Monday, 26 October 2009

Home brew


Missed in the beer blogging world, as far as I can see, were BSkyB's stellar 3Q earnings. Pretax profits rose 39.5% y/y while revenues shot to £1.38bn, boosted by the addition of 94,000 subscribers. The twitterati may be spluttering into their lattes about Rupert Murdoch's quaint belief he'll be able to make cash from online content by sticking it behind a paywall, but his son James knows his onions (even if he is, like his dad, a rightwing bastard).

Pubs, normally seen as a stable sector in a downturn, have endured terrible trading conditions in this recession. This reflects a number of changes in society, both its leisure options and attitudes to alcohol. As I've written before, with the likes of facebook making the spontaneous pint a thing of the past, that just-pop-in-for-a-brew trade is dying
(see if Steve and Mary fancy a drink, organise where to meet - the tarted up cocktail bar, the Aussie wine place or is it on with the pullovers to that pub with the ales?). We work long hours, so we flop home - these days an attractive place to be, especially with the internet, on demand TV (who needs DVD boxsets?) and an exciting wave of bottled beers available from a range of sources. To the non-beer connoisseur, the price difference is far too much to warrant going to the pub frequently.

The pub is in this recession facing unparalleled leisure competition.

Add to this the puritanical tone of the baying press, constantly howling against 'Binge Britain' and I suspect there are plenty who avoid conspicuous consumption out and about and prefer to indulge at home with the husband, wife, significant other, kids or whoever they see so little of.

In this context, £30 per month for Sky+ is a no-brainer, especially given that's almost the cost of one night out down the pub if you're eating there, too.

Which means one thing - there are too many pubs and many more need to close for the sector to be competitive and for those running them to be able to make a living. This does not mean the fight to retain rural pubs is lost. There can and should be review of planning laws that assumes a community must have a pub
as standard and CAMRA ought to more robustly market its knowledge on how locals can jointly campaign to save pubs and even club together to run one.

But the broader picture is this - for pubs to survive there need to be fewer of them and we need margins to rise, especially for real ale - a premium product sold at a ludicrous discount to megabrew swill. Prices will need to jump. Anyone who's boozed in Ireland will know where we're heading.

15 comments:

Curmudgeon said...

It does often seem to happen, though, that where pubs and bars thrive, they cluster thickly, whereas where they struggle, they become thin on the ground, so there seems to be a kind of "critical mass" factor at work.

Woolpack Dave said...

A sound argument Mr John. But then you would know, being in the know and all that.

jesusjohn said...

Curmudgeon: I agree totally. For example, here in Cambridge most of the truly go-to beer pubs are in the same area. There are others but the ability to do a mini crawl of decent boozers seems to have created, to use Pete Brown's terminology, a value chain. It certainly proves there are ways to beat the recession by carving a niche. But there are two caveats: if every pub were a beer paradise, often seen as the panacea by beer lovers who see their usual haunts outperforming the sector nationally, would we see more pubs succeed? I suspect not as that trade would be spread too thin. Second, you've got to protect margins. At the Cambridge Blue on Sunday, cask Punk IPA was £4.00 a pint. The licensees, running a free house, set very fair prices for the area but this cask was not cheap so they expected customers to pay a price that delivered a margin. I suspect such common sense seldom prevails when it comes to ale prices.

Tandleman said...

Good article that. Unfortunately I haven't much time to comment, other than to broadly agree.

jesusjohn said...

Dave and Tandleman - thanks gents.

Curmudgeon said...

The issue of supply and demand in the pub trade is a very complex one. It is certainly true that, if the demand for pubgoing falls, then over time the number of pubs will fall too. In fact the closure of pubs tends to lag considerably behind the fall in demand, so you end up with a number of struggling pubs with few customers which in itself can be somewhat offputting. (It also must be said that if you introduce an external legislative constraint that makes pubs significantly less appealing to half their customers, the results are fairly predictable).

However, it doesn't necessarily follow that, if you reduce the number of pubs, it makes the others stronger. The decision to visit a pub is very much dependent on a specific combination of location and circumstance, and if you alter one factor it may well sway the whole decision. People visit pubs for a vast range of reasons about which it's very hard to generalise, and it's all too easy for commentators to assume that others' motivation tends to be the same as theirs. Probably making a deliberate decision to go to the pub in preference to other leisure options only accounts for a minority of visits.

As an example, if someone regularly walks to a pub in their village, and that pub closes, the odds are he'll stop going to the pub entirely rather than use whatever means available to go three miles to the pub in the next village. In contrast, if the petrol station closes in his village, he'll drive three miles to the nearest one rather than stop driving. And even if there are other pubs easily accessible, there may be very good reasons why the customers of one closed pub won't use those that remain.

I certainly do feel that the "critical mass" factor I referred to before is a reality, as it leads to pubgoing being regarded more as a normal activity in that particular area. A good example is the Manchester suburb of Chorlton-cum-Hardy, which is a prosperous and somewhat "yuppified" area (typical of many city suburbs across the country) where a lot of new bars have opened up and there are probably more than twice as many on-licences as there once were. A lot of these places do offer something interesting on the beer front, but they aren't by any means exclusively or indeed mainly used by beer buffs. On the other hand, some of Manchester's more down-market suburbs such as Levenshulme have lost half their pubs. If nobody else in your circle goes to pubs, then you won't either. It also seems to me that the city of York supports considerably more thriving pubs with interesting beer than you might expect for somewhere of its size (and in comparison with similar places such as Chester).

jesusjohn said...

'However, it doesn't necessarily follow that, if you reduce the number of pubs, it makes the others stronger. The decision to visit a pub is very much dependent on a specific combination of location and circumstance, and if you alter one factor it may well sway the whole decision. People visit pubs for a vast range of reasons about which it's very hard to generalise, and it's all too easy for commentators to assume that others' motivation tends to be the same as theirs.'

This is all true - especially that last bit. One must be cautious.

For example, as I hope I made clear in the post, I do consider the village pub scenario separate. It is vital that it be dealt with but as you say, demand plays its part.

On the subject of demand, I agree that 'the closure of pubs tends to lag considerably behind the fall in demand' so I consider the high number of pubs closing to be a correction reflecting structural demand. You muddy the waters a bit with a discussion of all licences premises - I should make clear I mean pubs as we know and love them, not any All Bar One or Revolution that turns up.

On this I think you're spot on: 'a prosperous and somewhat "yuppified" area (typical of many city suburbs across the country)' - this is where pubs can thrive, as the bastard Guardian-reading scum like me (who are only too happy with the smoking ban, ta very much) will go there to drink local ales, imported brews and eat homecooked food.

Cf. the Mill Road area of Cambridge:

http://www.the-cambridgeblue.co.uk/

http://the-geldart.co.uk/default.aspx

http://www.localsecrets.com/showreview.cfm?id=7825

http://www.kingston-arms.co.uk/

http://www.thesalisburyarms.com/

...most of which do very well indeed.

Curmudgeon said...

You muddy the waters a bit with a discussion of all licences premises - I should make clear I mean pubs as we know and love them

It is interesting that Chorlton has seen a number of new venues open up that are very much bars rather than traditional pubs, but also focus strongly on the beer side, such as the Bar, Marble Beer House, Dulcimer etc.

As a generalisation it's probably fair to say that in the future going to pubs will become more of a niche activity than it once was, and vary more between different areas.

jesusjohn said...

'It is interesting that Chorlton...'

It is indeed interesting and commendable. One of the things the ubiquity of the pub has done is retard the development of a decent bar culture, which is - I think - going to change, as you suggest.

I have no doubt at all that pubs will survive - places with decent beer, home cooked grub and locals, too. And there'll be lots of them.

As you say, it'll be more of a niche thing and there will be other licenced premises selling decent drinks, too.

Curmudgeon said...

A very relevant comment in this article by Chris Maclean:

"Worse still is the idea that you can profit from another's demise. People believe that if their nearest competitor is destroyed in this process somehow they'll be able to mop up the additional business. How wrong can they be? A closed pub seems to blight the area. It seems to me that, if you drive through an area, if one pub is shut then the others nearby are struggling."

Bailey said...

I think rural pubs are a different kettle of fish to urban ones. Densely populated areas need fewer pubs than they have now, based on what I see in our part of London. And good pubs beget good pubs -- people walk from miles around in Walthamstow to get to the village because there are several OK pubs; if one's full, there'll be space in the one round the corner. Or, as you say, there's the option of a crawl.

Villages should look to combine multiple services in one building (as some are doing). I love the idea of the combined village shop/pub/post office.

Tandleman said...

More as a remark than anything, I was so pleased to see the pubs in the parts of the Midlands and beyond I have recently visited, thriving on midweek nights.

It was like old times. I must try and think why?

jesusjohn said...

Tandleman: Having read your post, I suspect your patronage will have aided the local pubs' coffers!

Perhaps this is a case of the clustering effect Curmudgeon was talking about. A few pubs with a decent reputation so people see it as a go-to area, which reinforces the locals' pride in the place and keeps that now-famous value chain going.

Mine's a pint.

Tandleman said...

Mudgie is on to something with clusters I'm sure.

Curmudgeon said...

Yes, what I'm suggesting is that clusters create a virtuous circle that potentially increases the total amount of pubgoing rather than just moving it around.