Britain's pub scene is thriving but transforming

Susanna Forbes

16 September 2016

Around 1,000 pubs make their debut in the 2017 CAMRA Good Pub Guide, published this week, alongside over 1550 breweries, an increase of over 200 since last year.

Edited by renowned beer journalist Roger Protz, the guide is seen by many as a barometer of the health of the pub industry. Despite pub closures still making the headlines, Protz is upbeat about today's scene.

'We're not drinking more but we are drinking better,' Protz told Imbibe, 'It's very sad that 21 pubs are closing a week, but there are wonderful new pubs opening,' he said, albeit in more unusual settings, from disused railway arches to former pharmacies.

The rise of the micropub has been well documented, but larger formats are succeeding too, according to Protz, citing The Parcel Yard at Kings' Cross St Pancras, now one of owner Fuller's most profitable sites.

The Good Beer Guide includes 4500 pubs each year, with an annual turnover of roughly a quarter. All pubs are nominated and further checked by CAMRA's branch network. 'I think [this turnover]  is a good thing,' said Protz. 'Consumers are looking for the very best thing, and CAMRA members are too.'

Food quality is a factor which continues to improve. 'When the Good Beer Guide started, we never spoke about food. It was a cheese sandwich and a packet of crisps,' said Protz. 'At a time when budgets are tight, you get such good value in a pub.' The number with beer lists and promoting food and beer matching is growing too, a feature that Protz would like to encourage.

The region with the highest percentage of new pubs in the guide is Central Southern, which includes Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire. 'There are some very active CAMRA branches there,' Protz told me, singling out Aylesbury, where a striking amount of pubs had applied for and won Asset of Community Value status.

The region with the least turnover is the West Midlands. 'Birmingham is stuffed with some of the most amazing drinking establishments,' said Protz, mentioning The Bartons Arms. Resurrected by Oakham Ales in the noughties, it boasts breathtaking Victorian interiors, tasty Thai food and a guest rollcall which includes Laurel and Hardy and Charlie Chaplin.

Elsewhere, however, pubs in the old industrial towns and regions are still under threat, said Protz. While he feels the ACV legislation should help, he’s realistic about the prospects for the Market Rent Option coming in as part of the new Pubs Code legislation. 'My expectation is that the big pubcos will try and fight tooth and nail to stop this working,' he said 'It's going to be a big battle and it's far from won.'

The situation can change though. 'I thought I was going to say goodbye to the Tally Ho in Finchley,' said Protz. One of 80 Wetherspoon pubs earmarked for sale, last week Protz heard that Stonegate Pubs had bought it. 'They are a very good pubco,' he said. 'They give their managers lots of freedom to buy in whichever beers they choose.'

£15.99, CAMRA's Good Beer Guide 2017, www.camra.org.uk/en_US/gbg

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