A Pub's Last Stand: What Happened at My Local When the U.K. Closed Its Bars

Pubs are a cornerstone of British society. What will we do without them?

On Friday evening, something many Brits considered unthinkable happened: Prime Minister Boris Johnson ordered all pubs (along with other venues like restaurants and gyms) to close "as soon as they reasonably can" to curb the spread of COVID-19.

Similar closures have happened in the United States, but as someone who's spent plenty of time drinking in both countries, British pubs are different. My "local" here in Sheffield—like many pubs across England—is a community hub. The regulars all know each other, all talk to each other, all wave if you make the unfortunate decision of walking by without stopping in. Some people go every day—and though I'm not one of them, I go often enough to see that other people do.

An empty beer glass outside a pub in London, England.
Dominic Burke/Getty Images

On Saturday, my local opened one last time before shutting indefinitely.

As has been the case elsewhere, though pubs were forced to closed, they can still offer takeout—and not long after Boris made his proclamation, a Facebook post began circulating that our pub would open at noon the next day to sell off its remaining stocks of cask beer to-go for just £1 a pint (or about $1 per 16 U.S. ounces—an incredible bargain). Like 7-Eleven's infamous Slurpee promotion, the owner said they'd fill any clean container.

Unlike American keg beer which can stay good for weeks, once tapped, a British cask beer's lifespan is measured in days. If not sold quickly, the beer from my local's six cask lines would all go bad—money almost literally down the drain. So, yes, this sell-off was a good value, but it was also a final chance to support the pub—something that's even more important to patrons like me.

"Pubs have been the cornerstone of British society for centuries, and are an intrinsic part of our local communities. We can only hope that many will be able to reopen when this pandemic is over and continue to serve their communities once more," a spokesperson for the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), an advocacy group for British pubs, told me via email.

By 12 p.m., a line had already formed outside my local. The manager, assuming people wouldn't be in a hurry to get to a "closed" pub, had planned to show up late. But a patron sent a photo to the owner, who contacted the manager, who rushed to open the doors. I stopped by around 1 p.m., and things were actually busier than most Saturday afternoons. Fifth in line, I watched two very different containers get filled: a beautiful glass jug and an old two-liter soda bottle. Another man poked his head in the door: "It's a pound a pint, right?"

"Yup," the manager responded, "but we're out of containers, so you have to bring your own."

"I'll be back!" the man exclaimed. I decided to come back later, too, when things had died down.

But by 3 p.m., things were even rowdier. After getting their container filled, many patrons were just plopping down on the benches out front of the pub and drinking. They had found a loophole in the system—you're not drinking in the pub when you're drinking outside the pub—and social distancing had gone out the window, too. "The police drove by and didn't say anything so I guess it's alright," someone said.

Though the police hadn't noticed the gathering, other people had, driving even more beer lovers in to take advantage of these £1 pints—despite the lack of to-go containers. No worries. The convenience store next door had a deal on two-liter bottles of water, so people were buying the 60 pence bottles and pouring the water on the sidewalk. That is until the convenience store ran out of water. Whoops.

I filled up the four-pint bag I had brought with me and went home. As much as the Brit in me wanted to join in drinking on the benches, I realized this "loophole" could prove deadly to others. Saying goodbye to the pub was difficult, but I would do my part and walk away.

Back home, the to-go pints went down with ease. Part of what draws me to British pubs is the uniqueness of cask beer. Whereas American beer is almost always force-carbonated, cask beer is more akin to drinking straight out of a brewery's fermenter tank. It's an experience that's rarely recreated at home, and as my wife and I drank through our two pints each, I realized that—though I had plenty of beer at home—I was going to miss cask beer a lot.

I was also going to miss the pub—as would a lot of people. "While public health is of course paramount, pubs play a huge role in combatting loneliness and social isolation," CAMRA's spokesperson also mentioned to me. "They are a real lifeline to people who may not have any other friends and family nearby. Their closure—at a time when many people are feeling isolated already—will have a huge impact on many people's mental health."

I checked the clock; it was 5:30 p.m. I figured one final social-distanced stroll to my local for a refill wouldn't hurt.

With the sun setting on England's first day without pubs, this time, my local was empty. "The police came and kicked everyone off the benches," I was told by the owner, who had showed up to shut everything down and enjoy a drink of his own. A table had been placed in front of the doorway to make it more difficult for people to approach the bar.

And yet, despite all the chaos, plenty of beer had gone unsold. "We're going to stay open until six and then call it," the owner told me. They'd drink as much of the remaining supply as they could while they batten down the hatches for what would likely be a long closure.

I asked if he'd be alright. "I'll be fine," he said with plenty of confidence but little explanation of how. His pub is independent and his primary source of income. I later found out that, at one point, a local popped in not to buy beer, but to simply hand over some cash, saying it's what he would have spent at the pub if it was still open. Clearly, though the owner said otherwise, some of the regulars were still concerned about the pub's prospects.

While we stood and chatted, a young man came in. "You're open for takeaway?" he asked. The manager said they were, but they were out of to-go containers. "Okay, I'll take two glasses of wine," the man replied.

We all gave him a weird look. "Wine isn't being discounted," the manager explained. "And you'll need a container to put it in." The guy looked back, equally confused, and eventually he left without anything. "What does he think he's going to do with those two glasses once he buys them?" the manager asked me.

It's a good question—but these are confusing times. Living with their pubs closed is something British people are going to need time to get used to. Sure, you can buy alcohol at the grocery store, but it's no substitute for your local.

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