According to a recent story in USA Today, the British pub is becoming an endangered species. Pubs in the U.K. are closing at the rate of 18 per week, and close to 6,000 have gone out of business since 2008. During the past five years, the number of regular pubgoers in the country has declined by three million.
For anyone who has spent time in the British Isles, this is sad news. Pubs in the U.K. are much more than bars: They are a place to congregate, gossip and connect, and often form the emotional anchor of a community. While this is obviously true in rural areas, it is also the case in cities, where the pub is sometimes the only place where neighborhood residents can encounter each other on a social level.
The reasons for the decline are numerous, but many are financial. Escalating rents and taxes are at the top of the list for many pub owners. Then there is the problem of cheap alcohol sold in retail outlets, which is frequently a fraction of the price of the same drink in a pub; beer in supermarkets can sometimes be purchased for less than bottled water. Then, too, the world has changed—once the only source of entertainment, the neighborhood pub now competes with TV, movies and the Internet.
I noticed a similar phenomenon when I was in Ireland several years ago. During the economic boom known as the Celtic Tiger, pubs in large Irish cities were morphing into wine bars and trendy restaurants. In many cases, the younger generation simply lacked the enthusiasm for serving drinks 16 hours each day.
In Britain, grass roots efforts have sprung up to fight the trend. Most notable is an organization called Pub is the Hub, dedicated to “offering advice and support to licensees, rural pubs and community services.” The group was founded by none other than Prince Charles, in an attempt to shore up the country’s disappearing traditional culture. As a result, many publicans are now diversifying, offering movies, clothes and books in addition to booze.
“The pub is unique in being an informal place where people can come together—locals and strangers—to chat and have a drink,” says Greg Mulholland, a Member of Parliament on a quest to save the local pub. “The Great British pub is part of our history and heritage, and also part of our way of life.”
Mark Spivak is the author of Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History, published by Lyons Press (Glove Pequot); for more information, go to iconicspirits.net.