ST. ALBANS, England — Cheers, it’s “Beer Day Britain!” Not that anyone here really needs a marketing ploy as an excuse, mind you. It could be National Jellied Eels Day, and the pubs would be packed in Britain on a sunny Friday afternoon in June.
This ancient Cathedral city, about an hour’s drive north of London, harbors the oldest continuous site of Christian worship in Britain — and boasts more pubs per capita than any town in England, and that’s saying something.
But these are anxious days for the British pub and its fans.
The number of pubs has been in decline for years, as the traditional taverns fall victim to myriad forces, from corporatized “global beer” conglomeration to steep business tax rates to the more moderate drinking habits of Generation X — versus their thirsty coal-mining, steel-smelting, shipbuilding forebears.
About 18 pubs close every week in Britain, reports Katie Wiles of the Campaign for Real Ale, which champions traditional beers and pubs. The group commissioned a 2016 study by the University of Oxford’s department of experimental psychology that found Brits who have a “local,” a neighborhood pub they frequent enough to get a nod when they walk through the door, are “happier,” more “connected” and “more trusting of others” (especially after they’ve had a pint or two; it’s in the study).
There are about 25,000 fewer pubs in Britain now than there were in the 1970s.
But there’s still 50,000 of them left.
“A pub closing is big drama for the people involved, no doubt, but this is Britain, and there will always be thousands and thousands of pubs,” said Fiona Stapley, editor of the “Good Pub Guide ,” which reviews 5,000 drinking establishments each year.
“You could say that before, there were probably too many pubs,” Stapley added. “And many were not run as well as they could have been.”
There’s other goodish news, too, for beer people.
There are more breweries operating in Britain today — about 2,000 — than in any time since the 1930s. There’s a revival in “real ales” fermented in casks and pumped by hand into a pint glass. And there are more craft beers — thanks to the influence of the United States, which kicked off the movement of hoppy, zingy brews.
In the past, many postwar pubs served pickled eggs, if you were lucky. Today, they’ve gone “gastro,” serving pedigreed burgers on brioche buns and locally sourced hake in artisan beer batter. A few gastropubs have earned Michelin stars.
The decline in pub numbers draws headlines, but Sean Hughes, landlord of The Boot in St. Albans, promised, “It’s all going to be okay.”
“These are challenging times, to be sure,” said Hughes, who was happy to spend an hour discussing those challenges. For example, he said, two-thirds of the price of a pint goes to pay taxes — business, beer and value-added.
And supermarkets? Don’t get Hughes started on how grocery chains in Britain sell the discounted lager and $6 bottles of French plonk that are killing convivial, community-minded public drinking in pubs and encouraging imbibers to huddle at home alone, grimly sucking down their cups while watching “Love Island.”
“But the British pub, especially the independent British pub? Never been better,” Hughes said. “Better beer, better food, better atmosphere.”
Before his family took over The Boot 15 years ago, “this was a hellhole,” Hughes said. The pub served a single brand of low-market beer, vodka and gin — and that was it. Dining options? Peanuts, Hughes said.
Now there are 15 beers and pâté, plus fish & chips & etc.
A fellow publican named Christo Tofalli walked a Washington Post reporter down the block past the Cathedral and toward the ruins of the old Roman city. He pointed at a row of little brick Victorians with flower boxes, now selling as homes, shops and offices for close to $750,000 each.
“That was a pub. That was a pub. That was a pub.” He turned. “This was a pub. This was a pub . . .”
Maybe six pubs on one short street were a couple too many?
Near the River Ver, we came upon his pub, Ye Olde Fighting Cocks, which dates to the 11th century and is a heavily beamed, octagonal structure with a blackened fireplace.
Before? “It was a dump,” he said. “It stank.” Shuttered for nine months before he bought it in 2012, the Fighting Cocks now represents the modern, traditional British tavern that survives in the 2018 pub culture.
Gone are the mostly male patrons who came in for a couple of beers at lunch and a couple more after work. Tofalli has provided “pram parking” for his customers and a kids menu.
Travel writer Simon Parker groused in the Telegraph last month, “Why it's time to ban toddlers — and their millennial parents — from our pubs.”
The Good Pub Guide finds that kids and Muzak are the top complaints these days. But “the landlords are welcoming because they have to be... because these are the pub crawlers of the future,” guide editor Stapley said.
“The financial people go to the gym at lunch, not the pub,” Tofalli said.
“Then eat sushi,” Hughes said.
“In the old days, any fool could go into a pub and afford a drink. Now? In an affluent area?” Tofalli asked. “It’s a luxury. A treat.”
Asked about the future, Tofalli said he’s thinking of opening another pub soon.