People like us…is pub and beer culture holding up a mirror to a divided society?

I had the pleasure of listening to the wisdom and knowledge of a bloke in the village local last night. That he’s nearly 25 years older than me seemed to be irrelevant. I felt lucky, reflecting on our conversation this morning. I’d learnt stuff over a couple of pints. However, a couple of this week’s social media comments made me think about the tribes in our wider world of beer and pub culture.

My local, like many of the best pubs, is a place to find mutual subjects for conversation but also to accept that others have different views and backgrounds.  A few years ago,  I was talking in the Tan Hill Inn to a retired London fireman. He was saying, that in his experience, it’s worth chatting to people you don’t know because 80% of folks have something worth hearing. In many ways, we seem to have lost that willingness to seek knowledge from others, search for common ground and accept others’ heartfelt views.

I wonder if our beer and pub culture is increasingly reflecting the political and social attitudes in our society. A world where John McDonnell tells us he could never be friends with a Conservative. Was it ever thus, or these days do many of us only want to be in pubs and bars with ‘people like us’ and therefore exclude others? We seem to have a social media world where real ale/craft beer and big beer/microbeer divides seem to move too easily from gentle teasing into personal vitriol.

On Twitter, Pete Brown expressed the exclusion he perceived in the Goose Island brewpub in Shoreditch.

“Absolutely love the beers at Goose Island brewpub in Shoreditch but on the basis of several visits, the braying clientele, pounding music in the middle of the afternoon and snotty, hostile attitude of the staff all make it clear that people like me are not welcome here.” (My highlighting)

Have such bars become the opposite end of the spectrum to those seemingly tough pubs where only the late great pubman Alan Winfield (and his latter day disciple BBM) would swing the doors open? These days are we all sticking to our personal pub exclusion zones?

And as I muttered about Brewhouse and Kitchen in the comments on a recent RetiredMartin blogpost, Stafford Mudgie quite rightly highlighted the similarities with the Firkin pubs of old.

“David Bruce had a similar idea with his Firkin pubs over thirty years ago – except that his beer was a sensible price and he didn’t bother with the Kitchens or smoking sheds.”

Surely not, would I have gone to Firkin pubs all that time ago on the basis of being with only people like me and my mates? Me elitist, a shocking thought. In the modern era, is my aversion to many micropubs and microbrewery taps to do with feeling excluded by endless focus by closed groups on obscure beers, or an illustration of my unwillingness to move on from my definition of a proper pub and a pint of Bass?

There are many tribes in the beer world. Perhaps it’s time for us all to dismantle the barricades and find common ground. Well, until my mate Clive tells me to put down my Ruby Mild and try a Sherbet Saison.

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Are pubs in our National Parks missing out?

It’s difficult selling beer in a pub in the UK’s National Parks – a lack of residents, a reliance on seasonal tourists and the issues of drink driving for day visitors, particularly in Scotland, make it a tough job with limited rewards.

Of my top ‘local’ pubs for beer quality, two have changed hands in 2019 and one is up for sale. Many landlords are now in their 60s and beyond. The tough life of a rural publican means that many are calling time on their pub career and others are restricting their opening hours. Will we miss them when they’re gone? We’re already missing them.

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In addition, I wonder if these pubs face an inherent bias that means they struggle to gain their due recognition? I have no doubt that CAMRA branch volunteers and beer & pub guide compilers don’t seek to discriminate against remote pubs. However, these pubs are difficult to get to (particularly by public transport) compared to the average urban local and there are few people to provide feedback even in these days of internet tools.  The somewhat historic survey dates on WhatPub illustrate the issues, even for some current GBG pubs.

With regard to being recognised in the GBG, the pubs in the National Parks have the issue of remoteness together with a struggle to sell enough real ale to have a wide choice. The oft-reported perception that you really need to have at least three real ales or more to get in the GBG may or may not be true.  It’s certainly true that new landlords feel the pressure to ring the changes and increase the choice whatever their volumes. Pleasing beer tickers and setting up micropubs isn’t possible in my patch, without risking beer quality.

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In addition (certainly in my area of the Peak District) the pubs in the National Parks are allocated across a multitude of CAMRA branches/sub-branches, often meaning that they are on the fringe of areas dominated by a large town or city with masses of beer choices. In my relatively small patch (in terms of pub numbers) of the White Peak we’re split between Chesterfield, Ashbourne, Matlock, Sheffield, High Peak and Staffordshire Moorlands branches. The split must make it difficult to achieve consistency in selecting the best pubs in the area never mind the remoteness.

With the best will in the world it’s unlikely that these pubs in the ‘difficult to get to’ fringes will be in the forefront of CAMRA volunteers’ minds. I realise that many branches have a rural award category but in many ways that feels like ‘the exception that proves the rule’. Does creating a rural category acknowledge a problem of recognition? I think so.

In financial terms, life can be very difficult for a pub in the National Parks. It becomes even more difficult if you struggle for recognition. Perhaps it’s time for our National Park authorities to get together with CAMRA and recognise the special qualities of these pub gems before they disappear? A National Parks’ pub of the year anyone?