Keith Flett samples some beer and ponders the pub.
Having written on the current state of beer and brewing, together with some historical context, it is perhaps time to take a brief stop to actually sample some beer. This can be done in numerous places but the traditional British venue is the pub.
The final weeks of the year are the busiest in the pub trade- January is somewhat quieter- and regular drinkers are confronted with the ‘Xmas drinker’, someone who is often not exactly sure what they what to drink and may be a little unfamiliar with the impact alcohol can have on their behaviour.
What exactly constitutes the traditional British pub can be debated- often in the pub- all night. One widely noted benchmark is George Orwell’s 1946 essay, the Moon Under Water, that appeared in the London Evening Standard. Orwell’s classic pub, often seen in current pub names, particularly from the PubCo J D Wetherspoon, was an amalgam of several hostelries around his Canonbury North London home. One of Orwell’s points arguably was that while it might be possible to define the ‘perfect’ pub- in his case a beer garden and friendly service featured-it was rather unlikely that you would actually find a single pub to match the criteria.
Since Orwell wrote 70 years ago it has become harder in some senses to find that perfect pub or pubs. The number of pubs in Britain has been in decline for decades.
The reasons are well known and quite varied. With changes in industry there is less call for the basic boozer where manual workers went to replace the liquid they had lost during the working day. There is less demand for the beers they enjoyed drinking too but that is for another post. Many others have been lost because owners and developers determined that while they might be profitable even more profit could be made by developing them as flats.
Then there is the impact of changing demographics and competition from the off trade, in particular supermarkets. If you are not well paid but like a drink, the chances are that is a good bit cheaper to buy beer- not just mass produced blandness but also ‘craft’ beer-in a large supermarket and drink it at home. Moreover, and it’s important to recognise the reality, non-drinking is also an important element amongst some sections of the population. Anyone who thinks that the large variety of those who follow aspects of the Muslim faith are all non-drinkers will be in for a surprise, but alcohol consumption is less below the average.
We might balance that against the important point that historically considerable sections of the UK population were absolutely against drinking (at least in theory) as religious supporters of temperance, so there is nothing really that new here. Indeed it is quite possible to find areas of high population with very few pubs because the owners of the land disapproved of drink. The area around London University in central London remains one such.
Enough however about problems with the pub! The reality is that there are still many thousands of pubs in the UK and while ownership, tenancy agreements and the actions of pub companies like Punch are often the cause of concern, numbers of them do continue to thrive. The traditional idea is that pub is the place where people from a variety of backgrounds can be found socialising together. Well, up to a point! At a craft beer house I frequent in Hackney for example you will often find a well-known local builder, someone who works in the financial heart of the City of London, a senior managers from the local Council and myself as a union official to adjudicate on issues of the day. It is somewhat idealised but the interesting point is that all these people are drawn to the pub because of their liking for good beer.
That does raise a point of quite particular current relevance. In his new book on the pub, the beer writer Pete Brown argues, in a sense after Orwell, that the main thing about the pub is its role at the centre of a community. A place where much human life and discourse takes place. Of course in 2016 there are other places where this takes place, sometimes in virtual arenas eg on-line, but the pub remains an important meeting place. Communities that lose their pub are often held to be less cohesive as a result.
Two things have come together to do something to halt the apparently perpetual decline of the pub. Firstly there is now a legal right for community campaigners, often backed by the Campaign for Real Ale, to apply to make an under threat pub an Asset of Community Value. This, where successful, provides a breathing space to see if funds can be raised to allow a pub to be bought by the community and continue in operation. Some recent well known examples where this has happened are the Chesham in Hackney and the Antwerp in Tottenham.
Secondly with the rise of craft beer however defined there has been a new interest in opening or re-opening pubs. There is a new generation of micro-pubs, in effect, beer shops, which are small and resolutely community focused. In addition pubs that have long been shut and left vacant or used for other purposes have started to re-open as pubs. A recent example is The Mermaid in Clapton E5. Previously known as the Cricketers from 1872 it closed in 2008 against a background of declining custom. It then became a restaurant. More recently it has re-opened as a pub selling craft beer. Of course the customers are different and the public bar has gone but there is a wider point.
The pub as an institution that sells alcohol as part of a community hub has survived for many hundreds of years by reflecting what people in the community want. Into that has intruded capital in terms of beer supply companies and pub companies. As elsewhere there is a tension and struggle between the two.
Keith Flett is convenor of the socialist history seminar at the Institute of Historical Research and has been a member of CAMRA since 1975.