- Is the Great British pub leaping off its sickbed? New stats give cause for optimism, but the game has changed, discovers Anna Blewett for Great British Food
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Heard a strange grumble drifting on the air lately? Listen. Louder in suburbs, loudest in rural villages. It’s the sound of thousands of pub-lovers digesting new stats from the Office of National Statistics (ONS), which reveals that after years of closures pubs are starting to rally. To get into specifics, the total number of drinking spots rose by 315 in 2019, a veritable ‘bounce’ after ten years of decline.
If that got your pulse racing, get a load of this: 85 of those openings identified as small venues with ten staff or fewer, the kind of establishments that have been dropping like bar flies for 15 years. Squint at the ONS bar chart and the uptick is barely visible to the naked eye…yet on the ground there are signs of a heartening change.
To the tap room
Yes, out-of-town super-pubs with excellent motorway access and an appalling selection of beers are in the ascendance, but so are their polar opposites: brewery tap rooms. “My impression from the data, and the 750 brewers we represent around the country, is the rise in small venues is predominantly small breweries opening their own direct route to market,” says James Calder of the Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA).
“So that’s those taking over a charity shop or a convenience store; as a brewer you can make a much, much better margin selling direct, and you have a platform to showcase your beer to consumers.” Tap rooms run by breweries themselves are a win for drinkers too. “Lots of our brewers are set up on industrial estates, where they can extend their brewing licence to serve alcohol,” says beer consultant Ian Ward who also works with SIBA to support indie breweries. “A few trestle tables outside and bingo; you’ve got a popup pub. People want an experience these days – what could be better than drinking a beer in the place that it’s brewed?”
For brewer Roman Hochuli, whose Ilford brewery Solvay Society bottled its first batches in 2014, opening a tap room was a no brainer. “One of the advantages of planning rules is that a tap room can be an ancillary use to a brewery,” explains Roman. “With that comes cheap rents – when we found a storage space between the brewery and central London it made sense to put a bar on site and open a few days a week.”
Roman’s Leytonstone tap room, housed down an alleyway and under a small railway arch, has been open for just under a year, attracting a strong local following. “It’s off the beaten track, so getting footfall has been a challenge but the flip side is that we’ve been able to create the space as we like it. We can build the experience around the beer; the discussions with our customers can be more direct and honest, and give a truer experience of the beer itself.”
Truer, newer – funner!
Whether you’re looking for a 9.0% apricot sour (try Edinburgh’s Vault City Brewing), or a sweet ‘pastry stout’ à la Northern Monk’s jam and custard pale ale Donut Mess With Yorkshire, a journey of discovery awaits. For Dave Stone, director of Wylam Brewery in Newcastle, such virtuoso show-boatery is essential to survival.
“There used to be four channels on your TV and you didn’t have the internet, so you went to the pub,” he points out. “There’s so much more to do these days, so I think people want more from the pub experience.” Wylam has the x-factor in spades: in 2016 the brewery moved from the Northumberland village of its name into a derelict neo-classical museum building, refitting the amazing site to include a taproom and event space alongside the 300-barrel microbrewery.
Wylam’s new home – known as the Palace of Arts – has an isolated location in Newcastle’s grand Exhibition Park, but punters making the pilgrimage are not disappointed. Fresh releases and limited-edition brews showcase the brewery’s freewheeling style, which includes a hazelnut praline coffee porter, chocolate oatmeal stout and an enviable array of IPAs.
For Dave, the joie de vivre on show in small-batch brewing is what’s ushered in change. “While taprooms are obviously a positive addition there’s also a whole raft of new independent bars producing…I hate to use the word ‘craft’...independent beers that aren’t available from in wider pub co’s. Pub companies for many years have been figures-forward: the Excel spreadsheet being the most important thing. But I think growth comes from those people who are pushing the boundaries a bit, and making the offer different to what you can get in the high street. The general palate has improved and people are more curious about what they’re eating and drinking than they were previously.”
Roast gizzard and parsley root
This culinary curiosity continues to reward savvy landlords willing to push the envelope when it comes to food as well as beers. A prime example is James Lyons-Shaw, who opens his second pub – the Drumming Snipe in Surrey – with business partner Jamie Dobbin later this month. Their hearty, provenance-focused food harks back to a golden age of inn-keeping: cockerel in a roast gizzard sauce; cod’s tongue and cheek on toast; 35-day aged rump from rare-breed White Park cattle.
Dripping béarnaise, Pink fir apple potatoes, parsley root, and salsify on the side. Whole carcasses butchered on site mean a nose-to-tail menu, and prove the team’s love for traditional kitchen craft. “I think it’s absolutely key,” says James of this approach to hospitality, already exemplified at the pair’s first pub, The Greene Oak in Windsor.
“It’s probably easier for us to embrace as we’re both chefs. Having the knowledge and passion for produce is infectious, first to our staff and that knocks down to regulars. Maybe they want sharing steak, for example. It’s not necessarily on the menu but they know to ask and we’ll see what’s aged nicely. We’ll cut a piece off and cook it up for them. People know we take the sourcing of ingredients very seriously.”
Food is commonly cited as the component that’s kept pubs in business over the last decade, so why not open a restaurant? “Two English lads growing up, misspent youth playing in pubs on the pool table – you’re born with a love of it, aren’t you?” smiles James. “What makes life a bit more challenging is that a pub should always be open for walk-in trade.”
Ah yes, who hasn’t seen a local stripped of its swirly carpet and fruit machines, then reopened as a Farrow-and-Balled fortress with a frosty welcome? “We’ve all been in the situation when you think you’ll pop in somewhere and they turn their noses up and say ‘Sorry, reservations only’. That leaves a bit of a sour taste. People should be able to pop in; no plans, taken the dog for a walk…oh, let’s pop down the pub and have a roast. We have to maintain that. As soon as you start the ‘We’re fully booked’ line it stops being a pub, and a valued asset for the community.”
And here’s the cloud lurking beyond the silver lining: rural pub closures continue apace, leaving communities bereft of decent beer and more importantly a social space to enrich lives and tackle isolation. The Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) believes it’s too late for beer snobbery – all pubs should be embraced. “As far as we’re concerned a pub can serve whatever it likes,” says national chairman Nik Antona. “Once it’s there there’s the opportunity for real ale to come in at some point, but lose a pub and you lose a potential real ale outlet altogether.”
The good news is you don’t have to set up your own brewery – and tap room – to contribute to the next set of ONS figures on pubs. CAMRA has plenty of resources and advice for communities facing the closure of their prized boozer. “It costs a hell of a lot less to save something than it does to start afresh,” points out Nik, “so we rally our members to pubs in trouble and see what we can do to help. We want to see a decrease in pub closures, especially those pubs are a real asset to an area.” Big or small, our pubs are worth fighting for – one pint at a time.