The notion that ale and beer are honest, nourishing drinks which add immeasurably to our enjoyment of life has been ingrained in English culture for two millenia.
Ale was long a native British drink, but it was the arrival of the Roman Empire in the 1st century that saw the emergence of the first pubs. Then called tabernae (which later morphed into the Modern English ‘tavern’), they appeared to service the emerging Roman road network.
After the Romans left, the Anglo-Saxons, being sensible people, were happy to retain this tradition. They established town and village alehouses that evolved into public venues where people could socialise and strengthen their communities.
Beer had become part of the staple diet for workers engaged in agriculture, crafts, and, later, the heavy labour that emerged on the back of the Industrial Revolution. Partly because of its nutritional value. But also because urban water sources were generally unsafe to drink as a result of impurities, pollution or disease until the late 19th century.
That’s not to say people were spending the whole day inebriated! Instead, they drank what was then called ‘small beer,’ which was low in alcohol.
A place to unwind
Over the centuries, our drinking establishments have changed dramatically as society has evolved. From alehouse to coaching inn to backstreet local or city centre bar.
But the ‘public house’ (so named to differentiate it from private houses, not licensed to serve alcoholic drinks for consumption on the premises) is an integral part of our history.
Pubs are social institutions which have played a major role in our communities over the centuries. Providing a friendly meeting place for locals, a focal point for community events, and acting as a repository of community memory and cultural traditions. By doing this, community pubs, in the words of a fascinating report by the IPPR, ‘represent something authentic and traditional in the face of powerful commercial and market pressures towards standardisation and ‘clone pubs’.’
Community pubs also say something about our national character: sociable, convivial and surprisingly talkative.
And they form part of the architectural fabric of our villages, towns and cities. Symbolised, of course, by the wood-panelled bars, etched mirrors and inevitable dart board. Along with the eccentric names that reek of history.
The Big Six
But let’s put nostalgia to one side and travel to the mid-20th century, where things were changing dramatically.
A process of consolidation was taking place in the brewing industry. Accelerating in the 1950s, this led to a series of takeovers and closures. By the early 1970s, beer in Britain was largely brewed and sold by what became known as ‘the Big Six’, including Ind Coope, Courage and Watneys.
They were huge companies, which, inevitably, looked for further cost reductions to boost their profits. These could only be gained by shifting from traditional cask beer – with its depth of flavour, complexity and variety – to pasteurised keg beer. This was easier to transport and store. But this cold beer, served under pressure, was either tasteless or downright unpleasant.
With the Big Six owning most pubs (and controlling many other others through what was known as the ‘loan tie’), there seemed to be little escape from this brave new world.
It was starting to look like Anglophile writer Hilaire Belloc’s gloomy prognosis about the fate of our pubs might be getting some traction: ‘When you have lost your inns, drown your empty selves, for you will have lost the last of England.’
But then the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) came to the rescue!
The strength of consumer power
Founded in 1971 by four real ale enthusiasts, CAMRA is an independent consumer organisation which represents beer drinkers and pub-goers across the UK. It grew rapidly and now numbers almost 160,000 members.
Considered one of the most successful consumer organisations in Britain, it is non-political. But has consistently campaigned for good quality real ale (as well as real cider and real perry), the protection of pubs and clubs as part of Britain’s cultural heritage, and measures to require brewers and retailers of beer to act in the best interests of the consumer.
In the early 1970s, this led to CAMRA arguing that the six national brewers operated a complex monopoly that fixed prices, over-charged customers and restricted smaller brewers from entering the national pub market.
After considerable lobbying from CAMRA and others, the Government tried to address these problems via the Beer Orders, which, amongst other things, restricted the number of pubs that a brewer could own. As beer writer Roger Protz explains in an insightful article, this had the unfortunate consequence of replacing the Big Six with a set of ‘pubcos’ which in the words of satirical magazine Private Eye, were, ‘essentially greedy property companies with a cuddly name.’
But time moves on; recent years have witnessed an explosion in the number of independent breweries, offering greater choice for drinkers and a much wider range of beer styles.
Pubs closing as problems mount
The problem is that pubs have been closing at an alarming rate for some years now. This is usually attributed to structural factors such as high taxes on beer, competition from supermarkets selling cheap alcohol, and changing drinking habits. These challenges were exacerbated by the national lockdowns and other restrictions that occurred during the pandemic, which, at various points, required pubs to either close or change the way they operated. Naturally, this had a dramatic impact on income.
Thankfully, most pubs managed to survive Covid-19. But are now facing fresh challenges as 50 pubs close every month because of surging operating costs and declining consumer confidence.
The recent announcement of the Government Energy Bill Relief Scheme for businesses will provide an energy price cap for non-domestic properties for six months from 1st October. This is a step in the right direction. But is a short-term fix which does nothing to change the way draught beer and cider are taxed or tackle problems with VAT and business rates.
What the future holds
However, as the man said, hope springs eternal.
Provided pubs can surmount the current economic turmoil, they have a potentially bright future.
There is much that the industry needs to do to reflect changes in society. Offering more inclusive, family-friendly spaces, becoming more environmentally conscious, reflecting the changing habits in alcohol and food consumption.
But these things are all deliverable. And we should not forget that pubs provide a healthy, egalitarian antidote to the social media-driven echo chambers that many people seem to inhabit these days. Social venues where people with different values and beliefs – from diverse backgrounds, generations and cultures – can interact with fellow customers from very different walks of life.
Pubs are an important part of our social fabric. So, let’s get out there and use them! As Samuel Johnson, writer, moralist and lexicographer, noted, ‘There is nothing which has yet been contrived by man, by which so much happiness is produced as by a good tavern or inn.’
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