They say…

Des de Moor
Best beer and travel writing award 2015, 2011 -- British Guild of Beer Writers Awards
Accredited Beer Sommelier
Writer of "Probably the best book about beer in London" - Londonist
"A necessity if you're a beer geek travelling to London town" - Beer Advocate
"A joy to read" - Roger Protz
"Very authoritative" - Tim Webb.
"One of the top beer writers in the UK" - Mark Dredge.
"A beer guru" - Popbitch.
Des de Moor

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Love beer hate pubs?

Here’s a challenge to the pub resurrectionist: The Spanish Steps, Woodpecker Road, SE14, derelict for many years.

Anyone taking an interest in the discussion around beer and in the UK over the past few years must surely have experienced cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, there’s a steady stream of gloomy pub closure stories and predictions of the death of the pub. On the other, there’s the astonishing surge in brewery numbers, now at around 1,700 or so, reflecting an unprecedented rise in popularity of specialist and ‘craft’ beer. According to statistics, since the early 1980s the UK seems to have lost 17,000 while gaining a good 1,500 breweries.

These apparently conflicting trends don’t only cause confusion, they also sometimes provoke acrimony and misunderstanding. Judging by some of the strongly-worded postings on social media, pub campaigners are frustrated with what they perceive as the indifference and complacency of many on the beer scene, including beer bloggers and even CAMRA, to the supposed crisis facing pubs. Surely, runs the argument, if you care about beer you must also care about pubs? The two self-evidently go together, right?

Well, not necessarily. Of course, there is a link between pubs and beer, but that link is an accident of history, and has never been exclusive – so long as there have been pubs in the way we recognise them today, there have also been ways of enjoying beer outside them. And the link is now being loosened still further by the same changing patterns of consumption that have reduced the customer base of many pubs.

Failing pub rescued: Jolly Butchers, London N16.

Historically beer was predominantly a bulk product, consumed on draught in a social space outside the home. The pre-eminence of draught beer in the consciousness of English beer campaigners has been bolstered by two other noteworthy features of the local brewing industry. One is the tied house system, which developed in the second half of the 19th century and ensured that by the start of World War I, most pubs in England and Wales (but not in Scotland, nor in most other European brewing nations) were owned by brewers. While some were directly managed by breweries, many were leaseholds – independent businesses obliged to source beer and sometimes other drinks too from the owning brewery in exchange for a discounted rent.

The second, not unrelated to the first, is the importance of cask beer, which, if you ignore the minor niche occupied by the mini-cask and the polypin, is exclusively a bar-based product. Cask only makes sense where there is sufficient demand to ensure a relatively large quantity is consumed quickly. This is the reason always given for why CAMRA, by origin a campaign for better beer, has also campaigned almost since the beginning for better pubs. If you want cask, then you need pubs to serve it.

But beer in individual-sized portions – ‘packaged beer’, as it’s known in the industry – has been around a long time too. Samuel Pepys was enjoying bottled ‘Hull ale’ in 1660. Two centuries later, new technology made mass production of bottles possible, and by the end of the 19th century – over about the same period the tied house system developed, as it happens – bottled beer became an everyday commodity rather than a luxury.

Pub? bar? bottle shop? Just a great place to enjoy great beer. Mother Kelly’s, London E2.

In the early 20th century, some in the industry predicted that draught beer would soon be rendered obsolete, replaced by bottles and cans in the ‘on’ as well as the ‘off’ trade. Before the rise of pasteurised keg beer in the 1950s and 1960s, many brewers actively promoted packaged beer, which compared with cask offered higher margins, a longer shelf life and increased stability and consistency. Packaged beer may have long been the secondary format but sales were nonetheless substantial: 36% of all sales by volume in 1959.

Back then, the breweries and their tied houses dominated both sides of the trade. This was the age of the ‘jug and bottle’, when beer to take home was typically bought in a physically separate section of a pub designated for off-sales, with its own entrance from the street. The range on offer was as limited as the range in the main part of the pub. That changed in the later part of the 20th century, first with high street off-license chains offering a wider range of drinks, especially wine, and then with the rise of supermarket alcohol retailing. By 2015, 51% of beer was sold through the off-trade.

But bottles and cans aren’t just for home consumption. They also enable other outlets, perhaps open limited hours or with relatively low volumes of beer sales, to offer a choice of beers economically. One phenomenon often overlooked in discussions of pub closures is the spread of great beer beyond the pub, to restaurants, coffee shops, specialist food shops, entertainment venue bars, farmers’ markets and one-off events, in packaged and sometimes in ‘craft keg’ form’.

The development of more diverse routes to market, including direct sales through brewery shops and taprooms, partly explains how new breweries manage to flourish in an age of declining pub numbers. And of course, there’s nothing to stop pubs themselves stocking a wider range of packaged beers, as a way of offering variety while reducing the risk of being left with unsellable stock. While there’s a historic resistance in the UK to drinking bottles in pubs, this is beginning to change along with many other aspects of our beer culture.

Still, if you care about the retention of cask as a format, which you should if you care about beer, then you should still care about the maintenance of a healthy on-trade sector with enough turnover to keep cask viable. A quality beer in an appropriate style served in good, fresh condition from the cask, cellar-cool and with a definite but relatively gentle carbonation, offers something that still can’t be replicated in any other format.

While a good brewer should be able to ensure the perceived differences between the ‘same’ beer in keg and packaged form are minimal, the same can’t be said of cask, as drinkers of bottles branded with big cask names soon discover.  Even bottle- (or can-) conditioned beer normally has a higher level of carbonation, which can’t be released until the package is opened.

Great beer in unexpected places, including this Hackney market.

So should beer lovers be concerned with pub closures? On the face of it, yes. British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA) figures show the total number of UK pubs has dwindled from 67,800 in 1982 to 50,800 in 2015, a reduction of 25%. CAMRA reports the rate of pub closures has slowed over the last couple of years, from 27 a week at the end of 2015 to 21 a week six months later, but this is still a substantial number which if sustained over the next decade would reduce the overall total to around 40,000.  It’s worth underlining that CAMRA says these are net figures, also taking account of pub openings.

Why is this? Pub campaigners tend to point the finger at public policies such as the smoking ban, high alcohol taxation and a regulatory framework that has led to the big pub operating companies, or pubcos, dominating the market. But evidence of the impact of the smoking ban either way is inconclusive, and alcohol taxes apply to both the on- and off-trades so don’t entirely explain why the latter is apparently flourishing at the expense of the former.

Worries about pubcos are perhaps more firmly founded. They are the legacy of the last major public policy intervention in the industry, the 1989 Beer Orders, which were supported by CAMRA and many other pro-beer and pro-pub activists at the time. The regulations restricted the number of brewery-tied pubs and forced breweries with big pub estates to allow their leaseholders a guest beer. The industry responded by dismantling the tied house system, with many old-established breweries splitting their pub owning and brewing businesses and withdrawing from either one or the other.

Most formerly brewery-owned leasehold pubs have ended up in the hands of a small number of pubcos which don’t brew but still retain their exclusive right to supply beer. They can negotiate favourable bulk deals with brewers then sell the beer on at a substantial mark-up, often charging leaseholders half as much again and occasionally even twice the price free-of-tie pubs pay when buying from the brewery directly.

Perhaps more damagingly, pubcos are controlled by financial rather than brewing interests, whom critics allege have no real interest in pubs and brewing except as abstract financial assets. Rather than investing in pubs as ongoing viable businesses, they are more likely to sell them off for conversion to other uses and make a quick return for shareholders and creditors. There are numerous stories of pubs being deliberately run down so a pubco can justify closing and selling them.

So there are certainly problems with the pubco model, which has distorted the market and has doubtless resulted in the loss of at least some well-used and well-loved pubs. On the other hand, there are numerous flourishing pubco pubs, and supporters of the system argue that, thanks to the reduced rents, it offers a low-cost way in to the business for aspiring licensees. Pubco leaseholders are grownups who should know what they are getting into. The latest regulatory attempt to address some of the issues with pubcos is the Market Rent Option (MRO) introduced last year as part of a new pubs code. This gives leaseholders the right to free themselves from the tie by paying a higher rent, as agreed with a regulator – though its implementation has been slow and dogged by controversy.

Micropub: a 21st century reinvention of the alehouse. The Long Pond, London SE9.

But even if the problems with pubcos were fixed, I’m not convinced this would reverse a broader social trend that has been going on for much longer than many contributors to the debate acknowledge. At the start of the 20th century the UK had almost 100,000 pubs and aside from an upward blip after World War II the numbers have declined ever since. The most obvious correlate is the decline in overall alcohol consumption over the same period. Despite moral panics about binge drinking, we are a much soberer society than we’ve ever been. When we do drink, we’re more likely to be discriminating about what we drink. Given the potential harmful effects of excessive or inappropriate alcohol consumption, that can only be a good thing.

The social patterns of drinking and pub use have correspondingly changed. One reason working class communities once patronised pubs so enthusiastically was that they were much more attractive – brighter, warmer, better-furnished and less boring – than the home. And the fact that even people on low incomes now generally live in much better conditions and have access to a much more diverse range of entertainment and culture than their predecessors of even fifty years ago is also a good thing.

Pubgoing has changed from being an everyday habit to a special occasion treat, and people’s expectations have risen as a result. They’re more likely to want decent food, a high standard of service, a good variety of quality drinks, comfortable surroundings and other attractions like events and activities. They’re much less likely to default to the ‘local’, and instead will seek out destination pubs which meet their requirements.

A closer inspection of the statistics bears this out. CAMRA’s 2016 figures showed that, while over 50 pubs a week were closing in the suburbs, high streets were losing only one pub a week, while “the number of branded food pubs and modern style pubs and bars have seen an increase”. In 2015, I researched the fate of 12 pubs named as the best in London in a 1967 book, and was surprised, given the prevailing discourse around pub closures, to find 10 of them still open, with one closed back in the 1970s. But then in 1967 these were already pubs extraordinary enough to feature in guidebooks. The same didn’t apply to the dozen or so former locals within a few minutes’ walk of my flat in a relatively deprived part of southeast London which are now flats, bookies and convenience stores.

Cutting out the middleman in the brewery taproom. Hammerton brewery, London N7.

Some pub campaigners claim that, given a fair deal and some tender loving care, any pub can be viable. But while there are certainly some remarkable examples of pubs that have been turned around by investment and good management, often by putting a special focus on beer and/or food, I doubt that all those 17,000 lost since the 1980s could have remained in business. The hard truth is, as a society we need fewer pubs than we once did, and we need different things from our pubs too, rendering many of the existing ones unfit for purpose.

You don’t have to look too hard at the rhetoric around pub closures to understand that the concerns of many campaigners are at least as much to do with resistance to the social change the loss of pubs represents than with the loss of the facilities and services they provide. That’s why discussion is often couched in terms of tradition and heritage, quoting commentators from the first half of the 20th century like Hilaire Belloc (“But when you have lost your Inns drown your empty selves, for you will have lost the last of England”) and George Orwell as if they are obviously relevant to contemporary concerns.

Typically, pubs are identified as “a uniquely British institution…and a vital part of the British way of life,” though with no convincing explanation as to how they differ from their equivalents in other countries (including in Scotland, where ‘British’ pub culture takes a noticeably different form). That is, unless you’re convinced by the claim on CAMRA’s website that people talk to each other more in British pubs than in Belgian beer bars because the latter offer table service. It’s no great surprise to discover UKIP has its own Save the Great British Pub campaign, fronted by ex-leader Paul Nuttall.

For those whose main interest is in saving the pub as a vaguely-defined cultural institution that somehow speaks to Britishness, it’s no comfort to know that failing pubs have flourished by becoming food-led, that bottle shops are installing draught lines and adding on-licenses, that micropubs are mushrooming in market towns, that the majority of newly-opened breweries are welcoming drinkers to taprooms, nor that the local gourmet restaurant is doing a roaring trade with the local microbrewery’s bottles and cans. The only pub worth saving is the ‘wet-led’ pub of the popular imagination, where drink accounts for the lion’s share of sales, in a purpose-built building, with wizened regulars glued to the bar stools and a scattering of preserved Victorian fixtures and fittings.

The problem is that, like most institutions claiming to have centuries of unbroken tradition behind them, this conception of the pub soon withers in the glare of a historical perspective. Pubs are commercial enterprises that have survived by adapting to changing social circumstances. Pubs today are not really anything like the alehouses, inns and taverns of earlier times, and even if they preserve ancient physical fabric – which is rare, as nearly all of them were mercilessly and unsentimentally torn down and rebuilt for commercial reasons at the end of the 19th century or later – they are no longer used in the same way.

As Jessica Boak and Ray Bailey’s recent book 20th Century Pub shows, even in the past century pubs have reinvented themselves many times over. The food-led pub, for example, is not a new thing but has a precedent not only in the inns of the 18th century but in the improved pubs and roadhouses of the early 20th. Today’s ideal of a traditional pub is I suspect a product of the rose-tinted memories of the first wave of modern beer and pub campaigners in the 1970s. As often with ‘tradition’, our nostalgia doesn’t stretch back more than a couple of generations.

Pub as architectural exhibition: the magnificent Warrington, London W9.

That doesn’t mean that the physical fabric of purpose-built pubs isn’t worth saving. I’m as delighted as anyone at spotting a late Victorian neo-classical carved oak back bar or some stained glass from the ‘Brewer’s Tudor’ period. But this is about preservation for aesthetic and educational reasons, in the same way we should approach other aspects of our built heritage. While it’s a good thing that at least a few pubs with multi-room layouts survived the great levelling of the 1960s, they are no longer used in the way they were intended to be. And that too is a good thing, unless you’d like to see a return to the days when factory workers were obliged to use the public bar, only bosses were allowed in the lounge and the ladies’ room meant what it said on the engraved glass door.

Of course, pubs aren’t just places for drinking. As campaigners are fond of pointing out, they are community spaces too, public places for talking and meeting, whether informally or for organised activities from sports and games to political meetings. But the idealised view of the inclusive community pub of the past, where everyone was welcome, is not only contradicted by the facts of physical segregation in pubs at least up until World War II, but by the lived experience of anyone who found themselves outside the prescribed normality of the communities that used them.

I reached pub-going age in the second half of the 1970s. I wasn’t yet out as a gay man, but I was mildly unconventional and decidedly non-macho. Most pubs in the small Home Counties town where I lived, far from being welcoming and inclusive places, were off-limits to me and anyone like me, on pain of anything from tacit hostility to actual violence.

And I was at least white and male. There were very few pubs where women could go on their own and expect to be treated decently, and I can’t think what it must have been like for the small minority of non-white people who formed part of the community at that time. Pubs openly displaying ‘No travellers’ signs could be seen in England into the 1990s. In the days when large scale industry dominated the economy, when social conformity was seen as essential to efficient capitalist production, pubs were one of the spaces where the working class policed itself.

What happened in practice was that as communities became more diverse and heterogenous, some pubs pillarised themselves into catering for subgroups – gay pubs, Irish pubs, West Indian pubs – or people found alternative spaces to fulfil the social functions of pubs, such as cafés, community centres, places of worship or even the street. One obvious issue, often cited negatively in some of the less savoury commentary on the decline of pubs, is that even with the best of intentions, venues centred around selling alcohol have a limited appeal to those from cultures traditionally disapproving of its consumption. As The Economist points out, the London Borough of Newham, where 35% of the population is Muslim, has lost more than half its pubs in recent years. But that doesn’t mean the local community is any less engaged or coherent.

Community pub for a changing community: Ivy House, London SE15

As the makeup of communities has changed, so the ‘community pub’ has adapted to suit them. One often-cited example of a successfully rescued community pub is the Ivy House in Nunhead, London SE15, the first English pub registered as an Asset of Community Value (ACV) and now owned by a coop with 371 shareholders. It’s a splendid place with a very good beer offer where I feel quite at home, but the way it looks and works today is inescapably a reflection of the gentrification of the surrounding streets by young professionals and workers from the creative industries. The campaign to save it was boosted enormously by the involvement of several local lawyers. I’m sure a Rotherhithe docker transported through time from the 1950s would be given a friendly welcome, but I doubt he’d feel entirely comfortable.

The term ‘pub’ or ‘public house’ derives from a licensing category: a place selling beer and other alcoholic drinks to the public for consumption on the premises, without the need to eat, stay overnight or become a member. If this is what we mean by ‘pub’, and not some mythical ancient institution, then what we are witnessing is not the death of the pub, but another chapter in the lengthy story of its evolution. As always, the new forms that emerge may not please everyone, but I’m confident that so long as there is a demand for drinking beer in a social space, there will be pub-like establishments to cater for it.

Meanwhile, there’s no doubt that keen beer drinkers have never had it so good, particularly those in metropolitan areas. Though there are ongoing issues with cask quality, there are more pubs serving an astonishing variety of great beer in all formats than ever before. Even many chain and pubco pubs now offer something of interest, and that’s before considering the many new and non-traditional places with great beer in stock. In contrast, I doubt most of the dozen or so closed pubs near my flat offered anything more interesting than the occasional bottle of Nigerian Guinness.

In these circumstances, it’s not surprising that doom-mongering about pub closures fails to resonate with many beer lovers. For those of us primarily interested in the continued and growing availability of great beer, the focus must be on matters like beer quality (cask and otherwise), educating the consumer to make informed demands, raising standards of service and staff training, and issues of labelling and provenance. There are also good reasons to oppose the pubco tie, contest the increasing political influence of neo-prohibitionists and support reductions in alcohol taxation.

But if what we’re being asked to do is something different, and more about preserving a supposed cultural institution than ensuring outlets for good beer, then let’s be honest about that. If pub campaigners believe that everyone who loves beer should also love the ‘Great British Pub’, then they need to set out the case for our support, not simply assume they are entitled to it.

12 comments to Love beer hate pubs?

  • ted bruning

    Precisely.

  • Jeff Pickthall

    Quite right. Des. You echo my thoughts.

  • Dave Law

    Got a little bored with this. Seemingly attempting to be balanced and I know we can all read the same piece differently but I can’t help but feel it misses the Campaigners point by a mile. The issue surrounding pub lease is no longer a he said she said debate, it’s been well debated by THE most difficult to convince people in SW1.

    Four Select Committees, 3 unanimous back bench votes and a Public Consultation taking over 10 years (when a 2 year Comp Commission would have sufficed), has been highly evidenced. It’s been accepted, it’s in Hansard for all to read.

    Of course there are many other factors involved, but a complete disconnect from the overall and joining puzzle of Cartel behaviour does when writing these pieces does nothing to ease the kaleidoscope of confused thinking on the issues.

    For instance the B&B book quoted writes a lengthy tome on Micro Pubs and Werherspoons and virtually neglects all the aforementioned 10 years worth of BISComms and campaigning

  • An enlightening, enjoyable and educative post.

  • Des

    Thanks for your comment, Dave. As I say several times in the piece, I broadly agree with those who object to the pubco tie as a distortion of the market, although I doubt if fixing the problems with it would do much to halt the overall trend. But the debate is much wider than that, and while some campaigners have focused on discussion of the tie, for many it’s the much wider question of preserving “unique British traditions” etc. Perhaps they think that will resonate more with the public than technical discussions of the tie — but actually I think in some ways it’s had the opposite effect, of alienating many of the new generation of beer drinkers from the debate.

  • That’s one of the most insightful posts I’ve read this year. I’ve only been into beer (rather than pubs per se) for about ten years and get confused that I see good beer proliferating all over the place but only read about good beer’s slow painful death. I’m not going mad. You’ve cheered me up.

  • […] Editor’s Note: If you follow anyone in the British beer world on social media, you’re bound to see people commenting on the “pub crisis” in England. Something in the neighborhood of 17,000 pubs have closed in the last few of decades. While this sounds alarming, there may be more factors contributing to this than typically sited. Des de Moor of “Beer Culture with Des de Moor” provides a great read that dives into demographics and the changing role of the pub in modern life. It’s a bit long, but is well worth your time and provides a great insight into British pubs and pub culture. (Love beer Hate Pubs? by Des de Moor) […]

  • Garry shaw

    Great piece Des couldn’t agree more , love all types of beer and pubs but think the way forward for me is craft beer bars and tap rooms pay a little bit more but get quality beers and not poorly kept beers .

  • Well done for entirely missing the point and failing to answer the issues raised, Dave Law. Typical of the myopia of so many pub campaigners, who treat anyone not 100 per cent singing from their hymn sheet as their enemy.

    One very minor point, Des: the tied house system has its roots in the 17th century, and was perceived to be a problem by the early 19th, thou admittedly it only really began to be effectively universal from the 1880s.

    Oh, and thanks for the link!

  • Jon Meek

    Interesting article, although I do think there is a danger of going too far with loss of pubs.

    The opportunity to drink brilliant beer in the UK appears to be the best it has been in my lifetime and has continued to get better over the last few years in particular. Indeed, the addition of more brewery taps and micropubs has been fantastic for beer drinkers. However, why must it be at the detriment to traditional pubs? Quite often they’re still the best place to get a quality cask pint.

    Many aren’t even given the opportunity to change due to the land or building being worth more as flats or alternative usage which has been fairly highlighted in the article. Or worse, being deliberately run down by pubcos.

    I don’t think it is necessarily a ‘Britishness’ thing but more of a little guy v big guy mentality. A small community can have a pub ripped out by a large pubco or property developer with no regard for the local impact which is sad and is it a bad thing if it is more of an emotional response? There’s room for both, The Greyfriar in my home town of Reading being a great example of a brilliant turnaround despite being earmarked for flats on more than one occasion and spending the day in Bristol a couple of weeks ago was a fantastic demonstration of the new and traditional working together, from Moor Brewery’s tap room to the Barley Mow round the corner. I guess it could be nicely summed up as Love Beer, Love Pubs. Great site, thanks

  • As a foreigner who enjoys visiting the UK and participating in its pub culture, thanks for this piece. Well-written and on-point.

  • Love your informative blog.

    It is a conflict that more and more breweries are springing up, especially the craft beer breweries and yet more pubs are closing their doors.

    The one thing I am finding though is that the remaining pubs are taking advantage of this and appear to be moving with the times this is alongside more privately owned micro pubs appearing all offering a greater variety of ales.

    Which for us beer lovers means exciting times.

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