British Pub Culture on the Rocks

>> Friday, February 19, 2010

As several of our august LGM colleagues are attending some high-falutin International Relations junket in New Orleans (as well as one of my colleagues from my department here at Plymouth), I figured I'd lighten the mood a bit with a post on . . . beer. It is Friday, after all.

Before I became an academic, I was an accomplished amateur brewer, two pursuits that ran in parallel until I got my Ph.D. and moved to Europe. I was also a judge and a critic, and had (have -- it's still live) a beer review page on the web that I updated between 1994 and 2003. Indeed, my first two "peer reviewed" articles were on beer, not political science, and they remain proudly on my cv (if at the very end). OK, those are my bona fides out of the way; suffice it to say I know my way around a pint.

One thing I love about Britain is the pub culture, and this isn't limited to just those pubs that are featured in the annual CAMRA Good Beer Guide, but the culture and concept of the "local", which is not as common in the United States. Here, most pubs are locals -- populated by a core of regulars who are known to all and especially to the staff. There are three pubs in Plymouth where I am always warmly welcomed, and there is a certain comfort in that. Furthermore, at nearly every pub, it's not only accepted, but expected, that if you're standing at the bar, you strike up a conversation with those near you. You're expected to be social; pubs are social spaces. This is less prevalent in the U.S. -- though it does exist most everywhere in the States; I immediately think of the Big Time Brewery in Seattle, where I spent the better part of my graduate career (indeed I listed it in the acknowledgments of my dissertation), and the Tugboat Brewery in Portland, Oregon. But it's the exception, not the norm.

This is one of the cultural features that make British pubs appealing. Sadly, they're dying a slow death, which prompted CAMRA to present a report to Parliament discussing the "vital social role of the community pub". According to the British Beer and Pub Association, pubs are closing at 39 per week in the UK. This is down from a high of 52 during the first half of 2009, so at least it's attenuating (pun explicitly intended). However, in March of 2008, the closure rate was only 57 per month.

When on Monday my good friend Tandleman posted this about his local, the Tandle Hill Tavern (north of Manchester) I became concerned. It's not a death sentence, but considering the local climate of the business, and the remoteness of the Tandle Hill, it is cause for concern. I've been to this pub numerous times over the years (indeed if one were to do a google image search on it, there appear to be several of me, including this one: Tandleman himself is on the left, I'm on the right) and it exemplifies all that is good about British pub culture.

Politically, what can be done? It's well known that the smoking ban in England and Wales has hurt business, but that's not going to be rescinded. What can be done is an adjustment to tax policy. Pubs are being hammered by super markets that sell booze as a loss-leader. Why go to your local when you can go to Tesco and get a 12 pack of Stella Artois (nicknamed "wife beater" on these islands) for the cost of three or four pints in the pub? In nearly every annual budget since I moved to the UK, the government has raised the duty on a pint. This can be reversed (although in the current fiscal climate, I can't see how any British government can justify lowering any tax) and greater weight of responsibility accorded to store-bought crap lager.

I'd drink to that. As it's Friday, pushing 5pm, it's time to do my part to keep the culture alive. I'm about to leave my office and make the treacherous 30 second walk to my local here, to join in with several colleagues for a post-work pint.

Or five.


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