I have been drinking in pubs since I was fifteen years old. In my adolescent years my old man would take me down the road once a week, on a Friday night, to his local. He had an arrangement in place with the manager of the pub, which I shall not name, that I could drink in the pub, but only accompanied by him, and only if I was drinking cask ale.
Hence it became a tradition for he and I to spend a few hours every week drinking pints of Timothy Taylor’s Landlord, eating packets of dry roasted peanuts and chatting with strangers.
This formative experience instilled in me a deep love of cask beer, and a reverence for the simple joy the pub could afford to its regulars, for many of whom a Friday night visit was the only thing that kept them going throughout the week.
This piece is not, however, a weepy-eyed, rose-tinted spectacled elegy to the public house. Anyone foolish or naïve enough believe that all pubs can and should survive in the 21st century is in serious need of a reality check. People are drinking less alcohol than ever before, inflation is fast outstripping wages, which remain stagnant for many working class people, and the threats posed by Brexit and changes to business rates valuations continue to loom large.
Not all pubs have a divine right to stay open, and those that fail to adapt to this changing environment cannot and should not be propped up artificially.
All the above being said, I firmly and vehemently believe that the British pub as an institution is something to be cherished, and something we must all strive to protect. Particularly at this time of year, when the post Christmas guilt keeps many punters away and business is slow, pubs need our support more than ever.
I have noted, with some trepidation, the tendency of breweries moving towards greater online and direct sales. Back in November, Paul Jones of Cloudwater told attendees at The Brewers Congress he hoped to increase the percentage of his sales coming from online orders and the brewery’s taproom, whilst Northern Monk. Verdant, Brew By Numbers and many more are following a similar route in chasing customers direct, rather that through the on-trade.
It is not my right, nor my place, to criticise breweries for choosing this path. How they decide to run their business is completely their prerogative, and I would never begrudge them for simply striving to make themselves as successful and profitable as they can be.
Nonetheless, I do fear that seemingly unstoppable rise of small pack beers, most of which are purchased and consumed in the off trade, combined with the changes we are seeing in drinking habits, could spell serious trouble for our nation’s already beleaguered watering holes.
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what it is that makes the pub so special. They come in many shapes and sizes, and mean different things to so many people, and finding a common or shared characteristic that all good pubs have is neigh on impossible. At the end of the day, a pub is just four walls, a bar, and a room full of people. What’s so special about that?
I think the best answer to this question is to say that what makes a pub so special is its ability to bring together and unify people of many different walks of life. In a recent piece for Original Gravity magazine, Jessica Mason described what she termed the ‘social equality’ of beer, and explained how the pub was “a place where everyone was welcome and fitted in.”
These words capture perfectly my own experience of the essence of the British pub. No other venue; be that an American brewpub, a Belgian beer café or a Michelin star restaurant, can replicate the sense of belonging I feel when sat at the bar of a pub, hands wrapped around a pint of bitter and observing the everyday routines of its clientele.
Hence, I’m going to be using my #Tryanuary this year primarily to seek out and championing as many fantastic pubs as possible. I’ll be looking out for new breweries and bottleshops too, but pubs will be the priority, as they are the ones who suffer most at this time of year, and who I believe need our help the most.
Besides, I can’t get a pint of Landlord on cask in the comfort of my own home just yet…