Wednesday, 3 February 2016

The old man and the pub

A phrase we’re hearing increasingly often nowadays, used in a dismissive sense, is old man pub. The connotations are pretty clear, but is it all that different from what we used to call a “traditional pub”? Going back a generation, there were some pubs that were clearly defined as “young people’s pubs” with garish colours, knocked-out walls, chrome furniture, pool tables, loud music and TVs showing music videos. These were the pubs that didn’t tend to get into CAMRA guides. That style of pub has now largely disappeared, but a different kind of divide has opened up.

From the mid-80s, there was a growing number of specialist multi-beer alehouses, but they generally adopted a bare-boards kind of ambiance and couldn’t really be said to be trendy. However, more recently, over the past ten years, we have seen the development in major city centres of “craft beer bars” which adopt a much more modernistic style of industrial chic – very open-plan, dominated by long bars, with hard textures and a dearth of comfortable upholstered seating.

The interior of a trendy pub
popular with hipsters
Many brewer and pubco refurbishments have started to follow this style, especially in urban areas with a high proportion of younger drinkers. And anything that doesn’t conform to this model is dismissed as an “old man pub”. But what is wrong with a pub that offers cosy, intimate spaces, comfortable seating and a limited role for electronic distractions? Last year I saw groups of students having a good time in Sam Smith’s Colpitts Hotel in Durham, which even by Sam’s standards is about as traditional as you can get.

It’s not necessarily a hard-and-fast distinction – things like being popular for food, welcoming children, loud piped music and live bands can all make a traditionally-styled pub less “old mannish”. Even TV football on its doesn’t debar a pub from qualifying. In Heaton Moor, not too far from me, the Crown definitely is an “old man pub”, despite showing all the football, while the nearby, much more stylised and designed Plough and Elizabethan are not.

The writer of the article has suggested that “old man pubs” should make more effort to appeal to a younger generation by putting craft beers on the bar, but that will make no difference to the pub’s overall ambience. The other night I was in the Blossoms in Stockport, where they have plenty of craft bottles in the fridge and Pilsner Urquell on the bar. But the general cosy, multi-roomed feel would still be “old man” regardless of what beers were on sale.

Surely there is a parallel here with dismissing established real ales as “boring brown beers”, another product of the US-influenced British craft evangelists deciding that their main enemy was not the mega-brewers, but the existing, successful craft real ale scene. It’s all a bit divisive and counter-productive.

Eventually, the wheel will come full circle. I remember in the 1970s seeking out the most down-to-earth, basic, old-fashioned pubs there were in the search for real ale, and being captivated by their atmosphere. In more recent years, the tide has swung against valuing tradition, but, one day, young drinkers will realise once again that “old man pubs” have a story to tell.


  1. Crikey, the type of dumps you like have always been called old man pubs, or dumpy pubs. At least for the last 20 years.

  2. Yes, where I were a lad we called them "old man and a dog" pubs so it's nothing new to me either.

  3. This whole making places more appealing to younger people thing really pisses me off at times, perhaps more so since I turned 40 last year.

    If old man pubs seek to attract a younger crowd where will the old men, and proto-old men like myself, drink in peace and quiet?

  4. As a "young person" I often use the term old man pub to distinguish between say 8 well kept ales in mostly conservative styles from 15 kegs of flavour challenging beers. Both have a clear place it's just quite a neat way to distinguish between the 2

  5. I guess in Stockport the Boar's Head is old man, Bakers isn't, though both are fairly traditional by central Manchester standards in layout and beer. Magnet might be harder to classify.

  6. Have to say in my formative drinking years we never identified "old man pubs" as such - it was more a class distinction of smart, ordinary, down-to-earth and rough.

    The idea of the dedicated "young people's pub" didn't really take off until the 80s. Before then it was often a case of finding the pub with the most myopic landlord where you stood the best chance of being served when well under 18.

  7. I used a pub on a Friday evening between work and going home purely for the fact that it was near the take-away that I wanted to visit: the atmosphere was great. The point is that all generations were present; the younger ones tended to congregate at one end, near the pool tables, but there was no friction. That there were local people that knew them probably restrained any excesses in the younger ones even if that was entirely unnecessary. There was a bit of drug abuse by some and the younger people were barred as a result: I am sure that this did not end drug abuse but it did put those young people outside of the unofficial scrutiny that was beneficial. Well, obviously, the pub lost that trade, and trade in general declined, but I just found it had become a less interesting place to go to and eventually it shut.

  8. I well recall the fashion of young people's pubs. The problem is that youthful generations don't last very long: an 18 year old going to his favourite bars may well be settled down with a child or two by the age of 25, and his younger siblings may well turn their noses up at what he liked. A pub I know in Southport was extensively refurbished six times in about 15 years trying to retain its appeal to successive generations of young people; I stopped counting the refurbishments in the late 1980s.

    Another old street corner pub in Southport with a respectable number of customers was renamed Mr Q's, the real ale was removed, the shelves filled with bottled lagers and alcopops, interior walls were ripped out and loads of pool tables were installed - hence the name. It was full for about 18 months and was then abandoned for somewhere else. They have gone back to the old name and have been trying to convert it back to something like what it was, but with little success.

    You don't have these kinds of problems with so-called old men's pubs.


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