Monday, 7 March 2011

Halcyon days

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.


  1. I can see the attractions of 1911 - pubs open all day, average strength of beer about 5.5% - but I confined it to years that were within living memory. And I doubt whether many would have preferred 1921, 1931 or 1941.

  2. Voting for 2011 displays a severe lack of imagination! I went for 1951 in a spirit of putting my time-travel where my mouth is - in terms of cask ale and local breweries, that's the world we have lost. But on reflection I'm not sure I'd want to live there.

  3. Not willing to take on the arrow of time I'm voting to stick where I am!

  4. As a non smoker and someone who enjoys the whole range of great new beers brewed by the micros I will plump for right now...

    2nd choice would be 1951 to get a sense of history

  5. Pubs in 1951 would be pretty grim - something like 80% of the male population smaoked so I think that even you Mudgie might baulk at the dense fug that hung over most of them.

    In the cellar hygiene was variable and cooling was rare while pouring back was commonplace. If you read old brewery histories it is clear that by 1952 many has been starved of investment for years and were churning out poor beer from infected brewhouses.

    Mind you - a trip back in time would enable me to try one of the great lost (bottled) beers - Benskins Colne Spring Ale

  6. Can I go to that date in the future you mentioned when all pubs had closed? It will be nice to see the campaign for cooking lager as the largest and most successful consumer organisation, the price of grog in Tesco & whether CAMRA have a pub replica experience in the real/ale pub museum.

  7. As a comment on the results so far, I always expected 2011 to be in the lead (no doubt all those who are happy drinking lychee-flavoured quintuple hop Imperial IPA in a smokefree atmosphere in one of the three remaining pubs in their town) but I am a little surprised about how evenly the other votes are spread across the various years.

    A few comments on why people have chosen particular years would be interesting.

  8. An interesting question. Logically, I would suggest that 1961 should be the most appealing, as it would appear to offer the best of post war qualities and is still before the formation of the “Big Six”. It would be interesting to see the demographics of those who voted for 2011 for that suggests not only laziness, but a younger outlook with little to compare it to.

    Taking the question at face value-about pub going-I have plumped for 1951 for similar reasons as Phil. There were simply more pubs around and there were some specific pubs that I would particularly have liked to see.

  9. It might actually have also been interesting to ask the question with 2011 excluded, and 1911 included.

    I think there is no doubt that if you are exclusively buying beer to drink at home then 2011 is best.

  10. Yes, I think those answering 2011 are thinking of the beer choice available at home as well as the pub. Perhaps the question should have been in two halves?

  11. drinking lychee-flavoured quintuple hop Imperial IPA in a smokefree atmosphere in one of the three remaining pubs in their town

    Lychee-flavoured you say? Twissup!!!!

    About 20 years ago, a colleague who thought I was a dreadful middle-class ponce took me to his regular boozer; as we went in the door he said to me contentedly, "Now THIS is a WORKING-MAN'S PUB." Wonder where he'd take me now?

  12. I've had a couple of people register surprise with me over that blog, so I'm going to do another one shortly arguing another side to it.

  13. I went for 1961 for the reasons Tyson stated. 1951 would have been my second choice though in fact joint top more or less for exactly the same reasons.

    Fools seldom differ.

  14. @Eddie86 - I can understand where you're coming from. From a narrow point of view as a "beer enthusiast", 2011 undoubtedly offers more delights than any of the previous years in the poll.

    But, as a wider sociological phenomenon, pubs have greatly retreated from the position they once occupied.

  15. Have they retreated, or has technology advanced past them? Colour/HD/multi-channel tv, game consoles 'for the whole family', internet, social networking...

  16. Sorry, forgot to mention, follow-up blog:

  17. As a non-smoker, a lover of "new world" hops, and general whore for anything new and different... I can't see any attraction to years before the present. Smoke-free pubs, different hops all over the place, and all kinds of wonderfully crazy stuff going on with strong beers. Then again, 2011 is the only one of the years listed where I've been in the UK (I moved to the UK mid-2005) so I can't look back nostalgically thinking "things were better back then..."

    The smoking ban really is a big issue for me on the pub front... prior to the ban I simply didn't go to pubs. It wasn't worth the suffering. During my first 2 years in the UK pubs were only visited in fair weather, as drinking outside was the only option. The smoking ban was where my appreciation of "real ale" really kicked off.

    [That said... I also don't like the government telling people what to do too much, I'm against the smoking ban on that front. It's the old shoe-in-the-door argument - what will be banned next? How far will the nanny state go? Back home in Australia the government made unpasteurised cheese illegal! We don't want to see that sort of thing going on...]

  18. "During my first 2 years in the UK pubs were only visited in fair weather, as drinking outside was the only option."

    Because of course before the ban there were no pubs with non-smoking rooms or areas, were there?

  19. "Because of course before the ban there were no pubs with non-smoking rooms or areas, were there?"

    Never found any reasonable attempt at such back in Rickmansworth (where I lived for those two years), though there was a restauranty-pub where you could escape the smoke if you ate dinner. As far as I was concerned there was no such thing as "smoke free" in a pub I could reasonably visit.

    People in larger towns/cities were better served I imagine, I did find some "no smoking rooms" on trips to London - though often the idea was very badly implemented. All very well having a room where people can smoke and another where people can't. But if there is open space, even just a doorway, between the "no smoking room" and some room where people smoke then it is a waste of time.

    I used to seek-out (mostly via Google) "no smoking pubs" when visiting London - great to find - but thin on the ground.

    Were it not for the smoking ban it is unlikely that I would have become a regular pub goer. I'm now a regular at two pubs that I love for both the community and the beer. But I'm just one measly customer (well two, my other half is also a keen ale drinker)... I don't disagree that the smoking ban appears to have been a bad thing for the pub trade economically. But, in my experience, there were few options for non-city-dweller-non-smokers prior to the ban.


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