Category: Pubs

| 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.

| Beer Books, Beer Writing, British Guild of Beer Writers, Events, Miracle Brew, Pubs, Radio, Writing

So Farewell Then, 2017

I don’t really do Golden Pints. But here are some reflections on the year that just sped past without anyone noticing while we were all gazing at our smartphones. First there’s a personal look back at what 2017 meant to me, followed by a transcript of a speech I gave at the annual Beer Writers’ Dinner on 29th November, which touches on some broader themes. It’s a bit long overall, so you might just want to read one part or the other, but if you’ve got this far, you’re probably feeling bored and it should fill a few minutes before you hit the pub again. 

My weight-limit-busting haul from the Hill Farmstead brewery, Vermont, October.

The personal bit

I feel increasingly guilty that, as the rest of the world goes to shit, with all the best people dying, and hatred, intolerance and wilful ignorance given free rein, I’m doing OK, thanks! 2016 was the worst year I could remember in world terms but was great for me professionally, and 2017 has been a similar follow-up. My year has been dominated by books: the paperback release of 2016’s The Apple Orchard,  the hardback release of Miracle Brew (my first straightforward beer book since 2009), extensive touring in the UK and North America to support that book, and the research and writing of my follow-up to The Apple Orchard, my ninth, as-yet-untitled book, now overdue, and the project that will be claiming every waking minute of January 2018. The Apple Orchard was shortlisted for many awards but didn’t quite win any, whereas The Pub: A Cultural Institution, also released in 2016, was named Fortnum & Mason Drinks Book of the Year. Reader, we partied.

(Along with some of the other winners from last year I’m judging these awards this year. Find out more and enter your work here.)

I also joined the editorial line-up of of Original Gravity magazine and had great fun helping shape the direction of the UK’s only independent beer magazine. Exciting times ahead on that. We ran the Beer and Cider Marketing Awards for the third time (first time with cider included), for which I chaired the judging, as I did for this year’s Guild of Beer Writers Awards after being named Beer Writer of the Year in 2016. I was delighted that Adrian Tierney-Jones won. (I was also delighted that, with Adrian being a friend, I didn’t express my preference until every other member of the judging panel had had their say, and they all said ‘Adrian’.)

Between all that I managed to fit in quite a few trips to breweries. A few days in Belgium in March included tours and chats with Rodenbach and new Flemish brewery Verzet.

The massive barrel-ageing hall at Rodenbach, producing the sharp, tangy beer Michael Jackson once called ‘the most refreshing beer in the world’.

… and the more modest barrel ageing room at Verdett, where each barrel is named after one of the brewers’ favourite rock stars.

In June a group of us did a whirlwind tour around Bristol, organised by people who were keen to convince us that the city was one of the most exciting beer destinations in. the UK. They succeeded in their task.

The illustrations on Bristol brewer Lost & Grounded’s beers all fit together into one big picture and magical set of characters. It’s clever, warm, funny, and strangely moving. Oh, and the beer inside is pretty amazing too.

In July I was invited back to speak at Beer Boot Camp in Johannesburg and Cape Town. The brewing scene there is developing at a ferocious rate. It’s madly exciting. And within seconds of arriving at their beautiful brewery, the Aegir Project became one of my favourite breweries in the world.

Wonderful, imaginative beers brewed and drunk in a location you’ll never want to leave.

October saw my North American tour, during which I got to visit Hill Farmstead, one of the most interesting and talked about breweries in the world. I found a balance in my views on New England IPA, possibly the most divisive topic I’ve seen in my time as a beer writer. (Apart from cask breathers. And the definition of craft beer. And brewery buy-outs. And a whole bunch of other stuff.)

Hill Farmstead – the most talked about brewery in the world? When we were there, people were queuing up for growler refills two hours before the doors were due too open. And it’s a two-hour drive from pretty much anywhere else.

The breweries that have impressed me most this year are Wiper & True, especially for their English saison; Lost & Grounded for their creativity, rigour and flawless Belgian Tripel; Verzet, for their overall vision and their Flemish brown; and Siren, for consistently combining experimentation with class to create beers I’m excited to drink. There have been many more doing great stuff too, but that’s my top four.

I’ve done scores of events and met loads of brilliant people. The highlight has to be presenting my Beer and Music Matching show to over a thousand people at the Green Man Festival in August. I still regularly do events where only three people turn up. That keeps you humble. But this one was at the other end of a very wide scale.

Thank You, Green Man.

Pub-wise, I was lucky enough to have Gracelands – a small pub company that runs some of the best beer pubs in London, including there King’s Arms in Bethnal Green – open a new site, The Axe, just five minutes walk from my house. The effect on my bank balance and liver has been alarming, but not only do they get hold of really good beers, they also curate them really well – the right balance is always on at the right time – and while they’re expensive, they don’t overcharge. If you’re ever in Stoke Newington, it’s unmissable.

The year ended with Miracle Brew receiving the best review I’ve ever been given, by no lesser august publication than the New York Times. That’s one to keep me going whenever the self-doubt kicks in – which is often. The same day the review appeared, I was on the Christmas edition of BBC Radio 4’s Food Programme, providing festive drinks for a dinner hosted by Sheila Dillon and cooked by and eaten with guests including Giorgio Locatelli, Yotam Ottolenghi and Angela Hartnett.

Merry foodie Christmas!

I have no idea how I got to be in a position where things like this happen to me. But I do know none of it would happen if people didn’t read what I write, or didn’t like it when they did. I know I don’t please everyone with what I do, and I’m absolutely fine with that. But if you do take some enjoyment from or interest in my writing, thank you so much for your continued patronage. If a particular idea or passage of writing, a recommendation of a beer or cider or pub, or a pairing of a beer with a particular dish or tune gives you pleasure, then I’m doing something worthwhile, no matter how small.

 

The review/reflection bit

It’s been a tumultuous, dramatic, fascinating year in beer. I did a short intro speech before I presented the awards at the annual Beer Writer’s Dinner on 29th November, in which I commented on some aspects of it, with a particular focus on where beer writing is going. A few people asked if they could get a copy of the speech, so here’s an edited version. 

What a year it’s been! Another year of dramatic developments in beer with so much to write about.

People say it can’t carry on, but we’ve had yet another year of declining numbers of pubs, declining beer volume overall, coupled with a dramatic increase in the number of breweries brewing and beers available to drink.

As the pressure and competition grows, we’re seeing the sustained trend of takeovers of craft breweries by bigger corporates – sorry – I meant to say ‘partnering with like-minded business colleagues among the brewing fraternity’ apparently.

And like those proverbial Japanese soldiers lost on a desert island who don’t realise the war is over, some of us are still lost in the woods trying to find a technical definition of craft beer.

If do you want a precise technical definition, be careful what you wish for.

CAMRA of course, have a very tight and precise definition of real ale, which is precisely why they’ve spent the last two years trying to revitalise now we’re in a globalised world of excellent beer, wondering if they’re about cask ale, good quality beer more generally, saving pubs, or acting as a sales promotion agency for Wetherspoons.

In 2017, beer writing has been characterised by discussions – robust discussions – OK, arguments – fierce arguments – OK fights – about all these issues, and more.

Given that we proudly call ourselves one of the friendliest, most sociable industries in the world – and I genuinely believe we are – it’s amazing how much we can find to argue about!

Cask ale for example. Is it good enough? Is it expensive enough? Is it cheap enough?

After dipping my toe in this issue back in January, I’d like to say now on the record, categorically, that cask ale is great and there is absolutely nothing wrong with it. It has always been great, it is always great now, and it always will be great, and Paul Nunny, could you please just give me some proof that my wife and dog are safe and well, and will be released soon like you promised. Thank you.

More recently we’ve had very public spats about New England IPA, a beer style that’s created civil war among craft beer fans. On one side there are those who think this is an absolute joke of a style, an affront to brewing tradition, a product of Instagram culture and the first solid evidence that craft beer might be getting too faddy for its own good.

And on the other side, I suppose there are some people who must disagree with that for some reason.

Just this week, we’ve seen an online spat between people on one side, who think beers using sexist imagery to sell themselves should be banned for beer competitions, and people on the other side, who are dicks.

And then there’s a seemingly intensifying spat about the ethics of beer writing.

If a beer writer gets sent beer for free, can their opinion on that beer be trusted?

If a beer writer gets invited on a trip – a junket, sorry – to a brewery and is entertained, can any of their opinions be regarded as valid?

If a beer writer falls down in a bar and there’s no one there to hear it, do they make a sound? Or do they just Instagram it instead?

But these arguments, these spats, are important, at least up to the point where social media amplifies them and twists them into something nastier.

The role of the Guild is ‘to extend the public knowledge and appreciation of beer and pubs and to raise the standard of beer communication’.

Much of the time, that means celebrating beer, educating our readers about it, finding the good stuff and getting it to a wider audience.

But that doesn’t mean the guild is some provisional wing of the beer industry’s PR machine, providing gushing coverage of whatever that industry decides to do, in the terms the industry wants. We shouldn’t just be cheerleaders, breathlessly parroting the industry’s agenda.

Like any other industry or interest, beer needs to be scrutinised, analysed and occasionally held to account.

And so do we, as writers.

Beer writing has expanded so much in the last twenty years, and we as writers must now think carefully about what role we want to perform.

Not a single one of us can be an expert in every single aspect of it. You can’t be a newshound, and a flavour expert, and have an academic knowledge of the history of brewing, and be an industry analyst, and have a perspective on alcohol policy, and an in-depth knowledge of global beer styles, and be an effective campaigning voice for cask ale, all at the same time. It’s not possible.

And that’s great! There’s room for specialisation in all those things, and the totality of beer writing is so much bigger and richer as a result.

The social media revolution has made us all communicators about beer, and while I personally believe writing will always be the most important and effective part of that, the broader landscape is hugely exciting. Even if we want to write, we have to start thinking about photography. We may find out voices are more effective, or get a different side to them, on podcasts or radio, or even in person, at live events.

But there are risks in this brave new world.

Social media has the potential to make narcissists of us all. Badly-lit bottle shots and a hundred hash tags on an Instagram post do not extend the public knowledge and appreciation of beer. Self-indulgent blog posts describing in detail about how you swapped a bottle of Cantillon Geuze with someone in Vermont for a bottle of Hill Farmstead’s Society and Solitude #10 making you the only person in Britain to have a bottle don’t represent a raising of the standard of beer communication.

(And anyway, I’ve got a bottle in my fridge at home that I bought when I visited the brewery last month so screw you, you ticker.)

Whatever channel you’re communicating in, the basic rules of old-fashioned journalism still apply. As your reader or viewer, make me care. Take me somewhere. Tell me a story.

All tonight’s winners have succeeded in this mission, have told compelling stories about their subjects in fresh ways that engage readers, listeners and viewers.

Each judge on the panel is an expert of some kind, but probably not in what the entrant is writing about. They probably don’t know the entrant, and may never have read their work before, and next year their places will be taken by someone new.

So if you think it’s always the same old names being shortlisted in the same categories year after year, this is not because judging is some kind of cosy old boy’s network. It’s because those people’s work appeals fresh, every year, to a different set of judges who may not have read them before.

Conversely, if you’re someone who has entered several different categories with work you’re really proud of, and you haven’t been as successful in getting shortlisted as you hoped – this is not a referendum on your worth as a beer writer. At no point have the judges sat down together and decided to shun you this year. Your work in each category has been judged independently of every other category. Believe me, we all have years where we feel like some of our best work has been overlooked, and next year might be completely different.

You can see the full list of winners here. Go check out some of their work. 2017 was a great year for beer, and a great year for beer writing. Let’s have it again in 2018.

Cheers!

| Books, Pubs, The Pub: A Cultural Institution

The Pub: A Cultural Institution

The first of three new books from me is out now. Sort of.

My book on pubs is officially released on 18 August, but it’s already been spotted in Foyles and Blackwells.

I was asked to do this book by the publisher – it was a scenario where they came up with the idea and had a shortlist of authors in mind for it. If I’d said no, they would have asked someone else. But I couldn’t say no.

We all know the format of this kind of ‘coffee table’ book. It looks beautiful. It’s not the kind of book you read from cover to cover. You pick it up and flip through it, lingering over the pictures. In some, the text is just there to put gaps between the pictures.

Like my and Bill’s book on cider, I wanted to make this book more than that. It had to be beautiful, it had to be a book you want to buy as a present for anyone who loves pubs. But I also wanted the text to mean something, for it also to be a book you did want to read cover to cover.

So it’s not a book that reviews pubs by the range of beers they have, what the food is like or whether they allow dogs. The internet is a far better place for that. The centre of this book for me are the fifty double page spread reviews of my favourite pubs.

It’s seventy years ago this year since George Orwell wrote The Moon Under Water and said that the single thing that defines a great pub is its atmosphere. So I set myself the task of trying to review pubs by their atmosphere. It’s a difficult task, because atmosphere is intangible, which is why few pub reviewers talk about what remains the single most important criterion by which we judge pubs.

 

I certainly didn’t succeed in reviewing every pub by its atmosphere – some of the reviews lapse into talking about history, location or beer range, although all these factors do contribute to atmosphere. But where I have succeeded, the reviews are short essays on what makes pubs pubs, little stories that pick up on and celebrate the legendary landlord, the role in the community, the eccentricities and legends that separate great pubs from other retail outlets.

As well as these top fifty, there are shorter listings of a further 250 pubs all across the UK, plus sections on pub history and pub culture. It’s pub porn, basically. Researching the book last year was an absolute delight. Sometimes we spent all day driving to a particular pub that had been recommended, and we’d get there and it would be worth every minute of the journey. It was brilliant going to places like Liverpool, having tweeted that I’d be there, and finding a posse of people waiting for me so they could show me their favourite haunts. Five days with a list of recommendations across Somerset, Devon and Cornwall was utterly magical, and the comedown at the end, when we visited  pub that was merely good as opposed to legendary, was startling.

There’s a lot of doom and gloom talked about pubs at the moment, with good reason. For the last decade pubs have been put through the wringer. This book doesn’t address that – it seeks to remind the reader why pubs matter so much in the first place.

The book is available for pre-order on Amazon and I imagine they’ll be shipping in the next couple off days. If you’re at the Great British Beer Festival today, I’m signing copies – unofficially – at the CAMRA bookstall at 3pm and 6pm.

| Pubs, Shakespeare’s Local, Southwark, The George Inn, The Tabard

Shakespeare’s Real Local?

A tantalising new scrap of evidence about the bard’s drinking habits has emerged.

The Tabard Inn, Borough High Street

When I wrote Shakespeare’s Local I upset some readers because I failed to prove the contention in the title of the book – that William Shakespeare drank in the George Inn in Borough High Street.

At a time when most people were illiterate, very little got written down. Information about Shakespeare’s life is so scant there’s not even really any evidence of where he lived when he was in London, let alone where he enjoyed a pint. When I wrote the book, there was not one single mention of Shakespeare ever having been recorded as being in any pub, ever.

And yet we know he did live in London for many years, even if we don’t know exactly where. And we know that unless he was a very unusual man for his time, if he lived in London he went to the pub in London. Because everyone did. Beer was safer to drink than water, and you had to go to the pub and get it. And if you wanted to sit back and relax with friends, there was nowhere else for most people to do that other than the pub.

In the absence of evidence, you can only make informed guesses – just because there’s no proof of something doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, so you have to construct the most likely scenario based on the soundest possible assumptions.

My argument in the book was that Shakespeare definitely worked in Southwark, where the Globe Theatre was, so it’s likely he lived close by – most historians believe he did. If he lived and worked in Southwark, he would have visited Southwark’s pubs. We know he was aware of the White Hart pub on Borough High Street, because he set a scene in one of his plays there. The White Hart stood next to the George, so he must have been aware of the George too. The George and its immediate neighbours were the most famous pubs in London at the time, which we know thanks to the meticulous work of John Stow, a contemporary of Shakespeare’s. It’s thought Shakespeare lived in the area for ten years. If he was going to pubs most days, it’s far more likely that he did drink in the George at least occasionally than that he didn’t.

On this, the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death (and the 452nd anniversary of his birth) I would love to be able to announce that new evidence has come to light that Shakespeare really did drink in the George. But in all my research on the place, it never quite works out like that.

I was indebted to an American academic called Martha Carlin when I was writing my book. She’s done more research on medieval Southwark than anyone else, and she recently contacted me to tell me that she’s found the first and so far only record of someone claiming to see Shakespeare in a specific pub.

Of course, it’s not the George. It’s the George’s next door neighbour. It always bloody is.

The White Hart stood to the left of the George on Borough High Street. Not only did Shakespeare write about it, Dickens used it as the location of a crucial scene in the Pickwick Papers. To the right of the George stood the Tabard. This was the inn which Chaucer used as the starting point for the Canterbury Tales. At the time he wrote those stories, he could have picked any of several inns lining Borough High Street. He could have chosen the George. Instead he chose its next door neighbour, immortalising the Tabard for ever as the birthplace of English literature.

The three greatest names in English letters, then, each of them associated strongly with the old inns of Borough High Street, each of them making their strongest link with the inns either side of the George.

Now, Martha writes, the words of an anonymous actuary writing in 1643 have been unearthed, describing “Some notes for my Perambulation in and round ye Citye of London for six miles and Remnants of divers worthie things and men”.

The author announces that his survey is intended “only to notice those places and things that have been passed by or littled [sic] mentiond [sic] by those greate Antiquaries that have written of this noble Citye and ye which places are fast ruining as the Tabard Inne and ye many houses of Priesthood old Monuments Halls Palaces and Houses of its greate Citizens and Lords and may be useful to searchers of Antiquitye in time to come.”

The Tabard Inn, like many of London’s great landmarks, is by now falling into ruin – so we learn that the lamenting the passing of great pubs is nothing new.When he gets to the Tabard, our anonymous correspondent writes, “Ye Tabard I find to have been ye resort Mastere Will Shakspear Sir Sander Duncombe Lawrence Fletcher Richard Burbage Ben Jonson and ye rest of their roystering associates in King Jameses time as in ye lange room they have cut their names on ye Pannels.”

So graffiting the pub was nothing new either!
Unfortunately, Shakespeare’s vandalism of the Tabard was lost when the inn burnt down along with the George and the White Hart, in the great fire of Southwark in 1676. All three were rebuilt the following year. The George is the only one that has survived until today.
So the Tabard – already already famous as Chaucer’s Local – now has a far better claim to be Shakespeare’s Local than its neighbour.
But thanks to this find, we now know that Shakespeare really did go to the pub in Borough High Street. Did he and his fellow ‘roysterers’ ever do a crawl of the great inns? Did he graffiti the George as well as the Tabard? Most likely, we’ll never know. The idea of the group of players carving their names into the panels suggests, to me at any rate, that they were regular visitors who wanted to leave their mark. It makes perfect sense that Shakespeare would choose the Tabard because of its associations with Chaucer, placing himself in a great literary tradition. But did he only ever go to the Tabard, and never to the pub next door? I find that hard to believe.
The point is, the George is the only one of those great inns to have survived the coming of the railways. The Tabard, as well as the White Hart, fell into ruin because they were up for sale for years and no one wanted to buy them. By the time the Tabard was finally demolished, it looked like this:
The Tabard, 1870s
The George was the only one of the great inns to escape this fate, the only one that’s still there to write about and to visit. The main reason it did so was thanks to an extraordinary landlady who used every means at her disposal to keep it going as the inns either side were being pulled down – including telling outrageous lies and exaggerations about its associations with Dickens and Shakespeare to attract tourists and build fascination with this last survivor.
Let’s just say I make no apologies for having sympathy with her aim.