter the other week: What is the point of going back to the pub if you can’t meet up with friends, let alone mingle with strangers?

This isn’t to say we disapprove of people going to the pub when they reopen.

We’re lucky to have our own drinking bubble, and doubly lucky to have the Drapers round the corner selling takeaway cask ale.

Without these things, we’d probably be more likely to be heading pubwards on, or soon after, 4 July. 

Ultimately,for us, going to the pub is more than an economic transaction.

It’s about enjoying a space that isn’t yours. It’s about mixing with other people in your community. It’s about (slightly) losing your inhibitions. It’s about popping in on instinct, or staying for one more than you should.

These are all things that are fundamentally at odds with battling a pandemic.

There will be plenty of other customers who are too nervous to go back into public spaces at the moment.

Many people are uneasy about the fact that “the two metre rule has been relaxed” without a clear accompanying message from scientists that this is “safe”. Of course people will have their own thresholds about what they consider to be safe, and ultimately both this and the progress of the fight against the pandemic are outside the control of the pub landlord.

So what’s the solution?

It’s easy for us to say as consumers and armchair publicans but a hybrid business model seems to be the way to go.

Offer a cut down and carefully controlled space for people to visit but also provide takeaway – which will also provide some kind of contingency in the event of future lockdowns.

Long Live the Jug and Bottle!

 

Categories
bottled beer The Session

The Session – quarantine edition: where we are at

Al of Fuggled has revived the Session, the monthly beer blogging jamboree that sputtered to a halt more than a year ago.

He’s asking us to think about our drinking habits in this weird, publess age – are we drinking more? Less? When? And what?

At first, it seemed some version of normality might be possible. The Drapers Arms was open, sort of, selling takeaway beer, and we could still ‘pop in’ to Bottles & Books, our local craft beer shop. (Remember popping into places?)

At the same time, we were also conscious of wanting to do something to show a bit of solidarity with local breweries, so we ordered a couple of cases of cans from Moor. When it arrived, we wondered if we ought to disinfect the boxes, or leave them for a couple of days. We wiped them down, washed our hands, fretted.

Needing little treats to get us through each day, we started drinking on more days of the week. But because beer was a bit of a pain to acquire, we drank less of it overall. One or two six times a week rather than two or three sessions over the course of the weekend.

Eventually, the Drapers closed for good, and Bottles & Books went delivery only, and our Twitter timeline began to fill with tempting offers and pleas: “Support us! Support them! Do your bit!”

We ordered cans from Thornbridge (excellent), more from Moor, more from Thornbridge, more from Moor.

As the situation got more serious, our brains adjusted – great things, brains – and the fight or flight panic passed, and with it the need for daily treats.

The regular dry days returned but the big weekend sessions didn’t.

So, overall, we’re drinking less, but savouring what we drink all the more.

Probably just as well, really, as hangovers and the depressive effects of alcohol aren’t all that helpful when everything else is so bleak.

One little ritual that has emerged, though, is a Sunday night homage to the Drapers: cheddar cheese, pickles, biscuits and ale, face to face over the table with the TV off. It’s mostly fun, mostly a pleasure, but with a bitter aftertaste.