I was a bit taken aback to see Ed on his Student Brewer blog referring to this as a golden age for pubs. At a time when pubs are closing left, right and centre, including the one at the bottom of my road, this is bit hard to accept, although it isn’t necessarily inconsistent that, despite an overall declining market, the best pubs are better than ever.
So I thought I would ask the question “In which year would you have most liked to be a beer drinker and pubgoer in the UK?” Below is a brief summary of the salient points of each year in the poll. Every year has its points of interest, although it’s hard to see why anyone would plump for 1971 over 1981, and 1951 might have historical interest but the general pubgoing experience would have been rather dismal to present-day eyes (although early results suggest it’s proving more popular than I might have thought).
1951: you can see the old-style brewing industry before the wave of takeovers and mergers. Pubs are quite busy as in the post-war world there’s not much else to spend your money on. However, many pubs are very run-down and beer quality is variable.
1961: the country is much more prosperous and pubs have been smartened up a lot, although high duty and the impact of TV have reduced custom. The first keg beers have started to appear in pubs, and bottled beer has become much more popular. There has been some consolidation of the industry, but the 1960s merger and takeover boom is still in the future. The last year in the series before the introduction of the breathalyser.
1971: the brewing industry has been transformed by the wave of takeovers that created the hated “Big Six”. It is three years since the breathalyser was introduced. Keg beer has become widespread and some areas are “real ale deserts”. However, the pub trade has boomed and sales are well up on 1961. This is your chance to see the industry before CAMRA came on the scene.
1981: this is just after the all-time peak of pub beer sales in 1979. There has been a marked increase in real ale availability, and in most parts of the country there is far more choice, although lager is now making serious inroads into overall sales of ale. The availability of decent food in pubs has greatly increased. Independent family brewers like Yates & Jackson and Border are still in operation.
1991: a dramatic expansion of micro-breweries has greatly widened the choice of beer, although a number of significant family brewers have been taken over. Lager has now overtaken ale as the biggest seller in pubs, but nevertheless handpumps are sprouting everywhere and this is possibly the post-1971 high point of real ale availability. After falling in the early 80s recession, pub beer sales have held up pretty well. All-day opening has now been introduced.
2001: further expansion of micro-breweries and specialist beer pubs. However, more independent family brewers have been lost and there is now evidence that anti-drink sentiment is depressing on-trade sales. Smooth beers have appeared on the scene and real ale has gone from many of the more marginal outlets. The trade has been transformed by the Beer Orders and the advent of the giant pubcos. Last year in the series before the smoking ban.
2011: Progressive Beer Duty has led to a further expansion of the micro-brewery sector. The UK has more breweries than at any time since the Second World War, and the range of beer brands and styles available is wider than ever before. There is a new wave of specialist beer pubs that are far more than just the traditional “multi-beer freehouse.” Pubs are now generally allowed to open after 11pm. On the other hand, the smoking ban has had a devastating effect on the trade of pubs in working-class areas, and there has been an unprecedented wave of pub closures producing growing “pub deserts”. The drinks industry is also under increasing attack from the neo-Prohibitionists.