Saturday, 8 October 2016

Turn the old man over

The argument is often made that, while we have lost many traditional pubs, they have to some extent been replaced by new-style bars. I’ve always thought that was a very questionable proposition, especially given that the new bars don’t tend to be the locations where the pubs have closed. It’s well worth repeating what I said back in October 2011:

For a start, the bars aren’t opening in the places where pubs have closed. In fact, they’re very much concentrated in middle-class urban enclaves. There may be a cluster in Chorlton, but they’re not spread evenly across the board. In recent years, the large Cheshire village of Helsby has lost two of its four pubs. Are there any new bars to replace them? What do you think? It’s not much use if you have to go eight miles down the road to Chester to find one.

Most of these new bars are targeted at the younger end of the market and have little to offer the more mature pubgoer. They don’t have the across-the-board appeal of proper pubs. And, although there are some honourable exceptions, most offer nothing of interest on the beer front. What is more, how can a small, boxy converted shop be regarded as any kind of acceptable substitute for an impressive Victorian or inter-wars building that was full of character and had served its community over several generations through a succession of licensees? Most will be fly-by-night operations with a limited lifespan and no continuity.

Realistically, the idea that the growth of new bars offers any kind of adequate replacement for closed pubs, except in very limited circumstances, is absurd. Chorlton is not representative of the rest of the world, and is very much the exception.

And I still entirely stand by that five years later. There has continued to be a steady movement between the two, with more and more proper pubs closing down, but trendy bars opening up in areas of high concentration.

There was a recent debate sponsored by the British Guild of Beer Writers where the proposition was “Are traditional pubs losing their relevance?” As shown in this report from What’s Brewing, CAMRA national director Andy Shaw certainly argued that café-bars were no substitute for community pubs.

There’s another aspect to it. A pub is something that is immediately identifiable and conveys a distinct body language that it somewhere that is genuinely open to all. See a Red Lion or a Coach & Horses and you instantly know what it is. Of course some pubs can be unwelcoming to strangers, but by and large this holds true.

On the other hand, with a new-style bar, you really don’t know what to expect, and the casual customer may well be deterred. Some, such as the Chiverton Tap in Cheadle Hulme, do put across the body language of “pub”, but all too many don’t. If you had just chanced upon it, would someone looking for “a pub” really go in a place called “Mary and Archie”? If there is a feeling that there is likely to be a narrow age range or a cliquey atmosphere, they can hardly be said to encourage community cohesion and ward off loneliness.

And CAMRA branches – to their shame – have started putting these new, trendy bars in the Good Beer Guide in place of proper pubs. Maybe it’s time for CAMRA to start practising what it preaches about community pubs.

20 comments:

  1. The Good Beer Guide is just that; a guide to places selling good beer. It is NOT a Good Pub Guide! As most of us are aware, there is another publication which calls itself just that.

    CAMRA branches are therefore free to select whatever type of outlet they like for the GBG; as long as its meets the criteria of selling consistently good beer. “Trendy bars” are therefore just as eligible as traditional back street locals.

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    1. * CAMRA supports community pubs
      * CAMRA stuffs the GBG with new-style bars
      * CAMRA speak with forked tongue

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    2. I agree with that Paul about the BEER Guide. There's Marston and Greene King dining pubs with posing tables to drink at that are just as unattractive to me.

      Otherwise I agree with Mudge, and thankfully with CAMRA in this case, that the new bars are no substitute for proper pubs.

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    3. The GBG is only as objective as the branches that submit entries: In my area they include their favourite watering holes which in a number of cases don't meet the criteria of consistently good beer and haven't for decades in at least two cases.

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    4. I think my branch are as objective as they can be when it comes to choosing entries, but the point CAMRA make about pubs being monitored throughout the year, is a bit of a myth.

      Using NBSS results, submitted via WhatPub, has helped though; even if there are a handful of non-computer-literate dinosaurs residing in the branch who don’t use the system.

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    5. @Martin - the new-build dining pubs do at least speak the body language of "pub", and IME many have a "public bar" area with pool table and possibly TV sport where there's no expectation of having to eat.

      The latest Premier Inn TV advert features a group of scaffolders working away, and no doubt they'll shoot a few rounds of pool and sink a few Carlings in the next-door Brewer's Fayre.

      High-end gastropubs are a different matter, of course.

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    6. That's a very fair point about "body language" of pub. Easy to forget many folk happy with posing tables and TV sport rather than the traditional view of a pub that I tend to prefer.

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  2. 75 community owned pubs out of, what, 50,000 pubs in total. And the (or a, not sure if there is more than 1) national director of CAMRA thinks this is a surge and a new model of ownership.

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    1. A "community pub" doesn't have to be owned by the local community, of course.

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    2. True, but it’s the idea that community ownership will be any solution and thus the value of ACVs.

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  3. There’s nothing which says a trendy “new-style” bar can’t be a community outlet in its own right. And the point about a narrow age range is a bit like having a massive chip on your shoulder. A friend and I visited two “new-style” bars in London, on Friday evening. Admittedly they both started life as traditional pubs, and still maintain some traditional features and fittings, but in both cases we were by far the oldest people present. Did we feel conspicuous or out of place? Hell no!

    It was both refreshing and encouraging to be with people who were obviously enjoying the beer (and cider), whilst socialising and having a good time; and that’s surely what it’s all about.

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    1. ps. The service in both pubs was friendly and efficient, and the staff were also knowledgeable about the different beers they were selling.

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    2. Both types of pubs have a place in encouraging beer culture. However, as an overseas lover of English pubs, I think there is a core difference between the new trendy pubs and the traditional English pubs. This difference is in the ambiance and volume. I can tell you that the trendy English pubs are well on the way to the television and high volume music path that American pubs exhibit. Here you cannot talk in a pub. I know because I just came home from one of the quiet ones and the volume is still too high. This English trend I have witnessed is a disturbing one because it does undercut traditional pub. You should cherish the traditional pubs for their quiet conversation. This aspect of the pub can easily slip away over time. I know the GBG is not focused on this aspect of the pub, but I do think the English will miss this when it is gone. It is not enough to save the beer. There is more to a pub than beer.

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  4. Your blog is turning into things you don’t like about the modern world. From craft beer to trendy bars. No matter. Tis your view, I guess.

    On CAMRAs guide, should CAMRA follow your many suggestions on this, from removing craft bars to removing Weatherspoon chain pubs, it becomes “The Trad Pub Guide” not a “Good Beer Guide”. As Paul has commented. In the Levenshulme district of your branch, an area not enjoying the prosperity of Didsbury, you would point anyone looking for cask ale, craft beer or authentic lager to a craft bar not one of the down at heel Trad pubs serving smooth & fosters. In some small Yorkshire towns I have contracted in, you’d point people to the Spoons if they wanted a drinkable pint of cask beer rather than Sarsons.

    Maybe it is time for your National Trust of Pubs? I suspect you would have many members if you took your idea to fruition. Not me. I would not join a middle class version of the working man’s club union, but I suspect you’d find your market. It would be complimentary to many other beer clubs, not competition.

    On the CAMRA view that cafes are no replacement for pubs. The revealed economic preference of many Britons is that coffee shops have more daytime use than pubs or bars. I don’t think they are direct replacements for each other, serving different purposes, but coffee shops are on the up and pubs on the down regardless of your personal preference or the views of CAMRA officials. The free Wi-Fi and lack of daytime alkies make them appealing from a home worker perspective.

    On the inclusiveness or otherwise of Craft bars. Is there a generalisation? I have seen some to be middle class enclaves in a market of more working class pubs. Some are arguably for elderly CAMRA snobs. Some appear more welcoming to a wider and more diverse clientele than many pubs. I think you can tell by looking in the window without walking in but you can walk in for the cost of a pint. The hospitality market appears to be retreating into niches. This is one. It’s somebody’s cup of tea, if not yours.

    The argument that these bars are damaging pubs is the same fixed market sliced up idea that permeates a lot of CAMRA. There are a fixed number of punters going out to drink beer and will do so in whatever establishments are available? Restrict the choice to what you approve of. I think a diverse offering attracts many more people out. People don’t go out for a drink if there is nothing that appeals. Trad pubs appeal to some, there is also a market for other establishments and those are not necessarily taking the customers of the former.

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  5. "Your blog is turning into things you don’t like about the modern world. From craft beer to trendy bars. No matter. Tis your view, I guess."

    Hasn't it always been like that? And I haven't yet got to the stage of saying "I'll be dead by then anyway." Quite.

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  6. Michael Henchard11 October 2016 at 15:36

    Well said Mr Curmudgeon. With you all the way on this one. Take Wigan for example - (only !) 5 entries, with four of those being micropubs/bars...Please God, take me back to my youth, (I`m only late 40`s for Chrissakes !) when every fifth building in town-centres were trad pubs - and they were jam packed too....

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    1. Wigan would make a good case study in changes over the last 20 years. Pubs like the Old Pear Tree, Springfield and Royal Oak used to be Beer Guide stalwarts, now as Michael notes it's largely micro. Even the excellent John Bull dropped out. But the emergence of new bars and micros is largely seen as a sign of a resurgence in Wigan's beer scene.

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    2. Michael Henchard12 October 2016 at 12:52

      Yes Martin. It is certainly a shift towards the Micropub. All the people I see in these bars however are the same people that used to frequent the pubs - the same age-wise - early 40`s to mid 60`s I should say - the very people that would have gone to trad pubs years ago. I don`t necessarily see a younger age group in these bars..
      Just think, when I was in my late teens I was drinking in the Aspull area of Wigan. There were NINE pubs, one Labour Club and one British Legion in this village alone ! We rubbed shoulders with, and actively seeked out the older generation that went to these pubs, because that`s what one did in those days - it was a laugh, listening to the owd uns. I really do miss those days ! For me now, Wigan town centre itself is as a desert...

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    3. Michael Henchard12 October 2016 at 13:31

      Sorry to carry this on, but my previous post, regarding Aspull and its nine pubs, would seem to the unknowing to be somewhat of an exaggeration - but I kid you not. In fact I will name them, and commit them to posterity here on this very Blog. Starting from the top of the village - Balcarres Arms, Red Lion, The Victoria, New Inn, The Moorgate, Queens Head, Running Horses, Hare & Hounds, and ending up at the Gerrard Arms. Their fate ? Two are in the current GBG, one is an Indian Restaurant, 3 are housing and the Labour Club is now a small supermarket..
      Of course in those days (late 1980`s) cask was unknown to me/probably dead in the area anyway, and Castlemaine, Harp and Carling Black Label predominated, though I do remember trying Boddingtons Bitter in the Gerrard, and Burtonwood Top Hat in the Moorgate.
      Sorry for clogging your post up with these irrelevant musings Mr Curmudgeon, but I know at least it is on a subject that is close to your heart !
      Cheers....

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  7. Keep it coming, Michael. Your comments are very welcome and exactly the kind of memories I like to hear :-)

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