Tag: Pubs

| Books, Pubs

New Book: ‘The London Pub’ – out today!

Hoxton Mini-Press collects beautiful old photos thematically. I was delighted to be asked to write the intro for a gorgeous new collection on London Pubs, published today.

What’s better than reading about pubs? Looking at gorgeous, evocative photos of pubs (while also reading about them.)

Hoxton Mini Press is an independent publisher based in East London. They make collectable photography books, based mainly, but not exclusively, on the people and geography of East London. I find they make phenomenal last-minute Christmas presents for people you want to impress.

From their website:

“In an age when everything is virtual, the book 
as an object is more important than ever. But all too often 
big art books are aloof and expensive. We want to 
make books that both the collector and the non-
specialist can enjoy – and that everyone can afford.”

This new book is a collection of photographs of pubs from about 1910 to some time in the early 1970s. I was delighted when they asked me to write the introduction – about 1200 words commenting on the importance of pubs in London life – and some of the captions. Here’s an extract from the intro:

“London has always been a diverse city brimming with strong characters. It breeds people with a thirst for life, and acts as a magnet for thirsty people born elsewhere. Throughout the twentieth century, they made the city’s pubs blaze with light and life. 

“Everyone is here: Pearly Kings and Queens revelling in the spontaneous subculture they have created; sailors home on leave; courting couples stealing kisses over tables full of empty glasses; sharp-suited men from the Caribbean introducing their music and dance moves to their new neighbours; old ladies holding court, staring down the myth that pubs were male-only spaces. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards prop up the bar like two blokes at the end of a hard day at the office. Suzi Quatro takes time out from being the Queen of Rock and Roll to play a game of snooker. Teddy Boys hog the juke box while men old enough to remember the Boer War play pool. Meanwhile, dogs wait stoically at the bar, and children hover somewhat less patiently just outside the door. “

And here’s a selection of photos.

You can order the book direct from Hoxton Mini Press.

| 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.

| Beer, Cask ale, Cask report, Craft Beer

What Ails Cask Ale? Part 3 of 3

Finishing off my analysis of the research I undertook for this year’s Cask Report, having looked at consumer and market dynamics, here are some thoughts about cask and the trade.

Photo: Frances Brace for Cask Report 1014

As part of my research for the Cask Report, in August I conducted a survey among publicans who stock cask ale. The results made curious reading, and took a bit of time to work out, but in terms of solving the issues cask faces in the trade, the answers are pretty simple. 

If you ask people to fill in a survey about cask ale, those who like cask are more likely to respond than those who don’t, so it would be wrong to draw any conclusion about the total market from our respondents – a significant majority said cask was becoming more important to their business, which clearly doesn’t tally with cask’s steep overall decline. What it does tell us though – and we have to be mindful of this – is that behind the overall decline, there’s a group of pubs that are genuinely prospering from cask – more on that later.

Taking those who say cask is becoming less important toothier business than it was, more of these pubs blame the rise of craft beer than any other factor. In their own words, craft in formats other than cask is what drinkers are demanding, because it is ‘interesting’, ‘varied’ and ‘colder’. A few also say that, for them, craft is more profitable and more consistent. 

But craft isn’t the only thing pulling drinkers away from cask. Many publicans cite the growth of craft spirits as a significant factor too. Some say the pubco tie stops them from getting the ales their drinkers demand, and importantly, a fair few say they can’t compete with local pubs where cask has become a speciality. 

It must be noted that for some pubs, the growth of craft beer more generally, irrespective of format, is helping cask ale. Among those who say cask is becoming more important to their business, by far the most common reason is growing consumer demand. Interest in beer styles and the growth of small, local breweries is driving demand for cask in places that do it well. 

When it comes to issues around quality, it’s very clear that messages around cellarmanship, perfect serve, training and engaging with drinkers are getting through. The problem is whether publicans and bar staff are acting on this information or not. Ask them if they’re aware of training, if they find it useful, if they know how long a cask needs to be on stillage before serving, how long it should remain on sale once tapped, and what to do if a drinker brings back a dodgy pint, and they know all the correct answers. The trouble is, compare these answers to market data, and publicans who say they sell a beer for three days are actually selling it for seven. Pubs that say they’re training their staff are not. And pubs that say they replace a dodgy pint without question are in reality shrugging their shoulders and saying ‘It’s cask, it’s meant to be like that.’

Why would publicans choose not to treat cask correctly when they know how to? I can only speculate, but I think it’s obvious, and have discussed it with other people in the industry who have reached the same conclusion. It’s tough running a pub. You’re working at least a sixty-hour week, probably more, and you just can’t get to everything you want to do, or should do. So that little bit of extra work on cask doesn’t get done.

John Keeling, recently retired from Fuller’s, thinks there’s one issue at the heart of all this: margin. “If you make less off a pint of cask ale than anything else, it’s going to come bottom of your list,” he told me. Keeling believes cask’s low margin compared to any other drink on the bar is why it doesn’t receive enough marketing investment, enough training, enough care and attention generally. 

This was echoed in my research. Some publicans even said they used craft beer and expensive spirits to subsidise the lack of profit from cask, just so they can keep cask on either out of love or for the reputation of the pub, such as maintaining a place in the Good Beer Guide.

There are of course exceptions to this. On my questionnaire, before we got onto the business side of things, I asked respondents how they felt about cask themselves. Now – I split the data by size of pub, by whether it was freehold, leased, tenanted or managed, whether or not it had Cask Marque accreditation, and there was little variation in the data. The one difference that was significant was when I compared publicans who said they personally adored cask and drank it themselves to everyone else. These were the guys for whom cask ale was making money, who put in the extra time, who trained their staff properly.

That makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? The people for whom cask is a vocation rather than just part of the job are those who have the greatest investment in cask being perfect. 

You see this playing out in other pubs. Some of those who said they struggle with cask cited the presence of a nearby cask ale shrine or micropub as the main reason. If you’re a typical boozer, you can’t compete with cask aficionados on range or quality. I have no solid data to back this up, but I suspect we’re starting to see cask drinking gravitate towards pubs that have a particular specialism in cask. If there’s one of those in the middle of a town, we’ll start to see cask disappear from other pubs near it.

So if we want cask to succeed, from a trade point of view, there are two options.

Firstly, if you’re a cask pub and you’re not that into it yourself, hire someone who is, to be a ‘cask champion’. Pay them a little extra for their knowledge and passion. Give them the leeway they need to indulge their passion. There are plenty of people like this out there, and cask is still recruiting new acolytes.

Secondly, if cask is to have a long-term future as a mainstream drink rather than a specialist niche, it needs a better margin, either from an increase in price or a reduction in duty. If pubs are making more from cask, they’ll look after it better. If breweries are making more on cask, they’ll invest more in promotion and marketing, and in quality control and technical support for the pubs they sell it to. Sort these issues out, and all the issues we previously addressed on the consumer side will start to fade.

So there we have it: seemingly simple on the surface, how to save cask ale for the nation in two easy steps. Let’s wait and see how that turns out, shall we?

|

Beer Cities’ Forum

I’m delighted to be doing one of the keynote speeches at the inaugural Beer Cities’ Forum, as well as chairing a British Guild of Beer Writers session with Roger Protz, Adrian Tierney-Jones, Frances Brace & Susanna Forbes in the afternoon. It’s the first of its kind and a great chance for people to learn about and discuss the very best beer cities and beer weeks in Britain.

| 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.

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Cask ale is booming as part of the craft beer revolution – new Cask Report launches today

Every year I’m paid to compile the Cask Report on behalf of Cask Matters – a loose affiliation of brewers and industry bodies including SIBA, CAMRA, Cask Marque and most of the leading regional and family brewers in the UK. The eighth report launches today to coincide with the start of Cask Ale Week.

Success makes people nervous, and with some justification. When you’re struggling on your way up, as a business, or as a person or organisation putting forward a point of view, argument or campaign which you hope will change hearts and minds, you know very clearly what you have to do: get your head down and keep plugging away, working steadily towards your goal.

When you succeed, what then? Is your job done? Do you need to redefine your goals? Is it true to say the only way is down? Now you’ve achieved, is someone going to come along and try to take it all away from you?

Until about two or three years ago, the aims of the Cask Report were very clear: persuade publicans and commentators around the beer industry that cask ale was not in terminal decline, that it had a role to play on the pub bar, that it had something to offer drinkers beyond the traditional stereotypes.

Now, the job has changed. There’s little point banging the drum that cask ale is successful. Whether they accept and believe it or not, people have heard this before. The questions now are, how does cask ale deal with success? And given that all the chatter in beer now focuses on craft beer, does this mean cask ale’s days are numbered? What’s the relationship between cask ale and craft beer?

Here are a few summary points from this year’s report that attempt to answer these questions.

1. Cask ale is still thriving
Cask ale volume sales grew by 1.1% in 2013 and 1.4% so far in 2014. If those sound like small figures, bear in mind that total on-trade beer volumes fell last year – cask ale is doing 4.5% better than beer in pubs overall. And when you bear in mind that cask ale is only really available in pubs, and 31 pubs a week are closing, for it to be growing in a declining market is some feat. More people are drinking cask ale and pubs are stocking a wider range of beers. But big volume drinking is declining. More people are drinking a wider variety of beers, but doing so less often as healthier lifestyles become more common.

There are two different estimates of the number of breweries now in the UK, but the British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA) puts the number at over 1470 – more than at any time since the early 1930s. Three new breweries open every week. And while craft keg is booming – 19% of SIBA’s member breweries claim to be producing some keg beer now – the vast majority of microbrewery beer is cask.

The number of styles being brewed is increasing:

There’s more good beer available now than at any time in living memory.

I’ve also heard a few people say that craft keg is killing off cask ale, that you rarely see cask in good craft beer pubs these days. That’s not reflected in total market figures. The craft keg surge is not enough to stop cask increasing its share of all draught ale versus keg – over the last decade, their relative positions have reversed.

2. Cask ale and craft beer are not the same thing, but neither are they entirely separate – there is a pretty big overlap
It’s increasingly popular in beer geek circles now to say that craft beer is over as a thing – that the only people who use the term are big brewery laggards seeking to cash in on an exploited, used up trend.

You might think this, but there are millions who disagree with you. They might not know what the definition of it is, but according to Mintel six million UK adults think they’ve drunk craft beer in the last year.

We did a survey where we asked cask ale drinkers and publicans serving cask ale the same or similar questions. Craft has pretty widespread awareness and acceptance among both:

They have some pretty definite views on how to describe craft beer even if they don’t know how to define it. Views that craft beer has to contain loads of hops, be served on keg only or be influenced by American styles are only held by a minority. The main characteristics of craft beer, according to the majority of people who drink it, are that it is made by small brewers, or brewed in small batches or limited editions, or is only available in limited places.

We can see that people decisively reject the idea that any cask ale is by definition a craft beer. But the overlap between cask and craft is strong. The top three characteristics here apply just as much to most cask beer as they do to craft keg. Furthermore, the most popular format of craft beer is draught dispense – that’s how 80% of craft beer drinkers have tried it. Cask is still far more widely available than keg, and a lot of drinkers claim to be drinking craft cask beer.

There’s a lot more to say on this, which I’ll expand on in a separate blog post in the next day or two But the message of the Cask Report is clear: most cask ale is craft beer, and (in the UK) most craft beer is cask ale.

3. The pricing of cask ale relative to craft keg beer is dangerously screwed up
There are factors in the production of craft keg beer that mean it is more expensive to make than cask ale. But the current differential between the two is way bigger than this would dictate. Wide variations in the price of craft keg beer reveals that there is a degree of opportunism on the part of some licensees. Example: there are two pubs near me that sell Kernel Pale Ale on keg. It costs £4.80 a pint in one, and £6.50 a pint in the other. (And before the Fair Pinters kick in, neither is tied to a pubco.) On average, data from market analysts CGA Strategy hows that craft keg retails for over £1 a pint more than craft cask.

This automatically positions craft cask as hugely inferior to keg. Whatever your preference, as a blanket statement this simply isn’t true. It’s also worth noting that where the price of craft keg is lower on average – guess what? – pubs sell more of it.

This massive price differential damages the quality perceptions of cask ale. It limits sales of craft keg. And the hyper-inflation of craft keg pricing pushes it dangerously close to being seen as a cynical fad rather than a permanent shift in the market – when the novelty wears off, what reasons will drinkers have to pay £6 a pint instead of £3.80? Craft beer publicans need to think about sacrificing short term profiteering in favour of long term market development. I repeat – yes, there is a justifiable price premium. But it’s currently too wide.

4. Drinkers don’t know how much goes into serving the perfect pint of cask
Drinkers are far less likely to appreciate the relative difficulty of serving cask beer than are publicans.

Drinkers also believe that bar staff receive much less training around keeping and serving cask beer than publicans claim:

On every single aspect of the perfect cask ale serve, publicans claim to be training staff more than drinkers believe.

So are publicans exaggerating the extent they care for cask, or are drinkers unaware of how much hard work goes into it?

It’s probably a bit of both, with the emphasis on the lack of knowledge among drinkers. Higher prices mean people expect a more premium product. If drinkers are educated more about what goes into cask ale they’ll think of it as more special and will drink more of it and potentially be happy to pay more for it.

So education is key to cask’s continued success – but so is good training of bar staff. One interesting point coming from our research is that we also asked what promotional tactics work in selling more cask ale. In answer to that question, 81% of publicans said that personal recommendations by bar staff were the most important way of selling more cask ale. Yet in the graph above, you can see that only 57% of publicans say they encourage their staff to taste cask ales so they know more about them. How can bar staff be expected to recommend ales they know nothing about?

5. Publicans don’t necessarily know their drinkers
We’ve been saying for years now that the old stereotypes of real ale drinkers no longer apply. CAMRA membership has increased from less than 60,000 ten years ago to over 170,000 now. It has nearly trebled. The number of middle-aged beardy men wearing socks and sandals and carrying leather tankards on their belts has not. Cask ale is reaching a broader audience. 15% of all cask ale drinkers tried it for the first time in the last three years. 65% of these new drinkers are aged 18-34. A third of all female alcohol drinkers have tried cask ale. Of these three-quarters say they still drink it at least occasionally.

Whenever we ask drinkers about the old stereotypes, they’re disappearing. But we get a different view when we ask publicans:

If as a publican you don’t think women are into cask ale, or you don’t think it’s for younger drinkers, and if you don’t position it to appeal to them, you’re immediately cutting off more than half your potential audience.

Summary
There’s a lot more in the report, which is free to download from the link above from late this afternoon. But these are the points that stick with me after weeks of writing, editing, summarising and debating.

We are in the middle of a beer revolution in Britain, and cask ale is at its heart. It’s brilliant that the whole craft beer thing is moving the debate about what makes good beer away from packaging format and towards style, flavour, where it comes from and who makes it.

But I had a tweet this morning saying that all this was ‘bollocks’, that craft beer was just keg beer with better PR. And I also hear far too many people automatically excluding the entire cask ale market from any discussion about craft beer. Now that really is bollocks. We should be celebrating what a brilliant time we’re in for good beer in any format, and making sure that these different formats complement each other if we want to ensure their long term success.

Disclosure: The Cask Report is a paying gig for me and I write it on behalf of cask ale brewers and interested bodies. While it always looks for the positive news on cask, it is honest and accurate. I never distort or excessively spin the facts, and I never write anything in it that does not reflect my own personal views. 

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Crap Beer – it’s the future

Friday, late afternoon. Stranded in Chesterfield waiting for The Beer Widow, who is attempting to come up the M1 from London to meet me before we go on to the Great Peak Weekender at Thornbridge. The journey will eventually take her seven hours (it should take no more than three), so sitting in Chesterfield station’s dispiriting concourse isn’t an option. 
I follow signs to the town centre and walk for about ten minutes without seeing a single shop, pub, restaurant or commercial premises of any description. I’m dragging a suitcase. It starts to rain, hard, and I’m getting desperate. There is no one on the streets: it’s like 28 Days Later, only less pleasant.
Eventually a find a pub. In the window it advertises a ‘wide range of cask ales’. I smile to myself and go in. On the bar there are just two handpumps: one serving Doom Bar, the other Greene King IPA. But there’s a half pint glass over the GK pump, so my ‘wide range’ consists of Doom Bar. As I occasionally do at times like this, I order a pint of Kronenbourg. It’s utterly undrinkable, so I drag my suitcase back into the rain.
A little further down the street, I spy a Marston’s logo outside another pub, the Crooked Spire. Oh well, a pint of Pedigree will do. I walk in. Once again, there are just two handpumps on the bar. They look like they haven’t been used for some time. It’s not that the pumpclips are turned around: there are no pumpclips at all. The keg fonts are Budweiser, Becks Vier, Strongbow.
“Do you have any cask ale?” I ask.
“No,” replies the barman. 
“Do you have any Marston’s beers at all?” I follow up.
He just shakes his head. 
For only the second time in recent memory, I say apologetically that I’ll have to try somewhere else because there’s nothing on the bar I want to drink.
I walk a little further, starting to feel desperate, and finally I find the Blue Bell, advertising not just cask ales, but also craft beers on a permanent sign just outside the door. Relieved, I go inside.

The whole pub stinks of BO. Undeterred, I walk to the bar. Here is the standard selection of two handpumps: this time Hobgoblin and Jenning’s Cumberland Ale. The weighty pump clips suggest they are permanent and unchanging. I look along the bar for the craft keg fonts. Finding none, I scan the fridges, but there’s only Bud, Becks, Bulmer’s and Koppaberg.

“Are you looking for anything in particular?” asks the very friendly barmaid.

“There’s a sign outside saying you sell craft beer,” I reply.

She looks confused. “Sorry?”

“Craft Beer?”

“What? CRAP beer?”

“No, CRAFT beer.”

“Oh. What’s that?”

“There’s a sign by the door saying you sell it.”

“I’m sorry love, I don’t even know what craft beer is. I’ve never heard of it.”

“I think they mean that,” says one of the regulars at the bar, pointing to the Hobgoblin. 

But that would come under cask ale. They say they sell both craft beer and cask ale outside, I want to say. But I’m too confused. Could it be that someone who works here has never read the signage outside the front door? And why is it there anyway? 
“I’ll have a pint of Kronenbourg thanks.”
*

Over an excellent weekend at Thornbridge, I’m informed by many people that Chesterfield has some brilliant pubs selling a fantastic range of beers. I have absolutely no reason to doubt them. I just managed to pick a very unlucky route through the town centre.

On our way back home on Sunday, we decide to try again, and find a nice country pub on the outskirts of the city that advertises food served from 12 noon to 3.30pm. It’s now 2.30pm. The pub is about half full – certainly not busy.
“I’m sorry, we’ve run out of food,” says the bar person.
“What, no food left at all?”
“No, absolutely none.” 
Some pubs simply don’t deserve to stay in business. And I really need to get my pub radar fixed.