Today’s headline news in the Guild of Beer Writers eshot was a story run by CAMRA relating to a YouGov survey on the topic of the price of a pint. (If you’re a member you can see the story here.)
Here’s the quote: “56% of people surveyed who expressed an opinion believe the price of a pint of beer in a pub in the UK is unaffordable.” That’s quite a lot of people, at first glance.
Of course, this raises quite a few questions with regards to the survey sample size etc. so here are the details on those particulars:
Total sample size was 2,070 adults, of which 1,473 expressed an opinion.
Fieldwork was undertaken between 6th-9th July 2018.
The survey was carried out online.
The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18+).
The actual questions the YouGov survey asked was: “In your opinion, is the price of a pint of beer in a pub in the UK affordable or unaffordable, or is it about right? (Please select the option that best applies)”.
In response, 45% said “fairly unaffordable” and 11% said “very unaffordable”.
Affordability is quite an abstract concept, isn’t it? In my experience as someone who’s lived in extreme poverty and in relative comfort and all the incremental stages of debt, exhaustion and erratic spending in-between, things like pints come down to how much you value them. They’re not essential – unless you have an addiction – and yet as part of our culture they’re a central point of our social lives. Would I pay £4.50 for a pint of Fosters? No. Would I pay £4.50 for a pint of Inhaler? Get out of my way, I’m running to the pub to do that right now. Unfortunately, the number of pubs selling mass-produced beer at premium prices because they have to in order to pay their staff and keep the doors of their boozer open is increasing. Where can you go for a basic pint for pennies? Wetherspoon’s. Budget high-street pubs like Wetherspoon’s low prices have given people a skewed idea of how much beer costs. These two factors (among many, many others) are helping to encourage the idea that pubs are ripping punters off.
The ideology of the Great British Pint as a birthright makes the pint into something much greater than the sum of its parts. Here’s where the idea of value starts to fork. For some, £3.50 for a pint – above the national average, according to the I paper
– is a small price to pay for the enjoyment of good beer in good company. For others, its an affront to ask customers to pay a premium on a product that’s part of their culture, and used to be much, much cheaper than that. Both responses come from people who love beer.
Recently I wrote about drinking in Blackburn
for Ferment magazine and in it, there’s a conversation I had in one of the town’s newer pubs about the price of beer in a deprived town. £2.50 gets you a pint of locally brewed beer, and when money is tight, that’s about the limit of what people will pay. People here talk about “London prices” when anything reaches £3.00. God forbid they ever see the price of third of a DDH special in Clitheroe.
Money’s a touchy subject. The brewing scene in the UK is full of recipes as incredibly diverse and exciting as our population, but there will always be a barrier stopping many from trying them because of cost. It’s a huge limitation to millions of people in this country. And that’s not to say the brewers are at fault either. Producing beer independently is a costly business with very expensive ingredients, add to that the rates, taxes and other costs meted out to those brewing alcoholic beverages and you can end up with a product that’s too expensive to shift in certain areas. Tell a person in a bar in Blackburn that a £5.20 pint is worth it because of the expensive hops used to create it and suggest that perhaps they have a half instead and you’ll come off exclusionary and toffy-nosed. That’s wine-speak. Whatever happened to a quiet pint at a pub on the corner of your road? Why is something that was as cheap as a can of pop now out of their price range? It’s too long of an explanation to give at the bar.
And that’s another point. Hand-in-hand with the public perception of expensive beer comes the closure of pubs, which is a subject almost everyone enjoys getting passionate about. These issues are one and the same. People felt they could no longer afford to drink beer outside of their homes, so they stopped going to the pub. Pubs started closing – so people had to walk further to their local, and so they stopped going. Someone once told me they blamed the Millennium for the increase in people drinking at home.
“People learned that throwing a party at home was cheaper than a night out. They found out that buying a slab of Bud was the cheapest way to get drunk. They found out they didn’t need pubs anymore.”
Critics are putting this down to the continued interest in “craft beer” and “craft gin”.
Which leads me to a different point.
People will complain about a pint that’s £3.50. They will not complain about a gin and tonic that’s £7.00. Independently brewed beer is a small-batch, artisan product packed with expensive man-hours and hidden penalties. However lovely it tastes, your favourite gin could be bulk-bought ethanol with herbs in it. Fight me.
If pints are unaffordable for the people who answered this survey question in the affirmative, I would like to know a little more. Where do they go out for a drink? Is their “local” so far away that a taxi ride home (or even a budget hotel stay) is included in the price of their beer? Have they given up drinking altogether due to the prohibitive cost? If wages were raised in line with inflation, would this make a difference to them? Do they just not really like beer enough to spend money on it? If the smoking ban was suddenly lifted, would value of drinking out in a pub be more worthwhile to them? How much would they be able to afford on a pint? Maybe after asking these questions, we’d be able to better understand why so many people aren’t visiting pubs anymore. Perhaps we need to fund our own survey.