This article was published in issue 573 of PubPaper
Let me allay your concerns, I will not covering the decline of the British pub in the last 5-10 years, this topic has been covered by every man and his goldfish over the last few years, and needs no more clarification from me. What interests me is the current decline and rise of the public house and associated industries which is happening at the same time within different sectors of the market. It seems that quality in both drinking establishments and the product consumed seems to be finally appreciated over the mass marketed beer which still dominates the market, although to a lesser extent now. and premises which undertake the cheap and normally not cheerful model.
An article in the Observer dated 12th September reported that real ale’s market share within pubs grew last year, only by 0.2%, but when taken into the context of the £17bn annual spend in the UK, that equates to an extra £36m filtering down from the pubs to the breweries last year, money which is welcome to the 420 members of SIBA, the Society of Independent Brewers, and of their members it was the smaller breweries, who brew less than 350 barrels a week who saw the biggest growth in demand of 8.5% over the last year. However looking long term the best statistic for the industry is that people outside the traditional markets that are trying the product is rapidly increasing in numbers, with proportion of women who have tried real ale doubling from 16% in 2008 to 32% this year,and the proportion of 25-to-34-year-olds rose over the same period from 28% to 50%, according to CAMRA figures. Also the extended opportunities to sell your product through a major outlet such as Tesco, who increased its overall range of real ales from 20 to 350 in the past 5 years means you can reach a far larger impulse audience.
Looking at the local area, you can see that certain pubs are doing well, I hesitate to use the word flourishing in the valley of a recession. These pubs seem to be those who operate outside of the super breweries (such as Scottish & Newcastle and Carlsberg Tetley) control and their tied pubs. As an example, we can take Sowerby Bridge, look at the pubs which are doing well, Jubilee Refreshment Rooms, The Works, The Moorings, The Firehouse all excellent examples of establishments where money has been invested in both the building to make it welcoming and care taken to provide good real ale and serve it in excellent condition. You could say the same for the Big 6 at Saville Park, the Red Rooster and Old Ship at Brighouse, and the Cock of the North and Travellers Inn at Hipperholme. Different markets are targeted by these pubs, some have a heavy food element, while others dispense with that altogether, but the common element is their freedom to sell which real ale they want and good choice in exercising that freedom.
We’ve looked at the positive side, now lets look at the negative side of the demise of the tied pubs, if you can call serving less Fosters (or Carlsberg) and Stella Artois negative. There’s an old aussie joke about Fosters “What have Fosters lager and making love in a canoe got in common?”, answer “Its f*****g close to water”, and that’s offending water, at least water has a neutral taste which doesn’t have that slightly offensive aftertaste. These two beers are often sold in the same place, so if you want lager you have a choice of the water or a beer which has picked up a nickname related to a not totally happy home life. Where its not Stella, it will be Kronenberg, which although an improvement over Stella, its still isn’t a satisfying beer in most aspects. The ales normally on offer along side these is Tetley, Boddingtons (a decent mass market ale in my opinion) or if you are unlucky Greene King.
(Warning Greene King rant)
Many people may disagree with me over Greene King beer, but it is a very poor representation of our fine product. Its either bland or doesn’t taste right, and seems to me doesn’t keep well at all anywhere, even in a well managed cellar. I know people who like the beer, and as many again who dislike it as much as I do. I’ve known landlords of tied pubs who wouldn’t touch the stuff in their own pubs.
(Greene King rant over)
The demise of these pubs affects peoples lifes, landlords can lose their income and home when a pub is forced to close, and staff lose their jobs in a bad economy. The problem with tied pubs and mega chains such as the Enterprise Inns estate is that rents and beer prices are controlled centrally, and when the breweries start to lose profits, they hit the pubs with rent and beer price increases. If they see a pub is doing well they increase rent and prices. Customers are fickle and the forced price increases over a period can turn a successful pub into a candidate for closure. Combine this with lack of investment into the building and you have scenario which faced the Cock and Bottle at Bank Top over the last 3-4 years.
Free houses and pubs which have a free choice in real ales can adapt to the market and customers demands in what they drink, and don’t have to wait for the national company to make a decision. The tie is like dragging a weight behind the business and that is why they are being left behind.