Last year witnessed the rise of no- and low-abv beers, the decline of cask and an ongoing proliferation of IPA styles. But which pub trends should we expect to prevail in 2019, and how will these evolve?
Veganuary gets a whole load of air time, but will we see veganism pushing into the mainstream this year and are customers actively seeking out vegan drinks?
Lauren Soderberg (LS): This time last year, we wouldn’t have had many questions from customers about what beers are vegan, but now, especially with Veganuary, people are more aware of what’s in their food and drink.
Simon Bunn (SB): Some of our pubs have taken that measure to be more inclusive, and all the beers produced on site are unfined* and vegan friendly. That’s fine if you’re in Bristol, but it’s a different culture there to, say, Sutton Coalfield, where they like their beer clear.
Richard Yarnell (RY): A number of small craft breweries are no longer using isinglass finings in their beers, and are deliberately leaving them unfined to maximise their appeal. Similarly, for a lot of them, gluten-free is actually becoming the norm.
*Isinglass, derived from dried fish bladders, can be used for the filtration of beers.
No- and low-abv beer made great strides last year, with craft launches and some that (shock horror) actually tasted like beer. How is the category set to grow?
LS: Of the 70 different bottled beers and ciders on our menu, both Heineken Zero and Erdinger Alcohol Free are in our top 15. There’s a slight trend for skinny lagers as well, but alcohol-free beers tend to have less calories than standard beers, so we’ll probably stick with them.
RY: It’s a category that’s just going to continue to grow. There’s an interesting tipping point where it becomes a sustainable offer on draft rather than purely packaged – we’re probably not far from that.
SB: We looked at producing our own non-alcoholic beer, but it was cost preventative and you need quite a lot of equipment. We sell the Erdinger non-alcoholic beer, St Peter’s is doing some good stuff, and we’ve looked at expanding into 2.5% beers as well.
LS: There’s an increase in breweries putting out table beers (2.5%-3.5%) – The Kernel produces an excellent one – and we’ll see more of these in wet-led venues and restaurants where people want something to drink with their meal.
Which beer styles do you think will be big this year?
RY: The shift towards world lagers and craft beers will continue, and there’s still room to go in IPA with all sorts of variations on the theme. It’s a competitive market and you need to have a brand and liquid that people really believe in. Crowdfunding campaigns are a good indicator of that – some quickly overfund, while others struggle to hit their targets.
SB: We did a saison that sold really well throughout the estate, with each pub having its own recipe. Double IPAs are quite interesting, but the volume product is still going to be lager and we’re seeing a rise in lager-only craft breweries.
LS: IPAs act as an introduction to the more niche craft beers. Our third best-selling beer is called Kona Big Wave, which is a 4.4% pale ale from Hawaii. People are more knowledgeable about the different hops and flavours you can get from them now. That’s partly the move towards premiumisation and certain breweries who’re bringing craft into the mainstream.
Heath Ball (HB): We’ve found everybody is venturing off the high-abv IPAs lately. We put on some really old stuff down at [Hoxton real ale pub] The Wenlock Arms like Captain Bob – it’s a proper traditional beer – and that absolutely flew out. The trendy beer drinkers are just desperate to expand their horizons.
Cask sales were down 6.8% last year. Will 2019 see their further demise?
RY: Cask needs a good shake up, but any resurgence will take time. It’s wallpaper to millennials, who just think ‘that’s what the generation before me drank’. There’s some amazing liquids, but I think there are presentation issues, whether that’s glassware or presentation on the bar. We’re doing some work with temperature control on cask, as we know younger drinkers prefer their beer served at a colder temperature.
SB: We’re moving from eight casks to four casks and four kegs. We’re also selling our cask beers a little colder than previously. Guests don’t seem to mind the chill haze.
HB; I’d hate to see it fall to the wayside again, but it does seem to be slowing down a bit. You need interesting brewers doing it.
LS: There’s been quite a lot of talk about cask being on its way out, but BrewDog and Cloudwater in Manchester have started doing it again, and I visited Thornbridge in the summer and their cask beer sales are going really well. I think we’ll start seeing breweries upping their cask game as it were.
There tends to be a furious backlash when beloved craft brewers are bought out by beer multinationals. Are you noticing a subsequent drop in sales for those brands?
LS: Heineken having a minority stake in Beavertown means bigger volumes and better distribution, opening up craft to more people. Gamma Ray is a really solid beer, but if they start changing recipe and the quality goes down, then you might question whether selling was the best thing to do.
HB: We all saw the push back with Beavertown, but would you say no if someone offered you all that money? Most people don’t mind, [although]the real die-hard beer fans want to support the small guys doing the different styles and being properly creative.
SB: I don’t understand the negative sentiment and beer snobbery – it’s going to improve beer quality across the board. To be honest, it’s a bit of a threat to us because you can get good craft beer in lots of places now.
HB: Dark Star is still doing really well for us, even though Fuller’s owns it now.
Last year was all about the demise of the plastic straw. What will be the sustainability issue of 2019?
RY: We’re seeing significant growth in brewers converting from bottles to cans. From an environmental perspective, they’re lighter and take less energy to recycle than glass. Additionally, you also can chill them down faster, they’re easier to move and take up less room.
Cans used to be tainted by the ‘stack ‘em high, sell em’ cheap’ supermarket multipacks, but that’s certainly changing and the off-trade is helping, with M&S or Waitrose starting to embrace cans.
HB: Hopefully the emotions stirred up by plastic straws will pass onto other issues, because we waste so much in this industry. Key kegs became so trendy, but no one’s really recycling them in the UK, so you have these huge plastic things you’re just chucking in the bin. People complain about straws, but how many straws are there in a key keg?
Will our shaky economy and political uncertainty hamper the ongoing trend towards premiumisation?
SB: All our research shows that people are willing to spend more for a better product, but who knows what’s going to happen with Brexit. Prices will certainly keep rising, it’s just a question of how fast.
RY: Premiumisation is here is to stay, It’s a way of life now, especially for the on-trade. It’s always been that small reward and escape from the stresses of everyday life.
LS: In certain respects, I think people will become more price conscious. There’re people who’re more open to the smaller measures, and paying a little bit more for a little bit less. We have quite a pint culture in the UK, but I think people will be looking at halves and schooners and even thirds. Imperial Stouts (12-13%) have seen quite a rise in popularity. They can be more expensive, but people are more likely to sit with a third than they used to be.
More than a quarter of Britain’s pubs have closed since 2000. What’s the secret to thriving in these ongoing tough trading conditions?
SB: There’s always a focus on pub closures, but no one ever reports on pubs opening where there wasn’t one before. We’ve opened [22 venues in five years], then there’s a whole load of new micropubs and the likes of lounges coming in, or café bars as they call themselves, and they’re mainly in retail spaces.
LS: Ultimately it’s about being flexible and pubs recognising what works for them. A focus on customer service is a big thing, especially with craft beer – staff need to be trained and know their stuff in order to sell those products. You’ve got to be constantly changing, pubs can get complacent with their offerings. Locality and seasonality are key and we’re looking to put on some limited-edition collaborations with breweries.
RY: It’s really important to start with brilliant basics – food and drink, amenities and you’ve got to offer great service because the greatest competition is now the stay-at-home market.
HB: You can go to the new trendy place, but if there’s isn’t good service and banter then why are you there?
There’s a lot of emphasis on providing an ‘experience’, do you view this as being key to the pub offering?
SB: Traditionally the pub was just a social space, a local community hub, but they’ve become more than that. We have a microbrewery in every pub and, where possible, that’s centre stage. Every Thursday we have a ‘meet the brewer’ night, and they’ll talk to the guests, provide samples and play games. It’s really important, especially for new customers, and it provides an authenticity around us as beer specialists.
We’re also developing our gin masterclasses, and rum is definitely gaining some traction, so I wouldn’t say we’re too far away from doing a rum masterclass.
LS: Everything needs to be Instagrammable and our Florist venues are the perfect example of that. We also offer customer experiences like ale tasting, gin and cocktail making masterclasses. We want our customers to be more engaged and to be able to learn a bit more to help them choose their drinks.
HB: We get loads of tickers – you know people who go round with a little book and write down every beer they’ve ever drunk. It’s like stamp collecting, and some have about 10,000 beers in their books. First time I came across one, I thought he was a tax inspector. Anyway we run Ticker Tuesdays at The Wenlock, where we have different styles of beer on.
RY: We’ve done things like craft beer festivals and residencies, but I genuinely believe there’s something to be said for walking into a pub and having a brilliant experience with an engaging team and a great food and drink range.
Millennials tend to be the early adopters of trends. What will be the secret to luring them into your pubs this year?
SB: Everyone goes after young people like that’s the best audience, but I think there’s a lot of more mature people who aren’t being catered for.
HB: I just find the whole millennial thing really funny – it’s like the older generation is scared of them and don’t know how to handle this market. Instagram has become a sport on the London scene – designers do big neon signs and everyone wants to be the first to take a photo with them, then it’s onto the next. Nobody interacts, they’re all on their phones.
The London bar scene is eating itself alive, trying to cater to all these trends. What about just having a good offer? The Wenlock is nothing fancy, it’s just a proper real ale pub, but it’s full of millennials and hipsters and everyone else in between because we’re not trying to pull the wool over their eyes. It’s about authenticity and being honest.