The King's Arms
If you're a regular reader of newspapers (or iPads) you'd be forgiven for thinking that every pub in Britain has now closed. Rarely a month passes without new figures revealing the rapid decline in pub numbers - the latest from research company, CGA Strategy, shows a total of 3,444 closed between December 2008 and June 2011. Together with the smoking ban, falling disposable incomes and the knock-down prices the supermarkets charge for alcohol, it doesn't seem surprising that the industry is in such poor health.
Or is it? In the same period the CGA research reveals that 1,528 pubs actually opened. And, of the pubs that closed, poor management rather than a dwindling love for the British boozer was often the reason for failure. "There are an awful lot of pubs in very small areas. The good pubs are staying in business and the ones falling by the wayside didn't change with the times," explains Eamonn Manson, owner of The Sands End pub in Fulham.
Family-friendly food pubs
The impact of the smoking ban, introduced in the UK in 2007, can't be ignored, admits Manson. But while it has no doubt kept people away from their local, leading to pub closures, it has also altered the shape of those that remain. "Pubs have changed hugely since the ban, they are now family-friendly places," he says. "People regard them as places to go for dinner rather than just for a few pints. Pubs are investing more in their kitchens to put better quality food on their plates."
The Draft House
A cheeseboard at London's The Draft House
The meteoric rise of the gastropub is testament to this, and the future for many pubs now lies in competing against the restaurant world. Not only can this be seen at the top end of the spectrum, with an increasing number of pubs being awarded Michelin stars - The Hand & Flowers in Marlow became the first gastropub to win two stars this year - but across the board. The large pub groups have increased their activity in food, including the 295-strong Orchid group, which has begun putting pizza ovens in its sites and pub giant Mitchells & Butlers, which has converted a number of old sites into foodie formats. The company is even trialling a food-led version of its Irish-themed chain, O'Neill's.
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The big brewery fightback
The ability to get better food down your local boozer is not the only trend happening in the industry. In the future it will be increasingly likely that your trendy, independent neighbourhood pub, complete with reclaimed furniture and funky art, will be in the hands of the big boys, who are snapping up their more innovative rivals. In 2010, Young's bought food-led pub group Geronimo Inns, and Greene King took control of premium London pub company Realpubs earlier this year. Similar deals are likely to be made next year.
So, does this spell the death knell for the good old-fashioned boozer? Are the days of popping down the local for a pint of ale and a bag of pork scratchings numbered?
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Beer is back
The good news is no, says Charlie McVeigh, founder of London-based The Draft House pub group, whose sites stock an impressive range of craft beers. "The drinks-led pub has been seen as the stepchild of the industry, but it has got real legs now," says McVeigh. "There has been an explosion in the number of breweries in the UK and pubs are getting more in touch with their local breweries. Customers are demanding better beer and are willing to pay more for it."
The King's Arms
The cosy interior of Geronimo Inns' The King's Arms
Growing demand isn't only reserved for the raft of more expensive Belgian and US craft beers now on the market. Figures from Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) show the number of people drinking real ale has risen by 40% over the past five years. "There has been such a big resurgence that we are getting rid of lagers and putting on ales instead," says Manson.
Indeed, the British boozer is far from dead, asserts Robert Cook, head of the Hotel du Vin chain, which runs two drinks-focused Pub du Vins as well as the Fox & Anchor pub in Smithfield. "I'm fed up of hearing about food-led pubs," he says. "People seem frightened of beer because they don't give it enough respect. We've treated beer like fine wine and got it right."
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A measure of success
The introduction of the new two-thirds pint measure in October has also been designed to help. Indeed, as well as pints and halves, The Draft House sells its beers in one third of a pint measures, encouraging people to experiment and try the growing number of stronger beers on the market.
In short, what this all means is that while pub numbers are declining, the quality of what's left behind is increasing dramatically. Whether it is Michelin-starred food you want or a pub meal with the kids, a pint of real ale or a draught of something more exotic, pubs are finally stepping up to meet the more discerning needs of their customers. I, for one, will drink to that.
Always enjoy alcohol in moderation - visit the Drink Aware website for the facts
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