Tuesday 28 July 2015

Three thought experiments

From time to time, especially towards the end of an evening in the pub, it’s interesting to speculate about what might be the result of certain changes to legislation or social customs. Often these aren’t things that aren’t realistically going to happen, or that we don’t support, but they can be useful in testing the validity of commonplace ideas.

These are three that have occurred to me in recent months:

1. Cut the price of on-trade beer

We’re often told that cheap supermarket beer is killing the pub. So let us assume that, somehow, the on-trade price could be cut so that nothing was over £2 a pint. This would greatly reduce the differential between on and off-trades. I’m sure it would increase the amount of bottom-end, price-conscious customers. But I can’t see it would make much difference to middle-class pubgoing.

The amount of beer I drink in pubs is constrained variously by health concerns (yes really), a wish to avoid hangovers, to be still functioning later in the day or the following morning, and the drink-drive legislation. Slashing the price would make virtually no difference. Certainly, in general, it wouldn’t remotely take us back to the glory days of the late 70s. Plus, if it encouraged more scrotes and deadlegs to drink in pubs, it could make them less appealing for more responsible customers. It would not be a magic bullet.

2. Let local groups run failed pubs

Rather than selling them off to developers, pub operators with pubs they consider to be unviable could lease them out to local community groups at a peppercorn rent. There are plenty of campaigns to “save the Canard & Conundrum”, so maybe the pubcos could call their bluff and say that provided they came up with a credible organisation and could put a few thousand pounds on the table, the pub was theirs to run. If they failed, then the title would revert to the pubco to do as they wished.

This would completely take the wind out of the sails of the anti-pubco campaigners. But I suspect the take-up would be very low. Realistically, despite the claims, few closed pubs really are viable, and the campaigners generally expect someone else to run it at a loss rather than take it on themselves. This would prove the point, one way or the other.

3. Make all beer the same strength

The vast majority of spirits are either 40% ABV or 37.5%, which realistically is neither here nor there. Most table wine falls within a limited strength range which is basically that between bitter and best bitter Yet beer ranges from 2.8% to over 10%.

I see this as a good thing, but what if pretty much all commercially available beer was at the same strength, say 4.0%? Brewers would have to differentiate their beers by colour, body and flavour, rather than strength. It would set them an interesting challenge and be a test of their craft. Indeed, going back a few years, the vast majority of beer in Germany was within the range of 4.8% to 5.2%, yet they still showed a huge variety. Maybe strength differentiation is an easy way out.

Oh, and just to reiterate, I’m not advocating any of these policies, just speculating as to what the effect would be. Any thoughts?


  1. "From time to time, especially towards the end of an evening in the pub, it’s interesting to speculate about what might be the result of certain changes to legislation or social customs"

    Seriously? This is what you talk about in the pub?

  2. Ha. I must admit-and this is a first-my initial reaction was the same as py's. However, it is a good topic for a post, to be fair.

    I'm going to dismiss number 3 as having no legs, but no 1 would definitely have an impact. How much so is difficult to say but probably more than you think as your reasoning seems based on you as the average punter.

    I also think you've underestimated no 2. Given the criteria-easy to setup and peppercorn rent etc-I'm sure there would be reasonable interest. I know locally there are a couple of ex-landlords who would jump at such a chance, for example. However, of all the fantasy options, no 2 would seem most unlikely to become reality as pubcos are notoriously guarded over their estates.

  3. Go on I'll bite

    On No3, Most beer is the same strength if you are counting beers consumed rather than beers available for sale. There may be lots of pongy rot of all strengths on the market but 90+% of all that punters drink the familiar that they know they like and know how much they can neck to what level of pissed they want to be. In beer terms 4%.

    On No2, Who is to say who will succeed and who will fail on any given endeavour without the form to study? We are nation of untapped talent and ability. Is there a population out there with the hidden talent to turn around failing boozers or do market fundamentals matter more than grit and hard work? I suspect you’re right. All these community whip rounds to save pubs are for middle class mugs with a few grand to burn. It would have better social impact given to starving foreign kids that to save the Dumpy Olde Vic.

    On No1, Oh contraire, Mr Mudge. Lower prices may not get you to piss more of your life away in pubs but on the rare occasion I venture into one outside my usual times I discover the pub customer base is quite a varied lot. High prices might fill up a pub on a Friday night with middle class beards. £2 fills them up on a Thursday afternoon. Better value to more people would make pubs more relevant to the regular day of more people. It’s why spoons or Sams is busy every day.
    I’m not sure you can get away with varying prices to much over the week. As many punters will see a low priced day as a bargain as see the higher priced times/days a rip off but the level of demand would indicate some sort of pricing model akin to transport with a peak time/off peak pricing structure.

    Oh and Py is right, when next I see you in a pub I shall pop over for a conversation about whether the barmaid is worth a rattle or not or whether the new traffic lights are a bloody outrage or the local football teams chances. Normal conversation for normal people. None of this pub thought experiment nonsense. Leave it to people with sandals.

  4. @py - I was really speaking metaphorically, but you must have come across the phrase "setting the world to rights" in connection with pub conversations.

    Obviously with such intellectual giants as Cookie around the talk is more like to be along the lines of "That Liz Kendall. You would, wouldn't you?"

  5. Number 1: I think it would have a big impact for a lot of people. A reduction from £3.50 to £2 is quite significant. Cost is the limiting factor for a huge number of people.

  6. I'm just popping out for a couple (or three) pints of HPA (Herefordshire Pale Ale) strength about 4 - price about £3.50
    The pub is a relatively new one for me as my last one closed in March.
    Tonight there will be a quiz (last Wednesday in the month), and also Wednesday is steak night at £10 a go for steak and chips
    The pub will likely be nearly full of quizzers and eaters
    But the main attraction in West Worcestershire it seems to me - where the mobile 2G barely exists and there's no chance of 3G or 4G, - is that all the technically connected people go to use the pub wifi (login code - ilovebeer)

  7. Interesting musings, Mudgie.

    1. Lowering the price in the on-trade might bring a few more punters into the pubs but I don't think it would make people drink more. I and most people I know drink what we drink and that's it.
    2. I've seen a few successful community buyouts of pubs here in the West Country but these have all been village pubs which have re-opened with a high end-ish food offer. I have yet to see a run-down boozer on a council estate get re-opened under a community buyout.
    3. I don't think I'd like to see all beers at the same strength although it wouldn't bother me unduly. I never stray above 4.5% other than for a couple of specific beers (Take a bow, Dark Star American Pale Ale). I've just had a couple of pints of Adnams Fat Sprat at 3.8% and very good it was too. Funny thing is though, when you go abroad and have to drink lager, the default strength seems to be 5% and I can drink the stuff all day and all night. If I did the same here with 5% bitter I'd be completely wasted.


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