Beer writer Des de Moor has recently written a deliberately provocative article entitled Love beer hate pubs, in which he looks at the apparent contradiction between the unprecedented number of breweries and types of beer in the UK, and the seemingly inexorable contraction and retrenchment of the pub trade.
He is quite right to criticise the tendency in some quarters to make a shibboleth of pub drinking and treat at as in some way morally superior, and also to point out that the vision of pubs of the past as inclusive community spaces where everyone was welcome is often a case of seeing things through rose-tinted spectacles.
He has also invoked the ire of the fanatical anti-pubco campaigners by pointing out that social change has rendered many pubs unviable, and to try and keep every pub open is a pointless exercise in flogging dead horses.
As an aside, he says “evidence of the impact of the smoking ban either way is inconclusive”, which is an example of the denialism that still flourishes in some quarters when it’s obvious to anyone who knows much about pubs that the ban has absolutely ripped the guts out of the lower end of the pub trade.
However, the main reason for me mentioning it is that it goes against what I said in this blogpost that “At heart I have to conclude I’m more fascinated by pubs than beer.” That doesn’t mean that I’m not interested in beer, but it’s essentially a component of enjoying drinking in pubs. Yes, there may be all these oddly-flavoured and mega-strong beers around, but I’m not constantly haring after them to try them. I also like driving, but that doesn’t mean I’m slavering over the specifications of the latest Porsches and Ferraris.
I don’t regard every drinking occasion as a voyage of discovery and, while not averse to trying new beers, feel a touch dismayed if I walk into a pub and see nothing on the bar I recognise. As I said, “I don’t feel short-changed if I spend all evening drinking the same beer, or regularly go into pubs that offer nothing I haven’t had before.” It’s the pub that matters more than the beer. While I don’t want to drink bad beer, in the sense of being in poor condition, I’d be much happier with a pint of Doom Bar or keg OBB in a pub where I feel at home than the finest beer in the world in an atmosphere that I find uncongenial. I do drink to some extent at home, typically when settling down in front of the telly to watch Endeavour or a documentary about the First World War, but I’m no more seeking out the rare, weird stuff there than I am in the pub.
Basically, take away pubs, and you take away much of my interest in beer. And, to my eye, brewery taps, specialist craft bars and micropubs are a very poor substitute for proper pubs.
He’s also wrong to disparage the widespread affection for pubs and pub culture, even amongst people who don’t visit them very much. They are a unique and defining aspect of British, or perhaps rather specifically English, identity, and Hilaire Belloc wasn’t entirely wrong when he said:
When you have lost your inns, drown your empty selves,There may not be all that much you can do in terms of public policy to slow the decline (although there certainly isn’t nothing), but that doesn’t mean it’s not a matter of regret.
For you will have lost the last of England.
And it can’t be denied that some so-called “beer enthusiasts” give the impression of finding the rumbustious, politically incorrect reality of pubs, especially working-class pubs, a touch uncomfortable, and that they would much prefer to be sipping their barrel-aged DIPA in the comfort and safety of their own home.