Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - February 2009

* The Poundland Arms *

Greene King IPA at 99p a pint exposes the pricing complacency of much of the pub trade

WETHERSPOON’S decision to offer Greene King IPA at 99p a pint has certainly attracted a lot of attention. The predictable outcry from anti-drink pressure groups that it will encourage binge drinking is easily dismissed. IPA is a rather bland beer of moderate strength that generally appeals to an older male customer base who typically may only have a couple of pints anyway. The idea that their pubs are suddenly going to be inundated with former Stella drinkers swilling gallons of the stuff just doesn't stand up – if nothing else, it would be fairly hard work getting drunk on IPA anyway.

In reality, this is just a headline-grabbing initiative by Wetherspoon’s that will heighten the public perception of their pubs as places offering good value – which in a recession is no bad thing. It’s unlikely to make much difference to overall consumption patterns, or even prompt many drinkers to switch pubs. People will continue to pay a lot more to drink better beer in more characterful pubs.  

But it does throw into sharp relief how, over the years, much of the pub sector has been very complacent on pricing. There has been an assumption that, year-on-year, prices can be increased by a bit above inflation, and the customers will put up with it. But most other sectors of the economy have been exposed to severe price competition, so why should pubs be exempt?  

Surely the generality of the pub trade need to at least give some impression that they are doing something about prices – maybe, for example, offering one draught beer a week at 50p a pint off. You don’t need to discount everything you sell, or even very much of it, to give an impression of being price competitive, a lesson the supermarkets have learned very well. Some of the major pub companies have now started giving price support packages to their hard-pressed tenants which allow them to offer discounts on some of their draught beers, and this is only going to become more common as the recession bites.

* Drinking in the Atmosphere *

The character of a pub is just as important as the quality of the beer

ALTHOUGH you may get cheap beer and reasonable, good-value food in a Wetherspoon’s, in general they have about as much pub character as an office canteen, and certainly around here they would never be anywhere near my first choice of somewhere to drink. Even where they are housed in impressive buildings, the pub part seems to sit rather awkwardly amongst the architecture and never really does it justice.

From my earliest days of drinking, I found the differences in character between the pubs just as interesting as those between the beers, and the pub environment is as important to me as the beer in my choice of drinking venue. There is far more to pubgoing than just having a drink.  

Now I like a good pint as much as anyone, but presented with a stark choice between somewhere that offered excellent beer, but was a vast impersonal barn of a place with nothing but high-level posing tables, and a cosy, comfortable pub with real fires and good craic, but only keg on the bar, I suspect I might well choose the latter. However good the beer, the amount of enjoyment it can deliver is limited if it can only be drunk in uncongenial surroundings. Fortunately around here there is still no shortage of excellent, characterful pubs with good beer, so customers do not have to face that particular dilemma.

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