FOOD In the iconic pubs of Britain, ale sales ail

By Jane Wardell

Associated Press

LONDON — Raise a pint to the old British pub: Dark-paneled, fixed on the English landscape — and, more than ever these days, empty.

Beer sales in British pubs have slumped to their lowest level since the Great Depression, including a 10 percent drop in pints drawn in just the past year, an industry group said Monday.

Blame a nationwide smoking ban that took hold last year, rising costs, competition from supermarkets and an economic downturn that has more Britons tossing back a Newcastle or Boddingtons at home and skipping the local watering hole.


"I used to go two or three times a week after work, but now I just stay at home and go once every now and again," said Chris Hanson, 43, a carpenter heading to a grocery in the Camden neighborhood of London.

"I do more drinking at home now than at the pubs. They’re more for special occasions since it’s becoming so expensive," he said.

Beer sales in pubs for April through June were down nearly 5 percent from the same period a year ago, the British Beer and Pub Association said in its quarterly Beer Barometer report.

The report said pub managers around Britain are pulling around 14 million pints a day, 1.6 million fewer than last year and 7 million fewer than at the height of the market in 1979.

The Campaign for Real Ale, a consumer group promoting traditional pubs, says more than 1,400 pubs made their final "last calls" last year. The campaign says more than half of British villages are dry for the first time since the Norman Conquest of 1066.

But how can it be? Beer has been such a staple across the country that bars in many rural pubs are still adorned with personalized drinking cups for regular imbibers.

"Most people are a bit bored with beer," explained Anthony Buck, a manager at the Lock 17 bar in Camden. He said beer is being overtaken by drinks like hard cider, which, he said, "is a lot more fashionable."

The assocation says the average price of a pint is about $5, although it can vary considerably from one pub to the next.


It’s not that Britons are walking away from beer altogether. The same report showed sales in shops and supermarkets rose nearly 4 percent. The pub industry has criticized supermarkets for selling beers in packs at a lower cost to draw business.

In the United States, beer sales are not tracked specifically from bars, so it’s difficult to make a comparison to the British trends, said Eric Shepherd, executive editor of Beer Marketer’s Insights, a leading industry newsletter.

But he said anecdotal reports from bars and restaurants suggest more people are staying home to drink, perhaps because of high gas prices or the weakening economy.

In Britain, the beer and pub association, whose members brew 98 percent of Britain’s beer and include nearly two-thirds of the country’s pubs, fear the slower sales will mean more pubs will have to close.

Chief executive Rob Hayward said the government should rethink its alcohol tax, which brings in about $180 million a year. The industry blames annual increases in the tax for a large part of its troubles.

"We need a change of approach from the government," Hayward said. "Brewing is a major industry, beer our national drink, and pubs a treasured part of our national culture."

Some fear the sliding pub sales will have another effect — spurring pub owners to return to promotions that encourage binge drinking, such as selling cheap drinks until a team scores in a soccer match.

About half of the 57,000 pubs in Britain have ditched a voluntary ban on aggressive happy-hour deals and other promotions after the beer and pub association said it could violate European competition law.


That has raised speculation about an intense price war among pubs in Britain’s major cities and towns.

"Sadly, the trade repeatedly shows that it cannot be relied upon to consistently act in a responsible way," said Chris Allison, a spokesman for the Association of Chief Police Officers.

To take up the slack, some pubs are turning to fish and chips, stepping up the food side of their business. Mitchells & Butlers, Britain’s second-largest pub group, said last week that beer now accounts for just a quarter of all its revenue.

Pub chain Enterprise Inns, which owns about 7,700 pubs, says it’s struggling to compete with other pressures on its customers’ money, including high mortgage costs, gas prices and bad economic news.

Then again, some customers suggest it might not be a bad thing for pubs to be forced to adapt to changing demand.

Ian White, 44, an information technology director for a hospital, a nonsmoker visiting London from Leeds with his wife and three sons, said he goes to the pub more these days.

"They’re increasingly more friendly to families, the quality of the food has increased," White said.

"The ones that are closing aren’t seeing the threat and the opportunity. Their old clientele who just wanted to booze and smoke are less inclined to go, but people like me are more inclined to go."

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