The sticky-sweet smell of old ale and jaeger-stained carpet infuses the indoor, log-fire-warmed air. Bodies cram against the soaked, beer-mat-dressed mahogany bar as an old school-like bell is sounded for last orders. Could these qualities be mistaken for anything other than a cosy English pub?
As a nation, it’s safe to say that we can raise a glass to the long-standing tradition of British pub culture. Though we can celebrate the departure of indoor smoking areas and the idea that boozers are predominantly male-occupied spaces, gone are the days of loyalty and feeling a sense of community amongst local establishments.
We can point fingers at notoriously cheap alcohol in supermarkets and 2-for-1 cocktail pitchers at Wetherspoons, but this is not enough to understand why the beating hearts of many villages, towns and cities are in steep decline.Regardless of the scapegoats, recent industry figures from the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) show that in the first six months of 2018, we lost 476 pubs – which is 13 more than closed in the last six months of the previous year. The North-West and South-East of England appeared to suffer the most with an alarming 60 closures per week, whereas the North-East and Scotland lost between 10 and 15.
The desire to binge-drink has decreased, particularly among the crowd aged 18-25. A recently-published study in the journal BMC Public Health found that 25% of young Britons consider themselves non-drinkers. The study, carried out by University College Researchers showed that, in addition, binge-drinking rates also dropped from 27% in 2005 to 18% in 2015.
Brigid Simmonds, chief executive of the British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA) suggests that sales figures are reflective of the increased popularity to drink at home as it’s better value for money.
“70% of all alcohol visiting in supermarkets and the off-trade, for beer it’s still just over 50% sold in the off-trade and just under 50% is sold in the pub. Despite this, people will still go to pubs because beer tastes better from a draught than it does from a bottle, also for the social engagement that it provides,” she says.
As the price of one glass of wine could buy you a bottle in a supermarket, pubs are required to offer unconventional services to attract more clients and make their visit worthwhile.
Tina Foster, 49, is landlady of two pubs in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, The Royal William and The Duke of Wellington. She believes that unless there’s a reason other than alcohol, people won’t come out.
“We as a company have to be conscious of pricing if it’s too expensive people won’t come back. When people meet with friends, they want good quality food at reasonable prices and entertainment,” she says.
Although it’s possible to accommodate certain needs, limitations instated by the law have played a significant role in the general hindrance of pub performance, Foster suggests.“The smoking ban has also contributed to pubs being in decline. Working men used to go to the pub for a pint before going home. A cigarette and pint used to go hand in hand. Pre-loading is also a big issue, in the past people would meet at pubs and then move onto clubs. Nowadays people drink before they come out, hence they only have one drink in the pub despite not having spent much,” she says.
Colette Downing, a 23-year-old barmaid from Essex now working in Greenwich, explains the impact caused by a lack of attention to trends: “I used to work in a pub in Penge called The Crooked Billet. It had no pull and looked like it had been done up in the 70s and then never refurbished since. Because of that, it had virtually no new clients apart from the same few regulars who had been attending for over 30 years,” she says.
According to Simmonds, pub culture is now much more food led: “We serve a billion meals a year in pubs throughout the UK. We actually have 50,000 bedrooms in pubs so we’re very much part of the hospitality and tourism industry,” she says.
Downing measures the difference that food service and interior can make by comparing her previous employment with the family-run Italian pub she currently works in, The Prince of Greenwich.
“What’s unique is that it is hugely personal to the Sicilian couple who own it. The pub is full of art they’ve collected from around the world so it has a curated spiel to it. In addition to serving food and putting on jazz nights throughout the week, they’ve also held Italian classes in the past. It’s always buzzing because the owners are so widely respected in the community and make people feel like they’re at home,” she says.
Whilst food is still the most common approach to luring more clients in, providing accommodation can also strengthen the name of the establishment whilst ensuring it survives especially in challenging market condition, for example, when alcohol revenue is affected by a spike in tax.“My friends in Yorkshire converted some outbuildings into toilets and showers, cleared a field to make it the only campsite for miles around and have never looked back. Their pub and their income are now thriving,” says Simon Mills, an Essex based pub-goer of over 45 years.
When there’s competition around, however, a pub has to be welcoming for different audiences simultaneously, especially in an area popular with tourists. “Our Bourton On the Water site has locals and lots of tourists. We have to tempt both sides in. For the tourists, it’s the garden by the river and location and meal deal offers. For the locals, Sky Sports and locality cards which can be used in both sites. In the summer, we have beer festivals with live music to encourage new customers to come and try us. We have to keep trying to find a unique selling point. Which isn’t always easy,” Foster tells us.
The issue pegged to undergoing a gastro-makeover is its potential to rupture the relationship between the long-standing pub-goer and the venue itself. Surging prices in a low-income area limit local residents’ access; only permitting a specific, and usually, a middle-class audience to afford it.
“Because of the makeovers they’re becoming more expensive and they’re becoming more gentrified. Penge is not a well-off area, so the prices reflected that. Because The Crooked Billet was the only pub in Penge that didn’t undergo a refurbishment, we experienced a new wave of people that other locals had pushed away, so I think this separation is a big part to blame for pub closures.”
Locations in South-East London such as Deptford and Penge have also faced challenges from the arrival of trendy, new, gentrified bars catering to wealthier demographic who don’t inhabit the area.
“Places are wanting to cater to the nouveau riche. It’s this kind of weird sect of tourism where people think it’s cool to go out in places that aren’t economically stable and I find that problematic. I don’t think it’s bad to open these sorts of places as long as they’re catering to the clients they already have,” Downing says.With more rivalry and less potential to turn over high profits, Simmonds suggests that being heavily active across all social media platforms must be considered if a pub wants to succeed against its competitors. “It’s absolutely vital for small independent businesses. The days are gone where you can sit in a pub and wait for people to walk through the door. You’ve got to be on social media, you’ve got to have decent websites and good offerings to get people to come to your venue rather than the rest of the competition out there,” she said.
Depending on the area, however, places like The Fat Walrus in New Cross, south-east London find that the use of these tools so far hasn’t made a difference to their traffic so they rarely use it at all.
“They only use Instagram and even that not so much, it’s more the occasional post but I’m not sure how many people look at it. For example one day when we had a big kitchen turnover we shut the kitchen for one day, posted it on the Instagram to let customers know and it didn’t work, so we don’t push it that much,” said 24 year-old barman Joe Acanfora.
Being less than 100 metres away from Goldsmiths University and comfortably getting by through busy evening periods and serving popular street-food in trendy blue-rimmed tin plates, it’s less of a priority to boost their recognition. “Because the prices here are a bit cheaper than average pubs in London and because we’ve got so many students in the area we’re always guaranteed to have people come in,” Acanfora says.
A crowd of students cannot be held responsible for the determination of trends, but in The Fat Walrus’ case, their presence may be enough to drive away older locals, which could demonstrate why demands change. “I think that the older crowd who come here, come here so much less when it’s not a peak time for students. I started working over summer so I saw all the regulars come in every other day. Some of them I haven’t seen since September but I don’t think it’s to say decoration and music makes a difference to who turns up and who doesn’t,” Acanfora says.
Whilst it’s a positive that low-income students are keeping UK pub culture alive, this might not be enough to thrive if Brexit’s impact leaves thousands of venues understaffed or without management, Simmonds suggests.
“There is a whole range of issues to do with Brexit depending on what outcome we have. First of all, 24% of employees in pubs are from overseas, 17% from the EU. That rises to 80% in certain pubs in certain places, particularly metropolitan areas like London,” she says.
As one of the most powerful decision-makers, the internet often leaves us wanting what other people have; whether this is scrolling past a photo of a locally sourced IPA or envying an experience through a mouth-wateringly descriptive review on Trip Advisor.
Nowadays its common to explore a breadth of options online, but the evolution of pub culture has been taking place long before the current influence of social media.
“Terms such as artisan or craft ale have simply been created by marketing companies, eager to get you to sample their client’s wares. It was happening when I was a teenager and it will continue. Who drinks tequila sunrises or Harvey Wallbangers nowadays? I rest my case,” Mills says.