Jim Duffy comment: Rising beer prices could call time on pub culture

It's time to address the costs of running a pub in the UK or they will disappear, says Jim Duffy. Picture: contributed.
It's time to address the costs of running a pub in the UK or they will disappear, says Jim Duffy. Picture: contributed.
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People will always pay for ­alcohol. It’s the legal drug that we enjoy socially. If prohibition in the United States proved anything, it’s that making the consumption of alcohol illegal provided a booming trade. But in Scotland today, where there is no ban, why is a pint so expensive and how is this affecting our drinking habits?

The main ingredients for a pint of lager or heavy beer have not changed over the centuries. What has changed is that instead of thousands of little breweries dotted all over the land producing the “local brew”, we now have mass produced brewing factories pumping out thousands of gallons for the global markets. One would think that the price should have come down drastically due to the economies of scale. Yet here we sit with beer and lager as pricey as they have ever been.

More than half of UK adults are struggling to afford to drink and socialise in pubs, according to the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA). The average price of a pint in London is a whopping £5.20. Remember, this is just the average, with the upper end costing £7 and more. Across the country the average price hits £3.50.

My local in Glasgow, which was a free house so had no tie with any specific brewery, still charged £5 for its “premium” beers from the tap. So, while London is generally more expensive due to the cost of living, the rest of us still suffer from overinflated beer prices. There is no surprise that one of the most expensive places ­outside London to enjoy a pint is Edinburgh, at £4.35 a pop.

Recently, in Spain I ordered two pints of a well known branded beer. The cost was only two euros per pint. So, beer across the globe has variations in pricing. Same quality, same branded beer, for less. Why is the UK so expensive and what impact is this having on the consumer – you and me?

The CAMRA research found that 56 per cent of drinkers believe the price of a pint of beer in a UK pub has become unaffordable. Beer duty taxes, VAT and business rates all contribute to the cost before a ­single drop is dispensed. This, in turn, is fuelling continued pub closures. But is it the cost of a pint alone that is steering us away from pubs and into our own living rooms? If things were that bad we would all be investing in home brewing kits.

No, what is actually having a multiplier effect on us staying away from paying five quid for a pint is the enormous buying power of the supermarkets. These big retail beasts have given over whole aisles to alcohol, in many cases even two. This is significant prime real estate in terms of revenues and profits, which means they must be making good money, while we get cheap beer. It’s no surprise that we’re tempted to just buy what we want from the supermarkets (the range is phenomenal) and stay in as opposed to go out and be charged a small fortune.

Let’s say you and me go out for a few pints. We get a lift to the pub and then have four pints each. Seems fair and a decent night out. That will cost you about £20. Then we take a taxi home. The night has then cost you around £30 with no food and no fancy cocktails. That’s £60 between us. Now, let’s try the same thing buying from the supermarket. Eight decent beers will cost £12. No taxi needed. We buy a big supermarket-made pizza at £4 and the whole night has cost £16. Hard to beat.

Yes, the price of a pint is soaring and does not look like it is going to stop increasing. But, the price of beer from the likes of Asda and Aldi is low and great value. This is where there is a double whammy for the publican. The big brewers can provide the same produce in a can to the supermarket cheaper than they can in kegs to the pubs they own and lease.

It’s time to address the costs of running a pub in the UK or, in time, they will disappear in favour of cheaper alternatives. Who knows, maybe the supermarkets will open their own pubs? But in the meantime...dos cervezas por favor.

Jim Duffy MBE, Create Special