Category: Pubs

| Pubs, Southwark, The George Inn

Why do we care about pubs so much?

Putting aside the arguments over restrictions, passports and David versus Goliath, now we do most of our drinking at home (even before Covid) why does the pub actually matter?

Refreshing the parts.

 

I took the picture above on 22nd July 2020 – the first time I had been in a pub (or even outside one) since 13th March, the day I came home from a week of beery events around the UK and went into two weeks of quarantine to make sure I didn’t give Covid to my asthmatic wife.

Neither of us left the house again until 21st June. Three-and-a-half months into lockdown, we had never seen perspex screens in shops, or floor markers and widened pavements to help maintain social distancing. We were curious about everything in the changed outside world.

The picture was taken on a table outside the Anchor & Hope in Upper Clapton, North London. The pub sits on the bank of the River Lea, opposite Walthamstow Marshes, where we’d just taken Mildrid for a long walk for the first time in months, and the tables outside offer views of canal boats puttering lazily up and down the Lea, ducks futilely attempting to direct traffic, and long green fronds dancing lazily in the currents. Even if we’d been allowed to drink inside, we’d have chosen a table out here.

Liz went inside to the bar, and returned with two of these pints. Because I am now supposedly an “Influencer”, before I could take a swig I felt obliged (and indeed was instructed) to take a picture and share it on the socials. The accompanying text was:

“First draft pint in a pub since 13th March. Yes it’s a mainstream lager. Yes it’s in a hopelessly inappropriate wrongly branded glass. No it’s not “craft”. Go on, ask me if I care.”

They asked.

I didn’t care.

It was a warm day, 22nd July 2020. But that’s not why I ordered a mainstream lager in a wrongly branded glass. In fact I didn’t order a mainstream lager in a wrongly branded glass. I got served a mainstream lager in a wrongly branded glass because that’s all the pub had, thanks to the inept way reopening had been handled by the government, without enough notice for small, local brewers to start brewing again.

At home, I had a cellar full of infinitely better beers than this – and in many cases, the glassware to match.

But this was in a pub. As is so often the case, the beer itself wasn’t the point.

When I’m interviewed by other journalists – which happens quite a lot each time pubs gear up for reopening after a lockdown – the questions I get asked more than any other are:

  • – Why is the British pub so special?
  •  
  • – What’s the difference between a pub and a bar?
  •  
  • – Why are pubs such a big part of British culture?

These are the questions I was thinking about long before I even knew about things like “craft beer”, beer styles, the hop profile of a West Coast IPA or the pros and cons of cask breathers. And I’ve just been asked them an awful lot once again, over what we must all hope has been the final week of Covid lockdown.

I’ve been thinking about them for 25 years now, and have devoted the best parts of at least three books to trying to answer them. If anything, this makes it much harder to try to give short, concise answers, because there’s so much to say. But on the day pubs reopen for outside drinking (in somewhat less clement rather than 22nd July last year) here are three of the main answers, written with the perspective gained from having been away from pubs for longer than I have ever since about the age of sixteen.

1. We are pack animals.

Mildrid, our dog, is spoiled rotten. I’m afraid she gets whatever she wants, even when what she wants changes on a second-by-second basis. If Liz and I are sitting together, Mildrid has to be there with us, preferably lying between us. When she’s happiest she zones put, almost catatonic. The amateur dog psychologist in me believes this is to do with dogs being pack animals, and that when she’s lying between us, Mildrid is mentally back in her litter of puppies.

Maybe it takes a lockdown to really realise this, but we’re not that much different – we need to be around other people. We want to be in a pub that’s reasonably busy. We feel happier if there are other people there, even if we have no intention of directly socialising with them.

The pub occasion I’ve missed more than any other is popping in for a swift one on the way back from the park with Mildrid. On these occasions, I want to read a book, usually for some research I’m doing, and not to bump into anyone I know or be bothered by anyone I don’t know. But I’d still much rather the pub was busy than not (so long as I can get still get a table to myself.)

I wrote in Shakespeare’s Local about how trends in pub interior design have moved counter to trends in our homes. In Chaucer’s time, homes consisted of one room with a fire in the middle. There was no privacy. Pubs, on the other hand, were divided and sub-divided by screens and partitions, the forerunner of the snug, so that couples – who could afford it – were able to converse in privacy.

Now, we’ve gone the opposite way. At home, families spend a lot of their time in different rooms looking at different screens, while many pubs have knocked down all their interior walls, so we can all be in one big space, not interacting with each other directly, but comforted in some way by the presence of others.

2. But we need help socialising.

I love the American bar experience approximately 75% as much as I love the British pub. It has its own unique attractions, and I miss it desperately if I haven’t been to the US for a while. But much in American society and culture is formalised, whereas rules in Britain from the constitution to the way we order a drink at the bar are informal and unwritten – people are just expected to absorb it and know them.

I once met an American journalist for an interview in a pub in the centre of London. She was just off the Red Eye, and had headed straight in from the airport, so to be fair she wasn’t in the best shape for her first-ever British pub encounter. I found her standing about five yards way from the bar, staring at it, trembling slightly. After we made our introductions she said, “How do you do…” and raised one arm in a weak gesture in the direction of the beer pumps, “…THIS?”

Much has been written about the invisible queue at the bar, about why you never ask for a Guinness at the end of your order, about the difference in hand gestures that are politely attracting attention versus being rude.

But the reason I love this arcane, unwritten pub etiquette is that pretty much all of it has evolved specifically to encourage sociability: the buying of rounds, the need to go to the bar to do so, the clinking of glasses – the whole lot.

The best illustration of this is the way that the central bar space is open territory, but tables, once occupied, are private. If someone strikes up a conversation with you at the bar, that’s friendly. If they then follow you back to your table without being invited, that’s weird.

(As an exception to British supremacy in this regard, the Germans have a wonderful custom called the stämmtisch, which I wish was ours. This translates as “regular’s table”, and anyone who wishes to join it when it is already occupied is expected to knock on the table to request admission.)

3. So the symbolic value of pubs is greater than their practical use.

Whenever a pub local to me closes, people invariably go, “Oh that’s a shame. They should have gone there more often to keep it open.” Who “they” are is never clear, given that the person speaking professes to love the pub in question, but last went there about three years ago. We want pubs to be there, even if we don’t want to use them ourselves. This can be a problem.

That’s because the pub is such an important part of the British landscape that it represents normality. In the First World War, Prime Minister David Loyd George was in favour of total prohibition, but was talked out of it for fear of a communist revolution. In World War II, the bombing of civilian targets meant morale on the home front was as important as it was on the front line. Churchill understood this. Beer was never rationed, and pubs were never forced to resrict their opening hours. So long as the pub could still open, that meant we hadn’t yet been beaten – even if the “pub” was a plank across two barrels in a bombed-out pile of rubble that had until the night before been a Victorian hostelry.

That’s why Covid has been so shocking. As far as I can tell from my research, there has never been another time in British history when pubs have been required to close their doors universally in this way. It’s like cutting off a limb of ordinary British life. For fans of Shaun of the Dead, our first instinct when the virus hit might have been to go down to the Winchester and wait until all this blows over. But the virus might as well have been designed to take out everything that makes pubs special – the informality, the ordering at the bar, the chance encounters, the chinking of glasses. The fact that the pubs had to close showed that this was not normal. That it was actually pretty fucking scary.

So that’s why, today, all the headlines are about pub gardens reopening, with al fresco restaurants, gyms and hairdressers coming much lower in the mix. It’s why I’m writing this on a bus – the first bus I’ve been on since March 2020 – on my way to the George in Southwark to give an interview to the New York Times, and why I’m talking to CBS’s Sixty Minutes down there after that. If the pubs are reopening, that means Britain is getting back to normal – and the whole world is watching.

So just for today, I’m not talking about how pubs were unfairly targeted by a lazy government, about how those without outdoor spaces still aren’t open, or about all the other problems and issues that are not going away.

Today, I’m going to the pub, wrapped up in fleece and scarf, and asking “What’s on cask?”

| Covid, Food, Media bollocks, Neo-prohibitionism, Pubs

Why there’s no point trying to define a “substantial meal.”

As new Covid tier rules in England threaten to decimate the pub industry, there’s no neo-prohibitionist conspiracy here: just an indifferent government that’s too lazy to help.

N.B. Updated 3rd December with new information regarding “contracting arrangements” with food providers for pubs that don’t have a kitchen.

From tomorrow, 32 million people – 56% of the population of England – will be living under Tier 2 restrictions. In this tier, they will be allowed to drink in pubs, but only if they are also eating a “substantial meal”.

This has led to an increasingly entertaining/depressing/frustrating (delete according to how much skin you have in the game) national conversation about what constitutes a “substantial meal.” Government attempts to clarify the rules over the last few days have revealed a shocking lack of thinking behind them.

Most people I’ve seen discussing the issue in both mainstream and social media assume that the rule is in place to discourage immoderate drinking, which could in turn lead to a loss of inhibition and lower willingness to comply with social distancing rules.

That’s a big assumption – when pubs reopened after Lockdown 1 on 4th July, the media universally predicted a wave of drunken behaviour that would lead to a surge in new cases. That wave never materialised. But let’s run with the assumption for a moment.

The Science Bit

Alcohol is absorbed into the bloodstream slowly from the stomach, and rapidly from the small intestine. Having food in the stomach slows down the passage of alcohol to the small intestine while also allowing enzymes in the stomach more time to break down and deactivate the alcohol. So drinking on a full stomach doesn’t just slow down your alcohol absorption; its means you end up absorbing less alcohol overall.

So there is some logic here: if you believe (despite lack of solid evidence) that drunker people are less likely to observe social distancing and other measures to prevent potential Covid spread, mandating that they can only drink while eating would help reduce – or at least slow down – potential drunkenness.

Getting eggy with it

So how much food do we have to consume to get this effect? Well, this is where it gets complicated. Not to mention utterly ridiculous. Because the government appears to have no idea.

In October, we were told that a Cornish pasty was a substantial meal, but only if you order it with chips or a side salad – as you do. Yesterday, another cabinet minister told us that a Scotch egg counts, only to be swiftly contradicted by the Prime Minister’s office, which was in turn contradicted again by Michael Gove half an hour ago, after I had already started writing this. Evidently, the government cannot agree on what is and is not a substantial meal.

Another problem is, what’s substantial for one person is different for another. I have friends who would be full after one Scotch egg, and others who could eat a platter full. The amount of food needed in the stomach to slow down the absorption of alcohol varies from person to person.

If we were looking for an average though, let’s say we were to split the calorific difference between a Scotch egg (around 300-340 calories) and a Cornish pasty (700-900 calories) we might get to, say, an average of 500 calories (a Ploughman’s or a cheese and tuna panino, but not a chicken fajita wrap) as the boundary between what’s substantial and what’s not.

But we’d be wasting our time.

The reason it doesn’t make sense is that it’s got nothing to do with the size of the meal

As pub operators have asked for clarification, more rules have been made up – sorry, made clear.

Firstly, you can’t have another drink after you’ve finished eating. This makes no sense at all. You can order your first drink when you order your food. You can also presumably order more drinks while you’re waiting for your food to be delivered to the table. These drinks will, by definition, be drunk on an empty stomach, the alcohol flowing straight into your small intestine and from there into your bloodstream within minutes. But once you’ve finished eating – when your stomach is at its fullest and therefore when you will absorb alcohol at the slowest rate – you’re not allowed to drink alcohol any more. Notwithstanding the fact that eating a meal can break down a small amount to the alcohol already in your system (but not enough to make much difference) this makes nonsense of the idea that these measures will have any effect in reducing the drunkenness that arguably wasn’t going to be there to begin with.

Secondly, it seems the calories are only substantial if they come from the pub’s own kitchen. Wet-led pubs that have takeaway menus allowing you to order from nearby pizzerias or chips shops have been informed that these meals don’t count. Neither are you allowed to take your own packed lunch to the pub, no matter how substantial it is.

One bit of good news, however, is that, despite some contradictory messages over the last week or so, the official guidelines state that “pubs that don’t normally do food may enter into a contracting arrangement in order that they are able to do so and remain open.” There’s no detail offered beyond that, and I’ve heard that some taprooms have been told the money must got through the pub’s till rather than the food provider’s, but with a bit of jiggling, it looks like, for example, tap rooms that have arrangements with food trucks could remain open.

The “substantial meal” rule has absolutely nothing to do whatsoever with slowing the absorption of alcohol into the bloodstream. Trying to define what counts as “substantial” via calorie counting or physical volume – as a reasonable person would – is a waste of time because it is absolutely irrelevant to the definition of a substantial meal. The Scotch egg thing is simply a side-show.

You know perfectly well what the rules are

Obviously then, many pubs set to enter Tier Two have been seeking clarification on what is going on – only to be told they already know. This was a consistent line across several interviews yesterday, when ministers were asked what constitutes a substantial meal.

“There is, to be serious, there is a well-understood definition of what a substantial meal is,” said Michael Gove, seconds after demonstrating that this was emphatically not the case, in what is sure to become known as #ScotchEggGate. The PM’s spokesman with whom he was disagreeing also insisted that “Bar snacks do not count as a substantial meal… It’s well-established in the hospitality industry what does.”

As confused publicans urgently seek clarification in order to determine whether they can reopen or not in Tier Two, desperately trying to avoid breaking the rules if they decide to, the government’s response is basically that old stereotype of a passive aggressive argument in a relationship:

“What’s wrong? Why are you angry?”

“You know why.”

“No I don’t. What have I done?”

“You know very well what you’ve done.

“If I knew, I won’t be asking, would I?”

The pub industry is asking what constitutes a substantial meal, only to be told it knows perfectly well what a substantial meal is, even though the government can’t agree with itself on what counts as a substantial meal.

This is not a stereotype from a relationship. This is not the argument you had with your little brother when you were twelve. This is the British government, guiding the country through a pandemic while trying not to crash the economy. Makes you want a drink, doesn’t it?

Reading a little more closely though, and we can see not only what they’re talking about, but why.

Are you sitting comfortably?

According to the Covid-19 winter plan, “Venues that serve alcohol can only remain open where they operate as if they were a restaurant, which means serving substantial meals (and accompanying drinks).”

This is where the phrase “substantial meal” comes from. This is why it’s important. It’s got nothing to do with the speed of alcohol absorption; it’s saying effectively that pubs are not allowed to operate as pubs: they are only allowed to operate as if they were restaurants.

The guide goes on to define a substantial meal as “a full breakfast, main lunchtime or evening meal”. Eat your Cornish pasty (with side salad, obvs) between noon and 3pm, and it counts. Between 4pm and 5pm, I’m guessing it doesn’t.

As well as the time of day, the key thing that makes a meal substantial or not is how it is served. When George Eustice was bullshitting on the hoof, what he actually said was, “I think a Scotch egg probably would count as a substantial meal if there were table service.” (my italics).  

This is why bar snacks, packed lunches and takeaways don’t count. If a pub behaves as a restaurant, customers remain seated and have table service on plates (I’m guessing boards, baskets and those wanky miniature shopping trolleys count here too) of food cooked in the restaurant kitchen. As ministers continue their public argument about Scotch eggs, the one thing they’re all consistent on is that it has to be table service. People have to be sitting down and have their food brought to them. The pub must behave as if it were a restaurant.

From this, it seems the “pubs must behave as restaurants” wheeze is all about restricting movement around the pub. That’s fair enough. But before Lockdown 2, pubs were already table service only. If you wanted to move around, you had to put on a mask. If you didn’t have a table, you couldn’t be served. So the substantial meal rule is designed to create a situation that was already in place. Unless there is good reason to believe that the previous regulations were not working – and I’ve not seen anything that suggests they weren’t – the substantial meal rule is not just devastating, not just nonsensical, but also completely unnecessary.

So why is it being introduced?

There have been suggestions of a conspiracy to destroy pubs, driven by the neo-prohibitionists. While I’ve written about their skullduggery many times, I don’t believe they’re behind this. With most conspiracies, where you suspect some secret organisation behind the scenes, it’s really just crap people fucking things up.

As it dishonestly claims to “follow the science,” this government has in reality allowed public opinion to guide its Covid response to a significant degree. The strategy of leaking ideas for Covid measures to mates in the press, and then gauging the response before deciding whether to implement them, is both cowardly and grossly irresponsible, but it has been the consistent strategy of Johnson’s government throughout the pandemic.

We occasionally hear nonsensical sentences like “We’ve got to close pubs to keep schools open,” as if allowing people to go for a pint makes kids more likely to come home with Covid after double maths. What it actually means is that all Covid restrictions are unpopular, but the public will accept some before others. Going to the pub is seen as a luxury – a sin even – especially by people who never go to pubs and have no idea what they’re like. The government has to be seen to do something. And we’ll just about accept pub closures because, despite my protestations to the contrary, it does make logical sense to some people that we might behave more irresponsibly after a drink (but not if we buy it from Tesco of course.)

The substantial meal rule came in simply because it sounds like a tough restriction, one that seems to make sense, even though the logic we all might assume actually has nothing to do with the decision. The lazy-arsed thinking behind such a cynical move also led to them to not think it through properly, and not bother to come up with a coherent set of answers to questions people were obviously going to ask.

That’s the problem with being lazy – you just create more work for yourself down the line.

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| Pub closures, Pubcos, Pubs

Tom Kerridge: sharing the plight of pubs in a way everyone can relate to

Saving Britain’s Pubs with Tom Kerridge started its four-week run on BBC2 last night. I was asked to interview Tom about the series for the Radio Times, and got a sneak preview. He brings out the human stories behind the stats better than anyone.

Photo: Ellie Kynaston/BBC/Bone Soup Productions

There’s a moment ten minutes into the first episode of Saving Britain’s Pubs with Tom Kerridge where the viewer’s emotions are flipped, as if someone has performed a metaphorical judo move that leaves you momentarily flat on your back.   

Tom is eulogising the great British pub, or as he calls it, “the neighbourhood’s living room,” as he heads for the White Hart Inn in Chilsworthy, Cornwall. This award-winning country pub – it was CAMRA’s Cornish Pub of the Year in 2019 – has stunning views down the Tamar Valley, excellent food, a mouth-watering range of local beers, and most of all, the lively atmosphere generated by landlady Amy. Amy is a human dynamo who, if she had to, could probably pour you a perfectly kept pint, cook your dinner, host the pub quiz and change a barrel in the cellar all at the same time. 

Tom looks on in wonder, his grin a mile wide, like he’s just found his new local. And then he sits down with Amy, (who only took over the pub with her partner Ian in 2017) to talk about how business is going.

At first, she’s as bright and focused as she was behind the bar, and then suddenly she says, “Oh. I’m going to get emotional”, and collapses into the kind of racking sobs that only come from total despair.

Hang on.

We know how programmes like this work: a famous TV celebrity goes into businesses that are failing. We, as viewers, get a vicarious thrill from observing how crap some of these places are. Jesus, even we could do better! Gordon Ramsay’s entire schtick is built around pretending to throw up some horrible food prepared in a filthy, rat-infested kitchen by some idiot foolish enough to let the cameras in.

But the White Hart, along with the other two pubs in the first programme (the Prince Albert in Stroud and the Golden Anchor in Nunhead, South London) are perfect pubs, run by people who clearly love what they are doing and know how to do it. How can these pubs be in trouble?

Each business has its own issues, but if there’s a common theme running through all four pubs in the series, it’s that the people running them need to add a keener, shrewder business eye to the the long list of talents they are already displaying in running pubs that are popular, but not profitable.

The remedies may not always got down well with the regulars: the first thing Tom tells the Prince Albert to do is put up the beer prices. The domino players nursing one beer all night in the Golden Anchor are shifted to the back room to make way for the craft beer-drinking hipsters who are gentrifying the local area. And the White Hart is turned into a building site, somehow remaining open and doing its best to keep brick dust out of the punter’s pints.

But when I spoke to Tom, the first problem he brought up was the pubco tie. Although I’ve written about this issue many times over the last ten years or so, both here and in the trade press, I generally try to avoid it these days because even if I write a piece attacking the tie, as far as anti-pubco campaigners are concerned I’m attacking it in the wrong way. No matter what I say, I get scorn and often abuse from campaigners, because I just don’t understand the issue, apparently. This is the same reason why most of my fellow beer writers avoid the pubco tie altogether – they feel it’s just not worth the hassle. (According to some campaigners, though, the real reason none if us write about it is that we, along with various trade press titles and bodies such as the Office of National Statistics, have been paid off handsomely by the evil pubcos to keep quiet.)

Whatever side you’re on, Tom Kerridge does understand the issue – his own three pubs are subject to the same tie as any other Greene King tenant. “The business model is supposedly that you pay inflated prices for beer in return for a cheaper rent than High Street rates. But it doesn’t work out like that, and it’s not sustainable,” he tells me on the phone (speaking about the tie generally rather than his own situation.) Interestingly, he tells me he feels “we’re now rapidly finding that those rents will be very much decreasing” thanks to Covid.

The pubco tie is the most complicated issue I’ve come across as a writer on beer and pubs. On the TV programme, Tom Kerridge presents it, without allowing his genuine anger to cloud the issue, as clearly and persuasively as any campaigner could hope for, in a way that is clear to BBC2 viewers and persuasive to mainstream journalists.

Anti-pubco campaigners, we beer writers are never good enough for you even when we try. I say this without any snark or hostility intended: Tom Kerridge is the man you need to make meaningful change.

Saving Britain’s Pubs with Tom Kerridge is on BBC2, Thursdays, 8pm.

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| Covid, Pubs

Covid resurgence: why pubs are not the problem

As numbers rise, so do emotions surrounding the pandemic. So let’s look at hard data, shall we?

We live in a post-truth world. Whatever you want to believe, you can find support for it online. If data doesn’t exist to support your argument, you can just make it up.

The other day I posted this tweet:

As you can see, it got quite a few likes and retweets. It also attracted derision, disagreement, and personal insults.

In the ensuing debate, several people posted the pie chart above. I retweeted it, and then regretted doing so. The chart appears to prove a point I want to believe, but there’s no source quoted, no context. Someone could have just made it up.

So I did some digging, and here are the results. TL;DR – it’s bang on.

Each week, Public Health England publishes a Weekly Coronavirus Disease surveillance report. It does only cover England. It uses data collected from a variety of sources, chiefly coronavirus cases confirmed by laboratories, plus a mix of “syndromic surveillance” using real-time health data from sources including GPs and hospitals and the internet.

The resulting data covers confirmed outbreaks of acute respiratory infection incidents where an outbreak of two or more cases (Covid-19, influenza or other respiratory pathogen) linked to a particular setting, plus situations where an outbreak is suspected but not yet confirmed. The number of incidents reported in each setting is defined by there being at least one laboratory confirmed case of Covid-19.

These are the numbers for the four week period covered by the latest report:

And given that this is a four-week period, here is the percentage of total incidents that have occurred in the latest week of that period:

So what does this tell us?

Care homes are still ground zero for Covid. Given what we know from the peak of the first wave, this is unforgivable, but that’s not the point of this post.

Schools and workplaces together account for 36% of all cases, while food outlets and restaurant settings account for just under 8% of the total.

Pubs aren’t even broken out as a separate category. They are either a fraction of the 8% within the broader food outlet/restaurant setting category, or a subset of “other”. Given that PHE has separately released Covid guidance relating to “restaurants, pubs, bars and takeaway services”, it seems safe to assume that this is the grouping they’re referring to in the above category.

Obviously, the vast majority of education-related infections happened in the final week of the period because schools weren’t back in August. This data is broken down by different types of establishment, and shows that secondary schools are responsible for more than half of all outbreaks, followed by primary schools.

Almost half of all workplace related infections happened in the previous week, suggesting that the “back to work:” initiative being pushed by government at the start of September has had a signifiant impact on new cases.

Obviously some outbreaks are related to pubs, restaurants and “other”, but the lower percentage in the final week suggests these cases are spread more evenly across the month, and are therefore steadier.

I understand that this is an emotive issue. To people who are concerned about their kids’ education or about keeping their jobs, pubs may seem like a trivial thing to worry about. Also, I do believe the rules are insane: it’s mad that you can’t socialise in some other places, be with your partner as she gives birth to your child, or go to a football match, but you can go to a pub. It’s understandable that pubs will attract some resentment because of absurd rules they had no say in drawing up.

But the data shows that pubs are not a significant location for Covid-19 infection. They are a subset within 8% of total infections. Closing pubs or placing further restrictions on when they are allowed to open will have no meaningful impact on reducing the spread of Covid. There is no logic in the idea of “let’s close the pubs so kids can still go to school.”

Also, it’s never useful to generalise among all pubs. There are plenty of anecdotal stories of pubs that are not implementing social distancing rules or of people behaving irresponsibly. Some pubs are just shit – they always have been. But many pubs have gone to enormous lengths to reopen safely and are operating in a safe and responsible way.

Governments of all political persuasions have a long history of implementing measures on pubs and drinking because it makes them look like they are taking action, and because the public will tolerate it. Beer duty is often referred to as a “sin tax” – this is something we enjoy, it’s a bit naughty, so we probably should be taxed or regulated on it. In 2010, a Mandatory Code on behaviour in pubs legally banned the “Dentist’s Chair” drinks promotion, despite there being no evidence anywhere that such a practice actually existed in pubs. It made the government look tough on binge drinking, when it actually solved nothing.

So today the government will once again “get tough” on pubs, which are already on their knees, while the crisis in care homes goes virtually unnoticed, and everyone pretends schools aren’t the problem because, unlike pointless, nonsensical curfews, there is no easy solution or quick win to the real issue of where Covid-19 is spreading.

| Beer, Brewing, Media bollocks, Pubs

An update on TOTAL lockdown beer sales

In May I debunked misleading media stories implying that people were turning to drink during lockdown. I only had data up to the end of March. Now I have it to the end of May. Here’s a brief summary, followed by some comments.

When we were looking at March data for beer sales versus the same period last year, we had to bear in mind that we were looking at half a month where people were starting to avoid pubs because of fears of Covid, and half a month where pubs, restaurants, hotel bars etc. were on mandatory lockdown. The figures didn’t represent a full month of lockdown. Now we can see what that looks like.

In April and May, on-trade sales were obviously down -100% versus 2019.

Off-trade, sales were up by +39% in April, lowering to +25% in May.

That adds up to TOTAL beer sales being down -24% in April and -30% in May.

Add up total beer sales in March to May and compare it to the same period in 2019, and volume sales are down 22% overall.

So just in case you see any further reports trying to claim that we were boozing our way through lockdown, if we were, we weren’t doing it on beer. 

Breaking it down, ale fared far worse than lager: total (i.e. on-trade plus off-trade) ale sales were down 31% in March, -58% in April and -59% in May, whereas total lager sales were down -10% March, -15% in April, and -22% in May. 

Some observations on this…

One, as lockdown progressed, we drank less.

It’s worth noting that weather is a key factor in beers sales, particularly for lager. April was unseasonably warm and sunny, but May was a scorcher, officially the sunniest calendar month on record. Yet beer sales were lower in May than in April. One possible reason for this is that panic-buying early on in lockdown meant we bought less as it went on. Another is that we simply started getting out of the habit of drinking beer in the absence of the on-trade. But based on the weather, we should have expected sales to be better in May than in April.

Two, Lockdown has hit small, independent craft brewers and cask ale brewers far harder than Big Beer

Ale fared so much worse than lager because ale skews far more to the on-trade than lager does. Before lockdown*, supermarkets and off-licenses already accounted for around 55% of the lager we drank, whereas with ale, we were still drinking 70% of it in pubs, and only 30% at home. In volume terms, if my sums are correct, while ale had an 18% share of total beer sales before lockdown, it has accounted for 38%% of the total beer market volume loss during lockdown.+ Stout is counted separately. Together, ale and stout used to account for 22% of total market volume, and have taken 48% of the total volume loss.

This is the most worrying aspect for fans of craft beer and cask ale. Ale is far more skewed to small, independent brewers than lager is. The vast majority of lager is brewed by giant multinationals. So here is incontrovertible proof that while all brewers have suffered due to the closure of pubs, and while Britain is drinking significantly less overall, lockdown has hit craft and cask ale brewers far harder than it has Big Beer.

SIBA’s survey of their membership during lockdown was based on a smallish sample of their members and didn’t use audited data, so I always thought (or rather hoped?) that their claim that, on average, SIBA member brewers’ sales were down 82% was overly pessimistic. Having looked at total market data and broken it down like this, I now suspect it’s pretty close to the mark.

Now lockdown is easing, things don’t look much better. It seems that, despite predictable media sensationalism about “Super Saturday”, only half of pubs have reopened so far. Those that did reopen are seeing trade pan out at half its normal level. 25% of pubs cannot open viably even with social distancing reduced to one metre. These are smaller pubs, particularly micropubs, which are more skewed towards ale and craft beer than the average pub.

To really rub salt into the wounds, smaller and wet-led pubs got nothing from the chancellor’s mini-budget that reduced VAT on food sales and incentivised eating out, but provided nothing to support beer.

So please, if this upsets or concerns you, why not get online, or go to the pub if you feel safe doing so, and buy some beer from your local craft/cask ale brewer? They need our custom now more than ever.

For more detailed insight on the future of post-pandemic craft beer, with some light at the end of this long tunnel, check out this summary of my report on Craft Beer After Covid.

*For “before lockdown,” I’ve used figures for total beer sales for the calendar year to December 2019.

+ Calculated by working out total beer volumes March to May 2019 and comparing it with total beer volumes March to May 2020.

Data taken from BBPA sales audit.

| Beer, Craft - An Argument, Patreon, Pubs, Uncategorised

Craft Beer after Covid: Glass half-empty, glass half-full

Last month I set up a Patreon in the hope that a modest regular income would allow me to spend time researching key stories in much greater depth than I normally can unless I’m being paid a consultancy fee. In the first of these deep dives, I’ve looked at the future of craft beer post-lockdown – from the perspective of being fresh from “Craft: An Argument” – and tried to draw some conclusions. This is a summary of that work, with a fuller report with stats and detail available to Patrons.

Seeing both sides of an argument is different from sitting on the fence. 

There’s no point trying to play down the huge negative impact of Coronavirus and the lockdown it necessitated. The hospitality sector has been hit worse than most, and within that, there’s a lot of evidence to suggest the craft sector, consisting mainly of small, independent businesses, will end up faring worse than the mainstream:

  • – Small pubs and micropubs will find it more difficult to reopen than larger chains.
  • – While some small, independent brewers have done well with online sales and (free) local delivery, overall small brewers suffered an 80% drop in volume during lockdown and 65% had to close.
  • – The lack of sufficient notice that 4th July would definitely be the reopening date did not give small brewers enough time to prepare.
  • – With lower capacity, pubs are likely to reduce the number of lines on the bar – in fact they’d be wise to.
  • – Big brewers are giving huge support to pubs, including thousands of pints of free beer. Helpful to pubs, yes, but likely to pressure small brewers off the bar even further.

There will be a colossal short-term impact. Businesses are going bust and people are losing their jobs. They’ll continue to do so.

But that’s only half the story. 

While I wrote “Craft” during lockdown, I deliberately avoided speculating on what lockdown might mean for the craft beer movement, because that would have dated it quickly. In the book, I look beyond the issues of ownership and independence that have come to dominate the debate over what is and isn’t ‘craft’. 

The recent boom in craft – in beer and beyond – is a reaction to a mix of factors including the 2008 global financial crash, the spread of superfast, handheld mobile computing and communications, open plan office culture, the growing degree to which algorithms dictate our decisions and behaviours, the arrival of Artificial Intelligence, and the ongoing creep of corporate dominance and homogenisation in all aspects of our lives.

These factors combine to create two separate but related themes that drive craft. One, the personal need to do more with our hands than tap or swipe; to engage with the world around us in a more meaningful, physical way, and two, the desire to escape the corporate rat race, to live better, to be better, to be more fulfilled. 

If we can’t do these things personally, we console ourselves with actively choosing products from people whom we believe have done it on our behalf, and live vicariously through them. 

There have been many changes in lockdown, and we see some of them as positive. Almost all the positive ones feed directly into this narrative around the broader idea of craft. If, before lockdown, we wanted to reject a bland, boring mainstream, to slow down, to experience life more vividly and personally, to support local businesses, to be kinder and more compassionate, to reject the open-plan, “computer says no” office environment, lockdown has not only heightened those desires – it’s shown that it is possible for all of us to act on at least some of them.

Those craft brewers that survive the short-term hit will face an environment that, while remaining subdued, will be far more in tune with the principles that motivate the brewers, retailers and drinkers of craft beer than it was pre-Covid. At the moment, it seems that the underlying motivations and themes that make craft beer so appealing to an ever-increasing number of people are being strengthened by people’s experiences. For all its negative effects, for all the death and hurt the virus has caused and for all the economic hardship to come, lockdown was time-out, a chance to reflect. 

Stripped of the daily commute, the constant travel, the endless crowds, the noise and spectacle with which we usually fill our lives, we’ve had the chance to discover – or re-discover – what really matters to us. We’ve realised that, while this state of affairs is far from ideal, there are some good bits. 

Craft brewers – rightly or wrongly – are generally perceived as, among other things,  smaller and more independently-minded, more progressive in their attitudes, kinder, friendlier and more collaborative than their corporate, industrialised rivals, more face-to-face in their communications, more physically engaged with both the nature of their work and the communities they exist within and do business with. All of this has become more appealing as a result of lockdown. 

The future – eventually – will be bright. 

The full report is available on Patreon to anyone who signs on at the £3 tier or above. (While it’s a regular monthly subscription, you’re perfectly free to sign just for a month and then cancel.)

Craft: An Argument is available here on Kindle and here as a print-on-demand version. The audiobook will be ready as soon as the drilling stops outside my house.

| Pubs, The Pub: A Cultural Institution

An Ode to the Pub

Today I was asked by BBC Radio 4 to write and record a short piece for the World At One about pubs, and the news that they are due to reopen on 4th July. If you missed it, or you enjoyed it and want to read over it again, here’s what I said, with an extra intro that was cut for length.

I loved pubs before I could even say the word. 

One of my earliest memories is of being held in someone’s arms in a space that glowed with polished brass. It was also red and green with Christmas decorations, and everyone around me was laughing so hard their cheeks shone too. 

I didn’t know why, but I understood that these people – my parents and their friends – were happier here than I’d seen them anywhere else.  

The British pub is so much more than a place to buy drinks. For a nation that’s famously awkward socially, every aspect of pub life is designed to break down social barriers and bring us together. For much of the last thousand years, the pub is where we’ve socialised with friends, met spouses, celebrated birthdays and weddings, and said goodbye to loved ones.   

The pub is where we play – darts, dominoes, board games, quizzes – and most of the sports we love originated either in the pub or on the village green just outside. 

George Orwell celebrated the pub as part of the informal cultural network that we choose for ourselves rather than having our leisure pursuits chosen from above. 

His 1946 essay, The Moon Under Water, remains the best thing I’ve ever read about pubs, despite spending twenty years trying to write something better. Orwell’s pink china mugs, liver sausage sandwiches and barmaids who call you ‘dear’ may sound archaic now, but the congenial spirit they create – where as a punter you feel not just like a customer, but a stakeholder in the establishment – is still present in ways Orwell would recognise. 

So when pubs were ordered to close on the 20th of March, it felt like Coronavirus was attacking not just our bodies, but our very culture and the bonds that tie us together. We knew it was coming, and on my last visits to the pub, I drank in their everyday routine, their pace and rhythm, as lovingly as I sipped my beer. 

I’ve enjoyed many great beers under lockdown, supporting my local breweries by buying from them direct. But nothing is quite like a freshly poured pint. The weight of the glass, cooling your skin. The bubbles rising. And the first hit at the back of your throat, clearing the dust and cobwebs of the day. 

The only thing that makes this better is being somewhere with others enjoying the same experience, a silent moment of communion with friends you’ve known for years, or even friends you’ve only ever met in your local, knowing that you’re sharing a moment that is simultaneously normal and banal, yet also marvellous to a degree where you might just remember it for the rest of your lives.

You can hear the programme here. I’m on at 42 mins…

| Pub closures, Pubs

Economies of Ale Part Two: How the Pub is Evolving

Earlier this week I blogged about the new ONS data which shows an end to – or at least pause in – the decline in pub numbers. Digging deeper into the research, here are a few more facts and wrinkles the data reveals.

The pub is entirely a product of British culture. It is a fundamental cornerstone of British society – no longer as absolutely central as it once was, but still a key trait that identifies us a nation, to ourselves and others.

As I said in my previous post on the new ONS research (and first said in Man Walks into a Pub) as a creation of our culture, the pub reflects ourselves back to us. As our culture and society changes, so must the pub, if it wants to survive.

The core of the ONS research has been put together from data on licences provided by local authorities, so we can break it down to see what happens in different parts of the country, making some informed guesses about what’s driving these changes. There’s also some other data sources they’ve used to add some colour to the picture. Here are a few snippets that I find particularly interesting.

We’re not really drinking more at home – we’re just drinking less in the pub (even though we’re eating out more.)

Numbers about the on- versus off-trade are usually presented as percentage split: in 2000 we drank 34% of our total beer at home, and 66% of it in pubs, bars etc. In 2018, we only drank 46% of our beer out of the home, and 54% of it in-home. It would be reasonable to assume then that we’re swapping pints in the pub for cans on the sofa.

But when you look at it in terms of what we actually spend, the amount we’re spending on drink in the home hasn’t risen anywhere near as much as the amount we’re spending in pubs had fallen. In fact, we’re spending the same proportion of our income on alcohol for home consumption now – when in beer terms, that accounts for 54% of all the beer we drink – as we did in 2001, when it accounted for 34% of all the beer we drink.

Wine makes up a bigger proportion of what we drink at home. Also, when we eat out – which, as you can see, we’re doing a lot more of – we’re also more likely to choose wine over beer. That’s why wine now accounts for 31% of all the alcoholic units we drink, up from 25% in 2001, while beer has fallen from 47% to 36% of what we drink over the same period. So the whole debate around the supermarket pricing of beer is less important for pubs than we might think – we’re not swapping pub beer for supermarket beer; we’re drinking less beer, and more wine. If we want to stop beer’s decline, the best thing to do would be a lot more work positioning beer as a good accompaniment to food.

Pubs are getting bigger, and employing more people

Having just looked at the difference between percentages and absolute numbers, what’s interesting here is that both tell the same story: the overall number of pubs has fallen massively. But the number of large and medium-sized pubs has actually grown. In 2001, three-quarters of British pubs employed fewer than ten people. A massive four out of ten small pubs have disappeared so far since then. Given that these are the pubs we often think of when we imagine the British pub – the quiet, cosy little boozer – this means the picture is even scarier than we might have thought.

But overall, the data shows just how wrong people are getting it when they talk about the death of the British pub, as opposed to a fundamental change in its character. Large pubs (employing 25 people or more) have almost doubled in number over the period, more than doubling their share of the market. The knock-on effect of this is that even though we have far fewer pubs than we used to, there are now actually more people working in pubs than there were in 2001: 457,000 now, compared to 439,000 then. The average pub now employs twelve people overall, compared with eight in 2001.

Both this increase in overall employment and the increase in the average size of the pub can be explained by food: in 2003, 43% of people employed by pubs worked behind the bar, compared with 28% working in food service (which includes chefs, cooks, waiters, waitresses, and kitchen and catering assistants.) Now, fewer than one in three pub staff work behind the bar, but 44% work in food service.

The picture is massively different across the country – but this has more to do with what a place is like than where it is.

The picture of pub closures this century is almost universally grim – but not quite. Out of 391 local authorities included in the data, 358 have seen a fall in the number of pubs there, while 16 have seen no change, and 17 have seen a growth in pubs – in some case, substantial growth. We can infer quite a bit about the dynamics of the market by looking at both extremes.

The worst-hit boroughs are an absolute bloodbath:

  • Barking and Dagenham has lost 67% of its pubs between 2001 and 2019
  • Newham has lost 57%
  • Luton has lost 55%
  • Burnley has lost 53%

Why? Well, one thing all these areas have in common is that they have a high proportion of ethnic communities who for religious and cultural reasons don’t drink alcohol. Over the course of the 21st century, while the ethnic population as a whole may or may not have increased all that much, the children of people who moved there earlier have grown up and replaced a cohort of young people who used to spend a lot of time in pubs with a cohort of young people who don’t.

But that’s not the only reason. 7.2% of adults in Barking and Dagenham are unemployed – almost double the national average. A further 31% of working adults earn less than the London living wage. In Newham, unemployment is 6%, while 32% of people earn less than living wage – the highest rate in London. The figures are similar for Burnley and Luton, and also for places like Bolton, Blackburn and Barnsley, where unemployment is higher and wages lower than the national average.

But even this doesn’t explain the full picture: places like Croydon (52% of pubs lost) and Slough (50% of pubs lost) also feature in the worst-hit areas. Croydon is commuter central, and Slough has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country. But these are the kinds of places where ‘development’ has seen real estate prices shoot through the roof, and chains displacing small, independent businesses. Economic boom and economic slump: both have been bad news for pubs over the last twenty years.

But as I mentioned, there have also been winners:

  • West Somerset has seen a 25% increase in the number of pubs – the most of any region in the UK. Numbers have also grown in the Scottish Highlands and stayed stable in the Western Isles, confirming that tourism plays a key part in keeping pubs alive. This gets even more apparent when you split the data by number of pubs per capita. West Somerset, the Cotswolds, South Lakeland, the Derbyshire Dales, North Devon, West Dorset and Stratford-upon-Avon all have more than one pub for each person who actually lives there, and have only seen a fractional fall – or an actual increase – in the total number of pubs.
  • The London Borough of Hackney has the third biggest growth in the number of pubs of any borough in the country. It’s surely a coincidence that the number of pubs in Hackney has grown by 23% since I moved here in 2001 – but not entirely so. This is a borough that has gentrified, but not too much – at least not yet. When I moved here, a large number of Windrush-era, elderly Caribbean people were selling houses they had bought for nearly nothing to younger, more affluent middle class people, and retiring back to the sun to buy mansions and hillside estates with the proceeds. Property prices ahve now increased at least five-fold, but since then, there’s been a huge influx of Millennials and Gen-Z renters who can never hope to buy here, who live crammed into flats where living rooms have been turned into extra bedrooms, many with flatmates rather than best mates, and so they spend most of their money out of the home, in coffee shops, pizzerias – and pubs. Take the piss out of the hipster sitting ostentatiously at the window in front of their laptop all you like, but in some parts of the country, that hipster is keeping pubs alive.

So what can we learn from all this? The deeper you dig into the data, the more clues it reveals. Some of the inferences I’m making may be off the mark, or I may be missing something big, but even if that’s the case, I think the one thing that is beyond doubt is that it would be foolish for anyone to make sweeping generalisations about the nature and causes of Britain’s pub decline. The picture looks different wherever you go, and even where the picture is similar, when you look at the demographics and economics in a particular place, the reasons for pub closures may be quite different. And so, wherever you look, the solutions are probably different too.

If you want to check how your borough compares with the national average, just click here.

I’ll close this long, statty blog with my favourite quirk from the data, which, if you’re feeling sadistic, would form a perfect pub quiz question or two:

Q: Which local authority in the UK has the highest number of pubs per capita?

A: The City of London, which has an incredible nineteen pubs for every person who lives in the borough.

How does that happen? Well, between 500,000 and a million people work in the City of London, but fewer than 10,000 actually live there. At 6pm on a weekday, every single pub is standing room only. By 9pm, most of them are closed and shuttered for the night.

Here’s a follow-up:

Q: Which local authority has seen the steepest fall in the number of pubs per head this century?

A: The City of London. In 2001, there were TWENTY-SEVEN pubs for each person who lived there.

What happened?

In 2007, there were still 26 pubs per head. In 2014, that number hadn’t really fallen the financial crash – which you might ave expected ton have seismic effects – didn’t make any difference to the boozy habits of the financial sector. But maybe the long-term repercussions did.

From 26 pubs per head in 2014, the number collapsed over the next five years to 19 in 2019 – the sharpest fall of anywhere in the country, by some way. And while perhaps few of us can muster up much sympathy for the people who first caused the financial crash and then profited handsomely from it while most of us still remain worse off than we were before, the reasons behind this massive fall show how quickly social engineering can take effect: I blogged in 2017 about how Lloyds of London had just made lunchtime drinking a sackable offence. This was obviously just part of a broader shift in attitudes that sees alcohol becoming a bugbear – even as we are drinking less, we perceive it to be a greater threat than ever. That has just happened in extremis in the City. Combined with the kind of ‘development’ that is seeing any hint of personality, individuality and local history erased by characterless steel and glass tower blocks, each with its own mandatory Tesco Metro, Costa Coffee and Pret à Manger, we can see that the biggest, swiftest decimation of pubs can always come from an angle no one is guarding. That’s ‘progress’ for you.

| Pub closures, Pubcos, Pubs

Is The Moon Under Water Finally Getting its Head Above the Surface?

The Office of National Statistics says the number of pubs in Britain has grown for the first time since 2007. Surely that’s got to be good news?

Talk about shooting the messenger, then chopping the messenger up into tiny bits, then burning those bits, and pissing on the messenger’s ashes.

Last year the Office of National Statistics (ONS) launched their ‘Economies of Ale’ report into the changing numbers of British pubs. It painted a gloomy picture that we were used to, but I spotted an interesting quirk in the data. It showed that small, independently owned pubs were closing faster than larger pubs owned by the big pub companies. So I wrote a column pointing out that, if this was the case, the big pubco tie can’t be the main reason for pub closures – not if pubs that have nothing to do with the pubcos are closing faster than pubco-owned pubs. That’s simple logic. It’s not to say the pubco tie isn’t a factor in closures, but it can’t possible be the main factor.

Not for the first time, the piece was given a misleading headline by the sub-editors, which didn’t accurately reflect the tone of the piece. And as few people these days bother to read beyond the headline, if you follow the debate around pub closures at all, you can guess what happened next.

According to my social media feeds, my story was proof that the ONS, the whole British Guild of Beer Writers, the entire UK national media and most of all, me personally, were involved in a vast conspiracy and were being paid off by the likes of Ei Group (formerly Enterprise Inns) and Punch Taverns. I had been paid thousands of pounds by the pubcos to write this piece. I was apparently performing sexual favours on the chief executives of these companies, and I was actively supporting their actions in the pub market because I hated pub tenants and lessees and the businesses they ran. I absolutely loved big corporate CEOs because, in ways that were never made quite clear, their actions benefited me professionally.

The people who wrote these comments remain hurt and bewildered that most beer writers refuse to engage with them.

Anyway, twelve months on, and the latest Economies of Ale report paints a more optimistic picture. The total number of pubs in the UK has grown for the first time since 2007. Not only that, but while the trend towards bigger, urban pubs remains, even small pubs – those hardest hit by the lethal cocktail of factors driving pub closures – have shown fractional growth.

The total number of pubs increased by 315 from 2018 to 2019. This represents an increase of 0.8%. The number of small pubs (employing fewer than ten employees) increased by 85 – a 0.4% increase.

Now, a friend of mine has pointed out that when you dig right down into the data, rounding numbers in individual regions may mean this very modest increase is even smaller than it looks. It’s also worth noting that the modest increases in 2003 and 2007 – the only other years this century with a net increase – did little to alter the overall downward trend that’s seen more than a quarter of British pubs disappear in the last twenty years.

But rather than quibble about the size of the rise, what’s more important is that the number of pubs hasn’t gone down.

Every time new pub closure figures are announced, news outlets just love to run stories about ‘the death of the pub’. To be fair to them, people do care more about pub closures than they do about say, cask ale, and these stories always bring the phone lines and comments pages to life. But I always get the impression that there’s bit of glee in sharing the doom and gloom.

I’m often invited onto radio shows to discuss the issue, and my line is always clear: the pub has been around for a thousand years, and it isn’t about to disappear in the next twenty or thirty. But pubs reflect the society they are part of – always have – and as that society evolves, so must the pub. We now have so many more leisure alternatives than we used to have and less leisure time to spend on them, so the pub can’t possibly retain the utterly dominant position it once had in British culture. That doesn’t mean it’s dead – as a society, we still love our pubs – but we need fewer of them than we once did, because we go less often. What we’re witnessing now is not a terminal decline, but a correction.

It’s just my opinion. But ONS numbers would seem to bear it out. If we change the scale of the graph above, we can see the movement more clearly.

That massive, horrible drop between 2007 and 2013 was the result of a clusterfuck of negative factors: the smoking ban started in 2007, the global financial crash happened in 2008, and in response the then government thought it would be a good idea to punish an already reeling industry with the beer duty escalator, which helped the total tax burden payable on beer rise by 40% in four years.

Them, from 2014 onwards, the decline slowed dramatically. I wouldn’t be surprised if numbers did fall again in the next two or three years, but unless something else catastrophic happens (can you think of any looming economic disaster this year? Nah, me neither…) then I reckon pub numbers will, overall, stay pretty constant around this level from now on.

That’s not to say pubs don’t need fighting for, or that can all just relax now. The world has changed and pubs will continue to face stiff competition from coffee shops, casual dining, Netflix, X-box and a whole host of things that weren’t really around twenty or thirty years ago. But we appear to be over the worst. This data was launched last Thursday, and no one has yet asked me onto a radio show to discuss the death of the British pub.

There’s a lot more interesting stuff when you dig down into the data. Later this week, I’ll blog again on some of the interesting quirks and wrinkles on what it tells us about how the pub is evolving, and how the picture changes across the country.