Britons buy more of their beer in supermarkets and bottle shops than they do in pubs and restaurants. So what can publicans do to make us give up on the comfort and convenience of drinking at home? Beer Sommelier Anthony Gladman goes in search of the magic ingredient that you can’t get in a can.
I was judging an international beer competition the other day, along with a few dozen fellow judges. On a stiflingly hot day we gathered in London to sample over 60 different beers each. Nice work for sure but still a long day requiring a lot of concentration. So what was the first thing we did after all that sampling? We went to the nearest pub of course to enjoy more beer in larger measures.
Off-trade sales (i.e. sales of beer to be drunk at home) have been climbing steadily for many years now and overtook on-trade (pub and restaurant) sales back in 2015. Last year 46.9% of beer sales were recorded by the on-trade, with the remaining 53.1% coming from the off-trade.
So what can a good pub do to pull in drinkers, especially the increasing number who are seeking out craft beer? I spoke to Anselm Chatwin, Director of Grace Land, who runs a chain of five pubs in London including The Kings Arms and The Earl of Essex. His pubs specialise in rotating craft beers, with an average of 20 draft lines each. For him, a having a variety of fresh beers on tap is definitely key. “We’re finally out of that lad culture of just downing huge quantities of beer. It’s more akin to a wine bar now, where people want to try new beers and new breweries. It’s definitely gone to quality and flavours as opposed to quantity.”
Having so many taps also allows for a certain amount of balance. If a beer that Anselm knows his customers will enjoy is quite expensive, he can balance it out by putting cheaper beers on other taps. And rather than putting on 20 IPAs and pale ales, he can ensure a range of options to suit all his customers. “We have people who come in and say they really like saisons or ask what sour beers we have on. Twenty years ago, when I was starting out working in bars, people would come in for a pint of Guinness or something, and they’d stick with that all evening. I think that is definitely a thing of the past.”
His pubs do have a few core beers still. Anselm says it’s good to have an easily recognisable name on tap, especially as some of the other beers can get quite expensive, quite strong, or quite exotic. “You definitely need a safety net of easy-drinking, sensibly priced, understandable beer that everybody knows.”
Anselm stresses that it’s also important to look beyond the beer. He recalls drinking in craft beer dens that didn’t get this right. “My girlfriend didn’t want to come with me because that was no fun for anybody who wasn’t a total beer nerd.” The result being, of course, that he didn’t visit as often. “When we opened the Earl of Essex, we wanted to do the rotating beers but we didn’t want to exclude other people. So we always try to have a really good gin selection and wine selection, and to create a really nice ambiance as well.”
What’s clear is that there is still an appetite for drinking in pubs, but it’s no longer one that publicans can take for granted. Simply selling beer is not enough; customers can probably get it cheaper and with less hassle elsewhere. Good pubs recognise this and give drinkers a compelling reason to visit. When it’s done well, this mixture of ambience, variety, and freshness is a winning combination. The comfort and convenience of drinking at home is appealing but it can never replace that magic ingredient that a good pub can supply.
Anthony Gladman is a Beer Sommelier and freelance writer based in London. Anthony loves beer and wants others to love it too. He runs tutored beer tastings, food and beer pairing events, and training sessions. He is a member of the British Guild of Beer Writers, and a World Beer Awards judge. You can find him online at anthonygladman.com, and as @agladman on social media.