The celebrated historian and beer blogger explains why we should no longer fear the fate of the London pub industry
Did you know 25-50 pubs are closing down every week?
Former community hubs currently languish behind whitewashed or boarded windows, peeling paintwork and half-hearted ‘To Let’ signs in every town and city.
But what happens to the pub that’s closed down?
Estate agent Christie & Co claims that 60 per cent of the failed boozers that hit its books are eventually sold on to re-open as pubs. That 25-50 a week is a net figure which takes account of these repoenings, but they do suggest that the terminal decline of the pub is not quite as simple as it might seem.
A pub is of course a retail business. Like any retail business, it requires an entrepreneurial brain and a facility with people. As a pub, it also requires a genuine interest in beer
The curse of pub ownership is that it’s a romantic ideal for many drinkers. “One day I’d like to retire and run a pub,” is an often-heard refrain of the dull, ambition-stunting workplace. But… retire AND run a pub?
The problem is, that’s a contradiction in terms.
Big PubCos are perfectly happy to take someone’s life savings or redundancy in return for a leasehold or tenancy, from people who are were never capable of running profitable pubs. When the money runs out and the impoverished publican withdraws with crippling debts, there’s always another to take his place.
A pub is of course a retail business. Like any retail business, it requires an entrepreneurial brain and a facility with people. As a pub, it also requires a genuine interest in beer.
“But entrepreneurs like Jamie Hawksworth, Martin Harley and Martin Hayes routinely disagree. These three, and others like them, are taking on London pubs that the biggest PubCos in the country have given up on”
Publicans who lack this combination of skills simply open the doors and wait. When the punters don’t appear, they turn the music up to create ‘atmosphere’, pay through the nose again to show Sky Sports on a big plasma screen, install bigger and shinier lager fonts, maybe put on a karaoke night, cutting corners on quality and attention to detail to pay for it all, advertising each increasingly desperately, until you end up with the fluorescent starbursts in the front window that effectively scream “Stay away – this place is a shithole.”
When the end comes, the landlord – and perhaps even the PubCo – will declare that the location simply can no longer support a pub.
But entrepreneurs like Jamie Hawksworth, Martin Harley and Martin Hayes routinely disagree. These three, and others like them, are taking on London pubs that the biggest PubCos in the country have given up on. They are transforming them into some of the capital’s busiest, most talked about pubs. And they’re making the whole thing look easy.
Hawksworth’s Euston Tap, Hayes’ Cask Pub & Kitchen in Pimlico, and Harley’s Jolly Butchers in Stoke Newington, all have one thing in common. They’ve gone back to the core principle of what pubs are about: good conversation, and good beer. They’ve stripped out the garish fonts, the TV screens and karaoke machines, shown a bit of pride in the decoration, bringing out the best of old buildings. And they’ve offered London drinkers selections of beer like they have never seen before.
These guys were not the first to open craft beer pubs that stock no recognisable brands, instead offering boutique beers that can cost upwards of £20 a bottle. The Rake in Borough Market opened five years ago as an outlet for Utobeer, the market’s speciality beer stall, and pubs such as the White Horse in Parson’s Green and Lowlander and Porterhouse, both in Covent Garden, have proud histories of stocking eclectic brews.
“Critics say it’s impossible to keep that many beers in good condition given the subdivision of rate of sale.
Hayes’ bar manager, Tom Cadden, says it’s impossible to get the beer in fast enough to meet demand – an altogether higher quality problem”
What’s striking about these new ventures though is that each one attempts to raise the bar in terms of the diversity of its range. Each becomes more specialist, and as it does so, it attracts more and more drinkers – not just beer geeks, but curious fans of artisanal food and drink searching for something similar in beer.
At the Cask and at Jolly Butchers, the two Martins have taken over places that failed after chasing the lowest common denominator, and create huge success by moving to opposite end of the scale.
Hayes’ latest venture confirms the trend. The Glasshouse on Leather Lane, Clerkenwell, was long a favourite of market stall traders, but reached a point where the landlord was tired, and so was the pub. Sometimes shabbiness can be charming to the unpretentious drinker, but eventually even that wore off, and owners Greene King were at a loss for what to do.
In June Hayes and friends stepped in, polished up the building’s Victorian features, and reopened it as the Craft Beer Co. Eighteen real ale handpulls and a range of obscure lagers and keg ales from around the world add up to over 40 draught beers available at any one time. Critics say it’s impossible to keep that many beers in good condition given the subdivision of rate of sale. Hayes’ bar manager, Tom Cadden, says it’s impossible to get the beer in fast enough to meet demand – an altogether higher quality problem.
Craft Beer Co has a very neat, slick logo, and the name itself a deliberate lack of sense of place, which suggest this could be the first in a chain of such pubs. I certainly hope so. If you want to see what the craft beer revolution is all about, it’s all there.
Just don’t ask for a Foster’s Top.
Pete Brown is one of the UK’s leading beer writers, working across business and consumer press. He’s the author of several best-selling books and blogs at petebrown.blogspot.com. He was recently named joint-37th most influential person in the British pub industry – a claim he strenuously denies.
Read Pete Brown’s last column Why I write about beer