British pubs have been in steady decline for decades but the rise in craft beer may just offer a lifeline for the social institutions.
Tucked away on the outside perimeter of the Cotswold District is situated a rural village by the name of Great Wolford. A quintessential neighbourhood that in many aspects is a million miles apart from the daily concerns that impact the rest of the UK. Except that in this case the village is facing the closure of its only pub, a plight that has affected many communities. Figures from the Institute of Economic Affairs(IEA) show that approximately 11,000 British pubs have closed since 2006.
Desperate to rescue their local watering hole residents of Great Wolford have taking to campaigning in a hope to re-open the currently closed ‘Fox and Hound Inn’. Charles Pearmain is a tall middle aged man who has used the pub for 31 years and knows all too well of the loss. ‘I and a lot of older people used to just turn up, have a chat and then go home. We don’t have anywhere else to meet now and a complete generation have been left with nowhere to go.’
As an active member of the community Pearmain was responsible for creating the campaign to save the pub and feels the social cohesion of the village is being eroded as well. ‘We were always coming up with ways to fund raise. The pub was an area to exchange ideas. These ideas are no more now and as a result other activities are suffering because there is no starting place for them to develop from.’
Currently it is the hope of many of the people of Great Wolford that the Fox and Hound re-opens. Another possibility is beginning to emerge in the UK pub industry however. A micro pub as the name suggests is simply a small venue. However, most adhere to a set of values including selling only craft beers, ciders and wines. Craft beer sales have increased by 18% in the UK in the past 12 months. Three years ago there were 15 micro pubs in Britain, now there are 268. Experts at the Good Beer Guide have predicted that there could be as many as 5000 in the next 5 years.
Pubs and Social Cohesion
The passion for retaining a pub in Great Wolford derived from a sense that it provided a vital hub for local people. Robin Dunbar is a Professor of Evolutionary Psychology at Oxford University and he has published a report for the Campaign for Real Ale entitled Friends on Tap.
‘The key to the success and survival of the pub as a social institution and important community centre is that it has to bring people in and give them a sense of being allowed to talk to one another.’
He suggests that people ‘who have a local have more close friends’ and feel happier with life in general. Assessing the impact of the steady decline of pubs in the UK he feels that it ‘tends to result in a very big change in the dynamics of conversations.’ The reduction in opportunities to talk with people means that in effect ‘you are losing one of the underpinnings that creates community cohesion.’ After considering whether or not the rise in pubs that sell craft beer could offer a welcomed revival in social interaction Dunbar concludes ‘the answer is undoubtedly yes. The key to the success and survival of the pub as a social institution and important community centre is that it has to bring people in and give them a sense of being allowed to talk to one another.’
Times they are a changing
The social vacuum that is attributable to the demise of pubs of course has its roots in the changing society of 21st century Britain. Since 1992 Mark Papworth has spent much of his career working for brewing companies such as Greene King IPA. At close hand he has observed how pubs are becoming a less social place. ‘It began with the smoking ban, then there was the push to food, then there was the rise in home drinking and finally social media.’
‘Social media doesn’t allow you to deal with disgruntlement like in the old days. People miss that.’
With a versed reasoning that these changes have had a negative impact on physical friendships Papworth proclaims ‘when we were young you would go down to the pub to see what was happening in people’s lives and to cheese off if you’d had a bad day. Social media doesn’t allow you to deal with disgruntlement like in the old days. People miss that.’
In the practical sense he is also convinced craft beer is well placed to compete for customers in today’s competitive world. ‘Real ale is very hard for supermarkets to compete with. In a world where people really appreciate the quality of craft beer this has potential to grow and as a consequence could give people a place to sound off about their lives once again.’
Not everyone however feels the drift away from pubs has been a negative. Ken McGhee drunk in pubs through the 80s and 90s, and now chooses to drink in the peace and tranquillity of his suburban Suffolk home with his dog. ‘I don’t miss it at all and on the odd occasion I do go in (to the pub) I usually can’t wait to leave. I like the fact that I can sit at home and watch all the football and keep up to date with the world from my sofa and a micro pub would make no difference in persuading me.’
It is not only on a personal level that craft beer establishments could fail to make a mark. Chris Snowdon, Head of Lifestyle Economics, at IEA has released a paper called Closing Time. He’s very sceptical about any impact craft beer could have. ‘It is a very niche market and such a small percentage of the overall beer sales. While there are some advantages and it seems to be currently fashionable there is little real hope that it could encourage significant amounts of people to return to regular use of UK pubs.’
‘when you have lost your Inns drown your empty selves, for you will have lost the last of England.’
19th century French-born poet Halaire Belloc once beautifully symphonised the sentence, ‘when you have lost your Inns drown your empty selves, for you will have lost the last of England.’ The decline of British pubs is not a new phenomenon to our times. Watering holes have adapted throughout the years and it is a very real possibility that we are entering the renaissance of craft beer, where debate, social interaction and wit compete with televised sport, meal deals for two and technology.
For more on The British Pubs crafty survival
Watch– Micro brewery owner Kris Gumbrell talks about the social experiences of craft beer
Listen– Professor Robin Dunbar discusses the potential health and well-being benefits of social drinking.
Discover– A brief history of craft beer in the UK