Real ale could be secret weapon to stop coffee shops stealing customers

I discovered recently that one of the well-known High Street coffee shops is planning an experiment in one of their London sites, selling an expanding range of food and, more significantly, a small alcohol selection from 4pm each day. This follows on from one of the large burger chains starting to roll out sales of beer at some of their outlets. This means that, not only have some pubs in England been converted to fast food outlets but, to add insult to injury, they are now planning to sell beer too.

Whilst the vast majority of drinkers, I’m sure, don’t want a pint of eurofizz with their burger or latte, one can only hope that neither idea catches on. Pubs are already under huge pressure from not only cheap supermarket hooch, but legislatures in both Westminster and Holyrood who seems hellbent on heaping more regulations on an industry that is already the most regulated in the country.

However, perhaps it might act as a further wake-up call to the pub industry that they have to continue to up their game just to ensure that they don’t fall further behind when it comes to capturing the leisure pound – jings, how I despise that term. One thing that pubs still, by and large, have in their favour is their individuality, notwithstanding the attempts of the big boys to roll out pub concepts – there’s another despised term – to make their pubs as homogenous as possible. I have a list of pubs that I frequent, and it’s not just the quality or range of real ales that attract me, but the ambience and staff. You can’t say that about high street coffee shops and burger chains, whose whole ethos is that, whether you’re in the south of England or the north of Scotland, they all look exactly the same and you could be anywhere in the world, never mind the country.

When I first ventured into pubs in the late 1970s, it was the only leisure activity, apart from the cinema, that was available to people of my age – and you could hardly chat anyone up in the cinema. Now, of course, it has all changed and merely opening your doors is no way to guarantee success.

In fact, publicans have to constantly innovate to ensure that they keep their customer base. It is no longer enough to have a couple of different beers and satellite TV in the corner showing obscure sports at all times of the day. People simply won’t buy into that, metaphorically or literally, any more. Of the pubs I frequent these days, some do food, some can whip you up a fancy coffee, some have sport on the TV and some may even do all three. However, no matter whether they do some, none or all of these, one thing that they all have in common is that not only do they have a selection of quality real ales from all over the United Kingdom, they also have an ambience all of their own and, often, my mood will determine which pub I go to. I’m not saying that I have happy and sad pubs, solo and in-company pubs, but, like a lot of people, I don’t want the same thing all of the time.

In this day and age, when more 
people are looking at the provenance of the food they buy – witness the success of artisanal bakers and farmers markets – they also want the same when it comes to beer. I well remember a trip to the Isle of Skye in the early days of the eponymous brewery and being unable to get their beer in virtually any pub on the island – fortunately, I knew the owner of the brewery and was able to avail myself of his hospitality. These days, no matter where you go in Scotland, it is easy to get locally produced beers – not only because there are in the region of 100 spread all over the country, but because the people who run pubs in areas that rely heavily on tourists know that local produce extends further than the excellent food on your plate – it also includes the real ale in your glass.

I suppose that what I am really saying to publicans is that, in order to stay ahead of the game, make sure that your regulars, occasional punters and one-off visitors have something local to drink – it will often mean the difference between someone staying in your pub and recommending it to their friend or heading off to find a pub that does have local produce. As I have said here previously, there are loads of great breweries in Scotland. To publicans reading this – give your local brewery a phone and arrange to try their beers. You won’t be disappointed.

Colin Valentine, National Chairman, Campaign for Real Ale.