New figures from the Office of National Statistics show a small increase after ten years of large declines.

By Mike Pomranz
Updated December 11, 2019
Enes Evren/Getty Images

Times are tough for American beer right now. Sure, small breweries are booming like never before: This week, the Brewers Association announced that 2019 saw the U.S. crossing the 8,000 brewery plateau for the first time. But overall, beer sales are stagnant (if not declining) as drinkers shift to other options like hard seltzer, and suddenly billion-dollar breweries are being resold for "surprisingly" lower figures.

But beer, like most things, operates in cycles—and for proof, all we have to do is peer across the pond. Today, the British press seemed overjoyed to report that new data from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) shows that the number of pubs in the United Kingdom has increased for the first time in a decade. Brits had 39,135 pubs options as of March, an increase of 320 from the year before.

Though a less-than-one-percent uptick in pubs might seem insignificant, any gain at all represents a massive turnaround from the past ten years when, on average, 732 pubs were closing every single year (two-a-day, as it could also be said). By comparison, in 2008 (which the ONS defines as pre-recession), the U.K. had over 50,000 pubs to choose from.

And yet, despite this promising news, the increase in pub numbers may simply be indicative of things bottoming out just as much as it could signal a change in the pub industry's fortunes. According to The Guardian, trade group the British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA) suggests that their figures—which are different than what the government reports—could likely show that pubs are still in decline when they are released next year. And the group also emphasized that, regardless of the numbers, many of the underlying factors leading to pub closures—like increases in business and alcohol tax rates—haven't changed. "If people want to see pubs flourish, policymakers need to create the right environment for them to grow," the BBPA stated.

But these positive numbers also follow on the heels of other positive signs: Earlier this week, Wetherspoon—one of the U.K.'s largest pub operators (if not, personal opinion, one its best)—announced plans to invest $260 million over the next four years to develop news pubs and refurbish existing ones. And back in August, Greene King—another huge pub operator—was bought out by the Hong Kong-based CKA Group, which at the time stated its "strategy is to look for businesses with stable and resilient characteristics and strong cash flow generating capabilities." Big business, it would seem, is betting on pubs again.

However, CAMRA—a group that advocates for traditional pubs—also pointed out that the larger picture can miss some of the smaller trends. "We welcome this data that shows a slight increase in the number of open pubs nationally," Chairman Nik Antona stated. "Unfortunately, pubs continue to close, particularly in small or rural communities. This means the loss of the social, cultural and economic benefits that come with a well-run local."

Pubs are as much a part of British culture as the Queen and the type of football where you actually use your feet. So even while the fortunes were heading down, most people assumed pubs weren't on their way out. Whether 2019 marks the beginning of a turnaround is certainly yet to be seen, but at the very least, British pub patrons can finally say the numbers are headed in the right direction.

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