Saturday 24 January 2009

The futures bright, don't be square

I feel a little like I'm neglecting this blog at the moment. We have a pub to open up and it's taking a large amount of my time. But still, the gents are serviceable again, not finished, but better than they were when we closed last year. The cellar has a new ceiling, all insulated and just needs the joints filling and painting. The bar is just about ready to serve beer once the orders arrive next week. So I can digress onto some subjects that are floating around my thoughts.

I started this blog primarily to tackle some of the issues relating to pubs. Specifically, the preconceived ideas the more vocal complainers have about what a pub should be. The problem as I see it is that the market for that "perfect" stereotypical pub is shrinking. Making money out of the old fashioned pub model is getting harder and harder to do. Hence the increase of food lead pubs, pub restaurants and wine bar style operations.

We recently undertook a pub research trip similar to one we did previously. I find writing up these trips tedious and time consuming and, more importantly, I'm not happy with the resultant posts. On the most recent night out we visited a place in Keswick which intrigued me and I think there are lessons to be learnt, so I shall concentrate on that.

The Square Orange gained entry into the Good Beer Guide for one year in 2008. During the life of the guide the local branch received a complaint from a CAMRA member who did not think the café bar should have been entered. I believe the complaint was along the lines of it not being a proper pub. For me, the Good Beer Guide is about where I can get a good selection of well kept ales, end of.

I had remembered about the reporting of the complaint, and at the time it had bothered me. After all, I may not agree with all the entries in the guide but the people who make the choices care about what they are doing and it is a reasonably democratic process. I realised that having not been to the place before I had to try it out and judge for myself.

It does exactly what it says on the tin. It is a continental style café bar that also serves local real ale. The concept has always intrigued me and I like this place. Not only does it have real ale but you can get a good coffee or better still hot chocolate, a boon when Ann is driving. They also serve continental beers and an interesting selection of soft drinks. Why does a good beer place have to be a pub? Why is the concept of a pub so narrow in the UK?

In this instance, even though I like it, I don't believe the Square Orange should be in the Good Beer Guide. I don't think the cask selection, or when I was their, the beer quality, is good enough. This might undermine the argument I'm making and we should bear in mind that beer quality and selection is a fixable problem. The point is that there is a diverse market out there. This is a market that is more and more choosing restaurants, café bars and gastro pubs over the traditional boozer. If a traditional boozer has to sell Walkers crisps, have soup on the menu and always have the option of chips, regardless of their quality, have a Coca Cola machine, dart board, cooking lager, duke box, fruit machines, smoking shelter.....then it will continue to loose out to the competition.

This is of course where the staunch beer fan is suffering a dissonance. There are many new style, beer retail, on licence premises that are appearing. There are many pubs that are changing their style to enable them to change from a non-viable outlet to one that might just make enough money to enable it to get the roof repaired, one day. We can continue to dwell on the past and lament the failing British pub or we can embrace a future that includes a more diverse way of retailing beer.

It's raining again, my roof is old and very large. It is leaking in some places and although we've replaced the worst bit there is still more to do. Many customers tell us, "What you wana do is.....", which really means, "What I want you to do is...." and normally involves a scheme designed to save the customer money and risk me losing what little profit I have. 


Boak said...

I'm with you on this. I love a good old-fashioned pub (providing the regulars don't stare too hard) but I also love the cafes you get on the continent, particularly in France. If you want a beer and your friend wants a coffee, it's absolutely fine. Not that the beer in France is usually anything to write home about...

A cafe selling real ales sounds great to me.

Alistair Reece said...

I totally agree, why should a place that sells beer be defined by the narrow concept of a "pub", with all the cultural baggage that comes with that concept? Surely a place where they care enough to produce a good pint should ALSO be a place to get a decent cuppa, glass of wine, soft drink or food?

If, as we so often get reminded, the aim of a good pub is to be the social heart of a community, then it can't afford to simply cater to beer drinkers, but also the wider community?

Perhaps that is the very reason that many pubs are going to wall, they have no appeal beyond their core clientele.

Unknown said...

Boak, I like a good old fashioned pub as well, but British pubs are only starting to do coffee well.

Velky Al, The contradictory problem here is that broadening appeal can also dilute to the point of an unsatisfactory one-size-fits-all solution. Which is the problem many have to wrestle with.