A short Victoria Line pub crawl from Pimlico to Euston confirmed an impression I had gathered over the past year during which time I have, for economic reasons, mostly had to spend my time outside England, with only too brief visits back: the London beer and bar scenes are changing considerably, and for the better, in a way we have not seen since – well, certainly the riot of activity after the passing of the Beer Orders 20 years ago. In the early 1990s, guest ales burst up across pubs everywhere, and for a short while cask beer sales rose while those for lager declined, and small brewers able to supply those guest beers thrived.
That phenomenon was, sadly, brief, stifled by the rise of the big pubcos, who had no economic interest at all in promoting guest ales in the outlets they owned other than the beers they were able to buy cheaply in bulk, and no legal obligation (unlike the big brewers, busy divesting themselves of their pubs) to provide a variety of cask brews.
The changes being seen today are based on three developments that are not restricted to London – they look to be common in large cities across the UK – but London’s is the pub scene I know best, so you’ll forgive me for talking about them in a London context. One change is the increasing realisation by pub chains – and brewery pub chains especially, it appears – that the “old-style” tenant-pub relationship is no longer a one-size-must-fit-all solution. They have discovered that returns on a poorly performing pub can often be transferred by an innovative lease with an operator who will be – horror – selling beers other than the ones you buy in for the rest of your pubs, or brew yourself, but who will boost turnover so much they’ll be able to pay you a far higher rent than some poor tenant struggling, with no unique selling proposition, to sell a beer selection little or no different from all the other pubs in a half-mile radius.
The next development is the existence of entrepreneurs with the vision to take advantage of the opportunities those new sorts of pub lease, with much freer beer ties, can provide. It remains a fact that the pub tenancy is by far the cheapest way to set up a business with virtually guaranteed instant income in Britain: the initial capital outlay can be less than £20,000, whereas you will need at least five times that much to be a franchisee with McDonald’s, or KwikPrint, or whoever. There appears to be a group of people in their late 20s and 30s with a knowledge, appreciation and understanding of beer – not just cask beer, but the wider “new brewery” American and European beer scenes – who want to bring those beers to their fellows, and who are bold enough to put their money where their taste buds are.
Third, and most vital, of course, there is now a market for good beers of every description and with a global provenance, a market that, again, from what I’ve seen, appears to be in its late 20s and 30s. How big that market is, I’m not sure anybody knows. It’s different, certainly, from the older (in all senses) cask ale market, and it may be a bit too “Hoxton” (you’ll tell me if I’m wrong on that: but “hipster” Hoxtonites have a history of beer trendiness: Hoxton was the first place in the UK I saw Okocim in a bar, 20 years ago). However, this “eclectic beer appreciation” movement appears to be powering not just a rise in specialist beer bars that are different from the “14 handpumps in a row” cask ale emporia, but also a rise in specialist beer retailers. My home in West London now has two off-licences in the immediately neighbouring suburbs that have outstanding bottled beer selections, from Europe and the US as well as the UK, good enough to make trips up to Utobeer in Borough Market only an occasional necessity, rather than the regular journey it used to be.
Many readers will have guessed correctly from the title of this post that my journey went from Cask in Charlwood Street to the Euston Tap (and yes, that’s Zak Avery you’ll see if you click on that link), though I also stopped halfway, at Oxford Street, to call in at the Old Coffee House in Beak Street, Soho. Cask – properly Cask Pub & Kitchen – was a failing, run-down pub called the Pimlico Tram, about 10 minutes’ walk south of Victoria Station, when in 2009 the owners, Greene King, of all people (because Greene King have never seemed to be the most imaginative of companies), decided to let Martin Hayes have his way with the place. Less than two years later, Cask picked up the title of “tenanted and leased pub of the year”, against competition from across the UK, in the annual awards handed out by the trade magazine Publican: let’s hope this encourages Greene King to be brave with other “failing” pubs.