Friday, 15 July 2016

Crystal ball road test

When looking up my piece about the English Ethnic Restaurant, I came across an interesting set of speculations about the future of pubs and beer that I wrote for the fifth anniversary of my Opening Times column in 1998. So let’s see how the ensuing eighteen years have answered these questions...

  • Will nitrokeg make such inroads into cask beer that it becomes the standard beer in most pubs? Or can real ale continue to hold its own? The jury is still out on this one...
    No, it didn’t, although in many areas it has effectively eradicated real ale from working-class boozers. It wasn’t helped by rapidly acquiring something of a naff image, although, when first introduced, the original 5% Caffrey’s was very trendy and dangerously moreish. I don’t actually think “craft keg” will achieve this either.

  • Will the next recession finally bring about the oft-foretold cull of pubs - as it is obvious that many pubs are even now struggling along on very thin trade?
    It took the smoking ban to do that, but it certainly has been a massive cull.

  • Will the apparently inevitable reduction in the drink-drive limit lead to an upheaval in pub-going habits, and a tidal wave of closures, or just give a slight boost to existing trends?
    To widespread surprise, this didn’t happen at the time, and hasn’t since, except in Scotland, although changing attitudes amongst new entrants to the drinking population have brought about many of the predicted effects anyway.

  • Will we ever get full measures legislation?

  • Can CAMRA continue to be a broad-based consumer movement, or will it metamorphose into what is essentially a club of beer connoisseurs drinking niche products in niche outlets - something of which there are already clear signs today?
    It did manage to bring about the end of the duty escalator, which benefited all beer drinkers. But in many areas it does seem to concentrate on handpump-counting and the pursuit of obscurity, and largely ignores ordinary pubs used by non-enthusiasts.

  • Will the risks to bar staff of passive smoking lead to pubs being forced to become basically non-smoking, with the option of a separate smoking area? And how will this affect single-room pubs?
    The outcome here exceeded even my worst fears. It’s notable how at the time the worry was how smoking curbs might affect one-room pubs. Even in 2005, few seriously expected a blanket ban, and this certainly wasn’t in Labour’s election manifesto of that year.

  • Will the gap between British and French beer duty ever be reduced, or will Gordon Brown carry on screwing the British beer drinker regardless of the wider consequences?
    No and Yes. And we all know what the result was.

  • Or will the European Union start taking an interest in alcohol from a health standpoint (as it does with tobacco) leading to upward, not downward, harmonisation of duties?
    Hasn’t really happened. The UK still pays 40% of all beer duty in the EU despite only drinking 12% of the beer. Of course it’s academic following the referendum, as they can now stick any harmonisation where the sun doesn’t shine.

  • Will the health concerns which have affected the tobacco industry now increasingly be redirected at the drinks trade, making 1997 in retrospect the high water mark of a liberal licensing and taxation climate?
    Yes, with a vengeance, although the high water mark was probably the implementation of the 2003 Licensing Act in 2005.
Another point I made at the time was “Who would have imagined that half the pubs in the country would now be stocking more varieties of real ale than they can turn over properly?” I’d say that’s now well over 80% - choice has comprehensively trumped quality.

So, overall, not such an inaccurate set of speculations.

Incidentally, for those reading this on mobiles, don’t forget to answer my poll on allowing under-14s into the bars of pubs.


  1. On smooth bitter, it's noticeable how quickly it's become dominated by one brand and how it's become an old codgers drink. Boddies & Caffreys were heavily promoted at young people. These days you only ever see 50/60/70 year old blokes drink smooth, and its always John Smiths. Other brands have died tho still appear in cans in supermarkets.

  2. Agree with all that, and comment on moreishness of Caffreys, my beer of choice before conversion to Pedigree in 1995.

  3. John Smith's is undoubtedly the market leader and the genre-defining beer, but you still see nitro Boddingtons, Tetleys and Worthington around, not to mention GK IPA. Tetleys is on tap in most Hydes pubs, and Worthington retains a strong following in Wales and the Borders.

    You are entirely right that it's become a codgers' drink, although apparently US crafties are now experimenting with nitro, so it will spread over here before too long.

  4. Caffreys. Very smooth to drink, and unexpectedly strong. Dangerous stuff.

  5. Can CAMRA continue to be a broad-based consumer movement?

    Was it ever?

  6. or will it metamorphose into what is essentially a club of beer connoisseurs drinking niche products in niche outlets

    I always thought that's what it was - sampling beers up and down the country.

  7. CAMRA was brilliant in the 1970s and the early 1980s, what I think of as its "punk" period, and it pretty much won the war. Not sure what it is now.

    1. Not sure CAMRA knows quite what it is itself either

    2. And perhaps as part of the Revitalisation Project it really needs to decide on which side of the divide it stands.

  8. In the 70s and early 80s, CAMRA very much did stand up for the working man's pint. What started the rot was the rise of the multi-beer freehouse.

    Now most of the members spend all their time in the multi-beer pubs and hardly ever go in the normal boozers unless they have to.

  9. CAMRA has become decadent IMO. Having won the war to keep proper beer, whether you want to call it boring brown bitter or not, it seems to seek after strange beers, massively hopped or flavoured with outlandish stuff like mangoes which don't belong in beer. Me, I'll stick with a decent pint of brown bitter in a normal pub.

  10. Have to say I enjoy a beer with a tropical fruit and bitter hopped presence. They appear very popular too.

  11. The beards are "a club of beer connoisseurs drinking niche products in niche outlets" but so what? Lots of people form clubs for like minded people. No more daft than a knitting club or book club or what have you. It's when they pretend to be a campaign they get silly.

    1. Yes, don't pretend to represent all beer drinkers if you don't even represent all bitter drinkers.


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