Why British Pubs Are Closing
It’s 10 p.m. on a Wednesday night, and I am in a crowded pub called Two Sheds in Sheffield, England. Part of the reason it’s crowded is that, as the name implies, Two Sheds is pretty damn small. “It’s meant to be a bit scruffy, like a shed, with a wooden floor, and desks, stools and chairs that came from an old school,” owner Arthur Jackson told Exposed Magazine after opening this bar and bottle shop in a corner storefront last year. In the U.K., these kinds of smaller watering holes, located in former retail locations, are referred to as “micropubs.”
As I stare out the window, across the road, I can see into The Punchbowl. Beyond their sale of beer, these two businesses couldn’t be much different. The Punchbowl is a large, standalone, multistory, traditional pub both inside and out — the kind of place an American might conjure up if asked to imagine a pub in Yorkshire. Another major difference between the two: On this particular night, The Punchbowl is completely dead. And as I discovered researching for this piece, it’s up for sale.
The United Kingdom has a pub problem. Don’t worry. There are still plenty to go around: 38,815 pubs according to a report last year from the U.K.’s Office for National Statics. But that’s down from 52,500 pubs 17 years prior. And this week, the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) released figures showing that the decline is continuing: Over the past six months, on average, 14 pubs closed every week across the United Kingdom. “Pubs are a very important part of our national culture and are valuable community assets which help to combat loneliness and social isolation,” Jackie Parker, CAMRA’s National Chairman, pleaded in the announcement. “Our politicians should back the asks of the Save Our Pubs Campaign in full, and show they are squarely behind pubs.” That ongoing CAMRA campaign has petitioned the U.K. government for better tax rates and other regulations to help boost pubs’ margins.
On a positive note, the previous year, pub closings were at 18 per week, so the issue is improving. But pub closing stats alone don’t tell the whole story. First of all, CAMRA’s stats are only for closings; they don’t take into account pub openings. Now, it’s certain that far fewer pubs are opening than closing, but some bright spots do exist — like micropubs, for instance.
Anecdotally, in Sheffield, micropubs are flourishing. My local, The Beer House, is a micropub, tucked between a hair salon and a French pastry shop. I’ve spoken to the owners of other tiny pubs housed in storefronts across the city — The Ale Club, Guzzle, Itchy Pig — all of which opened in the past two years and claim to be profitable — regularly bringing in more patrons than some of their larger, traditional counterparts.
CAMRA wasn’t able to share any specific statistics on micropubs but did support the phenomenon. “Micropubs play an important role in bringing real ale to new places, filling gaps on high streets, improving choice for drinkers and providing a catalyst for real ale revival,” Katie Wiles, CAMRA’s Senior Communications Manager, tells me. “We see many micropubs do particularly well due to the fact that they are quite small — their overhead costs and staff costs are low and they can be a bit more agile with their business.”
In many ways, that final statement is more telling than any numbers can be. As the BBC reported last year, on-premise beer consumption has dropped significantly since 2000, and the number of Brits who say they drink has also dipped. But in some ways, pubs face bigger problems. “Pubs are struggling against a number of costs — from high taxes to large pub owners taking more than is fair from profits,” Wiles continues. “As a result, many pubs are forced to either raise their prices or close their doors forever. Price increases can lead to lower turnover as it becomes increasingly unprofitable for a consumer to visit a local, which can create a vicious cycle.”
Another vicious cycle is the importance of pubs themselves. Pubs are, as Parker stated, a major part of British national culture, but not just because they give Brits a place to talk or watch rugby: Many pubs are historically significant as well — beautiful, traditional buildings, regularly a century old or more, sometimes on large plots of land. But speaking of “overhead costs,” large, old buildings are a pain in the ass to operate and cover the bills on — especially in areas where patrons can be very particular about the price of their pints. (Unlike in the U.S., in the U.K., pints are regularly priced in five and ten pence increments because drinkers are so cost conscious.) Sometimes, the desire to save a pub and the ability to keep it in business simply aren’t as compatible as we might like.
This reality hits home as I stare across the street at The Punchbowl. Every part of me wants to see this pub — described by the realtors as “a characteristic, imposing predominantly two storey building of brick and stone construction with a painted and rendered mock Tudor facade” — survive. Too many classic pubs have been turned into offices or apartments or retail shops. But here I am, standing in a former retail shop, a micropub called Two Sheds, because they serve better beer from the breweries I like. Clearly, pubs are having a harder time staying in business than they used to, but at the same time, many traditional pubs simply are unable or unwilling to change with the times. Two Sheds, meanwhile, is — by design — not Sheffield’s most glamorous pub, but it certainly is “agile.”
Despite CAMRA’s efforts to the contrary, Wiles concluded her email to me by explaining, “We are likely to continue seeing pubs close over the coming years.” As much as I hate to see it, I know it’s true.