Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - May 1998

* Old Curmudgeon's Almanack *

To celebrate the fifth anniversary of this column, I thought I would take the opportunity to leave off grumbling about the present day and gaze into my crystal ball to see what the future may hold. But that's notoriously difficult to do, and the only thing about the future that's certain is that it's not going to be like you expect it to be. Weren't we all supposed by now to be driving around in jet-powered hovercars? And wasn't new technology supposed to free up unprecedented amounts of leisure time, rather than making us work ever longer hours analysing mountains of crap produced by computers?

On the beer front, who would have imagined that keg beer, which had been completely discredited and in steep decline, would be reinvented as nitrokeg and suddenly become a marketable product again - even though it's basically just the same old rubbish? Or that half the pubs in the country would now be stocking more varieties of real ale than they can turn over properly? On the other hand, many prophets of doom have been saying for a long time that there will be a shakeout in the pub trade leading to the closure of tens of thousands of pubs, but - apart from a few depopulated inner city areas - it just hasn't happened.

In view of this, I wouldn't dare to say that this will happen, or that won't. But I suspect the following will be some of the key questions which the next ten years will answer:

  • Will nitrokeg make such inroads into cask beer that it becomes the standard beer in most pubs? Or can real ale continue to hold its own? The jury is still out on this one....
  • Will the next recession finally bring about the oft-foretold cull of pubs - as it is obvious that many pubs are even now struggling along on very thin trade?
  • Will the apparently inevitable reduction in the drink-drive limit lead to an upheaval in pub-going habits, and a tidal wave of closures, or just give a slight boost to existing trends?
  • Will we ever get full measures legislation?
  • Can CAMRA continue to be a broad-based consumer movement, or will it metamorphose into what is essentially a club of beer connoisseurs drinking niche products in niche outlets - something of which there are already clear signs today?
  • Will the risks to bar staff of passive smoking lead to pubs being forced to become basically non-smoking, with the option of a separate smoking area? And how will this affect single-room pubs?
  • Will the gap between British and French beer duty ever be reduced, or will Gordon Brown carry on screwing the British beer drinker regardless of the wider consequences?
  • Or will the European Union start taking an interest in alcohol from a health standpoint (as it does with tobacco) leading to upward, not downward, harmonisation of duties?
  • Will the health concerns which have affected the tobacco industry now increasingly be redirected at the drinks trade, making 1997 in retrospect the high water mark of a liberal licensing and taxation climate?

If you think you have any answers to these questions, then please share them with us.

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