Tuesday, 5 October 2010
The Death of the English Pub
Older readers may remember a book entitled "The Death of The English Pub". It was published back in 1973 and its author was a young journalist called Christopher Hutt. Mr Hutt later went on to become chairman of CAMRA, before launching CAMRA (Real Ale Investments), which was a small chain of pubs run along lines in sympathy with CAMRA's aims. Eventually he launched his own chain of pubs, but that's a different story.
"The Death of The English Pub" was a very hard-hitting look at what was occurring in the pub trade back in the early 1970's, and was full of dire predictions as to what might happen to the traditional English pub that we all knew and loved. I first saw the book on sale in the university bookshop, during my first year at Salford University. Despite the cover price of 75p (quite a sum for a student, back in the days when beer was around 12p a pint!) I purchased a copy and was glad I did. I was just starting to take an interest in different beers and pubs, and found the book to be compulsive reading. Now, nearly 40 years on it is worth taking a look back at some of the criticisms levelled at the pub trade, by Hutt, and examining their relevance today.
After a brief, introductory chapter, explaining the reasons for writing the book, the following three chapters of Hutt's critique are all about beer. Starting with The Quality of Beer, he focuses on the disappearance of traditional draught beer, and its replacement with nationally advertised keg brands; something that was common-place back in the early 70's. He argues that this was a move foisted upon drinkers, by the major brewers in an attempt to increase profits. The brewers argued that they were merely responding to public demand and, to be fair, no mention was made of the circumstances that had originally led to the introduction of keg.
I don't remember those days myself, but I have read much about the often poor quality of cask-conditioned ale during the early 1960's, caused largely, but not exclusively, by poor cellarmanship. Keg at least provided a consistent product that was very difficult to "mess up"; it's main drawbacks being blandness, served too cold and definitely too gassy.
Beer features again in the following chapter; this time it's The Strength of Beer that's being looked at. This is not an issue today, as the strength of all alcoholic drinks is quite clearly displayed, whether on the bottle label, or at the point of dispense. Back in the early 70's though, virtually all brewers were extremely secretive about the strength of their products. Hutt was able to demonstrate how some brewers were slowly reducing the strength of their beer, and thereby paying less duty, without passing on these savings to the drinker. This still goes on, as I can think of several well known beers that have been reduced in strength in recent years. The difference nowadays though is that the abv, is shown on the pump-clip or bottle, so anyone paying attention should in theory notice. In practice, most people don't and, as before, any duty saving made by the brewers are not usually passed on to the consumer.
The next chapter is all about The Choice of Beer, and goes on to describe how the choice of beers offered to drinkers was being dramatically cut, especially in those pub owned by the larger brewers. Examples cited, included those of Watneys, who had withdrawn locally-brewed Sussex Bitter from pubs in their Sussex estate, and replaced it with national brands such as Special and Starlight, plus Courage who were replacing locally-brewed Ordinary Bitter from much of their Bristol estate, in favour of a new beer, called "Full-Brew". The aforementioned Sussex Bitter was originally a hybrid brew, introduced by Watneys following their takeover of a number of local breweries during the late 1950's, and following another series of takeovers in Norfolk, the company was doing the same thing there with Norwich Bitter. The chapter ends by reproducing a list of 12 London Breweries that existed as late as 1951, but which were no longer brewing. Again this was used as an example of how the choice of beer, even in the nation's capital, had been dramatically reduced.
The next chapter details the then Big Six Brewers; Allied Breweries, Bass Charrington, Courage, Scottish & Newcastle, Watney Mann and Whitbread, and describes their rise to national prominence during the 1960's. This, of course was largely achieved by takeovers of smaller, local breweries, and mergers between some of the larger regional ones. The resulting brewery closure programme and consequential loss of favourite local beers is well chronicled, as are the "economies of scale" which many of the new brewing giants achieved by constructing a few mega-breweries close to the motorway network for the production of, and distribution from, of a few national, and heavily promoted keg brands.
The fifth chapter is about some of the remaining Independent Brewers, and the sharp contrast between how they do business compared to the activities of the Big Six, chronicled in the previous chapter. Hutt writes about Youngs, Theakstons, Northern Clubs Federation Brewery, Adnams and Boddingtons, detailing the David versus Goliath struggle by the latter company when they successfully fought off an unwelcome take-over bid from national giant, Allied Breweries. The main theme that emerges with all the examples he lists is their willingness to listen and respond to genuine (rather then perceived) customer demand, the way they treat their tenants and staff, and the fact they brew beer suited to local tastes and palates.
The sixth chapter, entitled Notice to Quit, exposes the replacing of successful pub tenants with salaried, brewery-appointed managers. This practice was quite prevalent at the time, and was especially common with some of the larger brewery companies, such as Bass Charrington and Watneys. This policy allowed the owning brewery to take what would have been the tenant's cut of the profits, as well as their own, and it was no coincidence that the pubs targeted for being switched to management were generally the most successful ones. These were pubs where the tenant had worked hard over the years to build up a thriving trade and a flourishing business. In effect, successful licensees were being penalised for their very success; something that was unheard of in other businesses.
The next chapter concentrated on the assault on the pub, where perfectly fine, traditional pubs were being converted into grotesque "theme" pubs, tarted up or otherwise generally knocked about in the so-called name of progress. Entitled The Blitz on the Pub, Hutt goes on to describe the treatment dished out to numerous pubs as a result of insensitive, and totally unnecessary conversions. Of course, things have moved on since then, with many pubs suffering far worse than some of the examples described in the book.
The eighth chapter relates the sorry tale of The Dry Villages, and centres on the notorious pub closure programme inflicted on East Anglia, and Norfolk in particular, by Watney Mann. This came about after Watneys had swallowed most of the local breweries in Norfolk, effectively handing them a monopoly over the county's pubs. Unfortunately the pub closure programme has accelerated in recent years, not as a result of the late, and unlamented Watney Mann's activities, but more a result of the policies of their successors - the Pub-Owning Companies, plus other factors like the smoking ban. In addition, pub closures are not now confined purely to rural areas either.
I will gloss over the penultimate chapter, as much of it is largely irrelevant to today's reader. It is titled Pubs and the Politicians, and details the findings of various commissions who had looked into the operation of the licensed trade in the run-up to the book's publication. Back then, there was no such thing as all day opening, and pub hours were still bound by restrictions originally brought in during the First World War. It seems incredible now that people were worried about the effect that liberalising these draconian measures would have on the pub trade, with many claiming all day opening would have a negative effect on the all important "atmosphere" of a pub.
The final chapter, titled Through a Glass Darkly, is a somewhat jaundiced view of what could happen to the pub trade if things continued along the same path. Few, if any of Hutt's dire predictions have come to pass, but then how could he possibly have foreseen the horror of such things as Sky Sports, Karaoke or, the dreaded smoking ban?
I apologise for such a lengthy article, but it is well worth dissecting this ground-breaking work and looking at it in detail. It shows that even 40 years ago, people were concerned with what was happening to both pubs and beer, and were prepared to stand up and do something about it. If you ever come across a copy of this excellent book, then do yourselves a favour and buy it. Hopefully I have whetted your appetites for the book's contents, rather than giving too much away. Once you start turning the pages I'm certain you will find it a most interesting read, just as I did all those years ago.
ps. This link from the Daily Telegraph explores much the same theme.