Saturday, 19 March 2011

Back to the future

I've recently been running a poll asking the question “In which year would you have most liked to be a beer drinker and pubgoer in the UK?” The thinking behind this is explained here. There were an impressive 159 responses, beating the record set by the drink-drive limit poll, broken down as follows:

1951: 17 (11%)
1961: 23 (14%)
1971: 21 (13%)
1981: 20 (13%)
1991: 19 (12%)
2001: 10 (6%)
2011: 49 (31%)

Not surprisingly, the biggest single vote, just under a third, was for the present day. As I said in the comments to the original post, this is quite understandable, as from a narrow point of view the range and quality of beer available in pubs is better than ever before, as are the top end of pubs in a more general sense. However, given the way in which the pub trade has contracted and come under increasing assault from the anti-drink lobby, to my mind that is a somewhat blinkered and parochial viewpoint. It remains to be seen how long beer enthusiasm can continue unscathed by neo-Prohibitionism. I suspect the first crack in the edifice will come on Wednesday next week when Osborne imposes a punitive tax on beers over 7.5% ABV.

Votes were fairly evenly spread over the other years, with, somewhat surprisingly, 2001 recording the lowest total. Personally my vote went to 1981 – perhaps not unexpectedly as that was the first year in the series when I was actually a pub customer, and people very often look back on the days of their youth with enthusiasm. All-day opening was still to come, but what you didn’t have, you didn’t miss. The period since about 1974 had seen a huge expansion in the availability and profile of cask beer (if not in total sales) and we were only just after the all-time peak of beer sales in pubs. Food in pubs had also hugely improved over the past decade. I’m convinced that 1970-80 was when the real pub food revolution took place. Many pubs that have since been wrecked by refurbishment were still in their original state, and there was still a sense of serendipity about pubgoing – pubs, in general, had not yet become self-conscious in their appeal to particular market segments. In different parts of the country you would get a totally different selection of beers.

1961, which was the overall runner-up, also has a lot of appeal as pubs then would have seen a great improvement since 1951, but most of the old breweries of the pre-merger era would still have been in operation. Plus the breathalyser was still six years off. However, from a present-day point of view pubs might have been unwelcoming to casual customers and I suspect what food there was would have been a bit grim.

1991 had the benefit of all-day opening, although few pubs were yet doing much to take advantage of it, plus the rise of the first wave of micro-breweries, but by then some of the sense of innocence and discovery had been lost and the “lager lout” hysteria presaged the beginning of the anti-drink campaign. I still can’t see the advantage of 1971 over either 1961 or 1981, as you have experienced the 1960s takeover mania and the rise of keg beer, while the expansion of real ale availability in the second half of the 1970s was still to come. All the same, a lot of people voted for it.

The one thing that really sticks in my mind from 1981 is just how busy pubs were then, for so much of the time they were open.


  1. Speaking as one of only 10 who voted for 2001, I cannot understand why it was the least popular choice. The microbreweries were in full swing, beer was cheaper, pubs were not closing and they were busier. You could still have a fag and the pubcos were not crushing the life out of the business.

  2. If one votes once, goes up and deletes all cookies, then one can go back and vote again. And again and again and again and again. On all these online polls. So who's to know if the data couldn't have been corrupted, by a single individual even. I take all online polls with a grain of salt. Some organizations could have students and part-time at-home workers engaged in nothing but skewing poll results, and I wouldn't put it past certain organizations or individuals loyal to them to do so.

  3. Well, it's only meant as a fun poll anyway. And the spread of votes strongly suggests that people haven't been repeating votes to make a point.

  4. I voted for 1971. I was in my early 20s, the pubs then were real pubs - hugga-mugga, smokey and buzzing. They had real atmosphere. I wasn't particularly bothered about the beer on offer - in those days I actually preferred to smoke dope rather than drink in terms of the effect, but I loved the ambience of the pub. Also, in those days, you could go to the pub and have a few pints and then drive home without the fear of being picked up by the police and being treated like a serial killer.

    Life was so much more relaxed then. No puritan zealots wagging their fingers and condemning your every action. You did what you wanted how you wanted, and as long as you didn't cause any trouble, it was ok.

    I look at where we are today, and I wonder how the hell we arrived here. We took a wrong turn somewhere...

  5. like the poster above noticed. its my feeling that somebody has come back and clicked on your poll again and again and again and again and again. i suspect this is most likely somebody who thinks that the smoking ban is marvellous.

  6. You guys have got the smoking ban on the brain! The big vote for 2011 (which disappointed me, just because it seems so unimaginative) is almost certainly down to enthusiasm for the way things are now in the micro-brew/boutique bar trade. I don't think there are that many pub enthusiasts who are also enthusiasts for the smoking ban.


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