As beer enthusiasts, we are often reminded of our obligation to support the public house. I adore pubs, and love to spend hour upon hour in them socialising with friends, and when I drink at home I experience a very, very mild pang of guilt. I’d estimate that at least half of my drinking takes place at home, and I began to wonder why that is. The beer boom of the last 10 years has seen massive growth in the variety of beers available to us; by ‘us’ I mean those in the bubble – ‘craft beer’ hasn’t yet entered the mainstream. If we accept that better beer is the result of better/more ingredients and appreciate the tighter margins experienced by smaller breweries, then we expect to pay for it. However, there’s clearly a tension between ‘the modern beer drinker’, or ‘the drinker of modern beer’ and the traditional, older generation of (often cask ale) drinker in terms of our respective expectations of the price of beer. To be clear, I’m not saying all ‘craft beer’ or beer brewed by independent breweries is of a high standard – that would be myopic.
This made me ponder whether ‘craft beer’ is compatible with the traditional public house. Hyperbole? Well, consider this – how many of you spend your Friday nights drinking, photographing and sharing photos of your beer on social media? We have virtual events on Twitter complete with their own hashtag almost every night of the week, with the beer community coming together in virtual pubs. Surely Friday night of all nights is to be spent down the local after a hard week’s work? Is this another sign of the fragmentation of society, or merely a new way of drinking? It can’t be as straightforward as either, so I created a poll on Twitter asking ‘Where does the majority of your weekly drinking take place (total volume consumed as opposed to episodic sessions)?’, with the two options ‘Home’ or ‘Pubs/bars/taprooms etc.’. The results showed that 57% of respondents do most of their drinking at home, and they gave a myriad of reasons for doing so, adding nuance to my hyperbole.
Where does the majority of your weekly drinking take place (total volume consumed as opposed to episodic sessions)?
— Peter Joseph McKerry (@PJMcKerry) March 3, 2017
Firstly, I’ll outline my own reasons for drinking at home. I like it. I’m a homebody, and simply enjoy a beer at home on a Friday night while watching TV or a film. Cost is also a factor. It’s indisputable that drinking at home is less expensive (supermarkets have been undercutting pubs for years), and to be perfectly honest I’m less likely to get myself into trouble if I go home rather than straight to the pub at 4pm on a Friday (I frequently fail to locate the stop button). Also, many of my friends have young families or busy social lives – we recently had to create a Facebook event six weeks in advance to get people together for a Sunday roast! I also patronise a very select array of pubs that are entirely dictated by my taste in beer, meaning I’ll walk past 5-10 other pubs on my way to the Duke’s Head in Highgate, for example. While this is understandable, it does make me wonder whether I’ve become detached from the simple pleasure of going to the pub as an end in itself rather than insisting on going to one that serves ‘my beer’. Then again, I may be being too harsh on myself here. I don’t sit and deconstruct every beer I drink when at Duke’s or a similar establishment; rather, the beer facilitates a good evening rather than determines it. I’m much more likely to analyse a beer drank at home, and have even been known to take notes. If nothing else, I certainly know how to party.
It was pointed out to me by more than one of the respondents who work in the industry that most of their drinking takes place at work, with zero taking place at home. This is probably a wise move; it’s well documented that those who work in the industry have a greater propensity to develop a problem with alcohol, but that’s one for another day. Location was another reason cited by respondents, with home drinker @h_doody stating ‘if I was within walking distance of Stirling town centre that would probably change’. For him, costs are not confined to the price of the beer on sale, but also the travel costs incurred in getting to a major conurbation with an abundance of good beer.
We all know that pubs are closing at an alarming rate, but while I don’t have the numbers to hand, anecdotally and observationally London seems to be bucking the trend. For a certain type of pub that is (there’s that bubble again) – London is strewn with empty shells, supermarkets and housing blocks that were clearly formerly pubs. My visits to the pub overwhelmingly involve a walk to the aforementioned Duke’s or its sister pub The Prince, or my work local The Old Fountain for a post-work pint (2-4 pints, more accurately). Returning to my slightly mischievous point about whether craft beer is compatible with the traditional public house, a look at Cloudwater’s projected packaging split for 2017 demonstrates the importance of bottles and cans to them, and I’d expect the same goes for many similar breweries. I previously wrote about the public house here, which may add context to this post, and it was concerned with how the way that we drink is evolving. I expect more and more breweries will look to open taprooms in the coming years as it’s the most profitable way of getting their beer to their customers. Cities such as London, Leeds and Manchester can support ‘beer destination’-type pubs and bars, which form part of a ‘scene’. Not everyone is going to obsess over beer and nor should they, so there’s a place for food-centric pubs for those after a less formal experience than a restaurant, and Wetherspoons for an inexpensive session. However, outside of the main towns and cities, I’m unsure whether ‘craft beer’ and pubs are compatible, dusty bottles of Punk IPA aside.
So the conclusion to my poll? The majority of people who drink at home do so because they don’t have access to pubs that serve their preferred style of beer, and/or because beer in pubs is too expensive in comparison. The online retail business has thrived in recent years, and I’d wager that the majority of its sales are generated outside of the major towns and cities with easy access to good beer. While people have always drank at home, it seems to be a key feature of ‘craft beer’, for better or worse. I’m not interested in defending all pubs (despite my aforementioned guilt), just as I’m not interested in drinking or promoting all beer. I’ll support good pubs, my pubs, and if everyone does the same then there’s really nothing to see here.