The local pub – or bar for our American friends – is a staple in your social life, a place of fun, friendship, and pain (if you overindulge, that is). In many places, pubs and bars are hubs of the community – serving as the primary meeting place for everything from a few pints after work, to local book clubs, and more.
From a beer perspective, pubs are imperative as they often supply a greater variety than any local store or restaurant; in the case of cask beer, they’re often the only way to obtain it. Either way you look at it, if you’re a beer fan or socialite pubs are pretty damn important.
Despite their significance, few know how the modern day pub came to fruition. Most of us pass through our pubs without the thought of history ever crossing our mind. So, how did the pub make its way through history?
This, my friend’s, is where our story begins…
Ancient History to the 18th Century
As it turns out, the traditional English pub began with the Roman’s in 54 BC. When the Roman’s ruled over Britain, they brought the culture and technology to modernize the lands. The most pertinent was the road networks created through years to come. Certain parts of the new road infrastructure became busy and well-travelled. As this was happening, small buildings known as Tabernae began to emerge. These Roman Tabernae werenot only small dwellings dedicated to providing lodgings and refreshment for travelers during their journey, but they were sufficient to ease travels and earn a profit in the process.Once Roman authority withdrew, the Anglo-Saxons conquered Britainin the 6th century. Though Tabernae were still plentiful, the Anglo-Saxon culture began turning homes into alehouses; places of drink, community, and gossip. These alehouses (also called public houses) were no different from the average dwelling, save a green bush atop a pole (or broom) by the door. These signals notified travelers that the alewife (woman of the household who brewed the beer) had ale to sell for anyonewho was able to purchase it.
The number of alehouses continued to rise steadily over the years, maintaining themselves as community centers where friends, family, and neighbors would meet to exchange news, arrange mutual help, and, quite frankly, drink until satisfied or out of coin. By the year 965 alehouses were so extraordinarily common that King Edgar decreed each community would have only one alehouse. This decree stifled the growth of alehouses in number and served only to increase popularity amongst those already available.
During the 17th century, there was a massive movement away from homebrew to independent brewers. These independent brewers purchased many pubs, taverns, inns, and alehouses as their wealth grew. Up until the start of the 18th century, alehouses maintained and gained in their position as the center of the community. This held true, even with the growth of taverns and inns, which had the added benefits of lodgings and food.
Gin, Public Drunkenness, & the Modern Era
In 1688, Britain and the Netherlands entered into a peace agreement, during which time the Dutch introduced gin to Britain; a cheap and powerful alcohol, very unlike the ale Britons were accustomed to. This new alcohol led to the “Gin Craze,” which lasted several decades from 1688 to 1757. During this time, heavy import duties on spirits and the creation of “cuckoo malt” (an inexpensive grain deemed unsuitable for alcohol production) led to a multitude of new distillers, all which characterized this period.
Gin shops began springing up overnight – growing six times faster than alehouses. Although numerous alehouses were built to combat the gin shops, more than half of the 15,000 alcohol establishments in Britain were gin shops. Low prices of the many illegal distillers created an environment where the working class could drink itself to ruin, and public drunkenness ran rampant.
To curb this drunkenness, the Gin Act of 1736 imposed outrageously high taxes and licensing fees, leading to riots and a sudden drop in gin quality. This quality reduction led to several poisonings as many distillers eliminated “unnecessary” steps from their distillation process. With violence and illegal consumption continuing to climb, the Gin Act was repealed in 1742, to the relief of those both for and against gin.
Fast-forward to the 19th century and we see gin consumption booming once more due to lower duties and taxes – allowing the so-called “Gin Palaces” to spread across Britain. Charles Dickens described the gin dens and palaces as, “unbridled cesspits of immorality or crime & the source of much ill-health and alcoholism among the working classes.” His words and sentiment did much to encapsulate what the higher classes and those in power felt at the time.
With public disorder rife once more, authorities attempted to stifle the growing taste for gin in the form of The Beer Act of 1830. The aim of this deed was similar to that of the 1736 Gin Act, eliminate the gross public drunkenness, but, unlike the Gin Act, the Beer Act tried to accomplish this by weaning people off gin using beer.
“Beer Houses,” a new lower tier of beer establishments, were created with an extremely low cost of 2 Guineas (£168 or $260 USD) per year for a license. This low cost, coupled with the soon to be easy availability of beer would encourage the working class to drink harmless, healthy, nutritious beer once again and do away the “evils” of gin (or so people thought).
Within the Beer Act, anyone could apply for a license to sell and brew beer & cider on-premise with the option to be open every day except Sunday. These new beer houses were so profitable that 400 opened in the first year and over 46,000 after the eighth. Frequently, when a beer house reached high levels of profitability, the owner bought or built a new house to live in and fully converted the original into a beer house, where the upper floors and other areas became lounges for patrons. Gin consumption was now in check.
In 1869, 39 years after the Beer Act became law, some towns had so embraced the low-cost, high-profit business of beer houses that every second dwelling was a beer house. The Beer Act of 1830 was amended to include stricter requirements to gain a beerhouse license subject to local magisterial approval. However, the beer houses that were already open were allowed to continue; but had to conform to any new costs and requirements. This was similar to King Edgar’s decree in the year 965 when alehouses ran rampant through the country. These laws are still in effect today with amendments made through the years.
Today’s pubs share much with pubs of the past; they are still places where you can meet friends, share stories, and, perhaps most importantly, enjoy a pint. The most notable difference today is how far the quality and selection of establishments has come. Now, many pubs feature a full lunch and/or dinner menu, complete with dessert and often feature some form of entertainment (live music or DJ’s being the most common in North America).
The Future, a Circle, and History
Through time, the pub has stood tall and echoed its core value as the heart of community and drink and will continue to do so as the years go on, but what form will it take?
The UK is seeing many of its large breweries expanding their services past beer and pubs, becoming a conglomerate of tourism services, including food and lodgings. Whitbread is the extreme of this, having sold off all breweries and pubs they once owned back in 2001. Whitbread now owns chains of two hotels, four restaurants, and a coffee shop. Quite similarly, Greene King, a massive brewer in the UK, is still brewing beer, but also had a plethora of pubs, inns, and restaurants to its name. It’s hard to say how long, but it looks as though Greene King may become so large they will leave its brewing for a third-party to produce or get rid of the beer brand altogether.
So, what happens when the big guys start leaving the game?
Independents will once again begin habituating the abandoned territories with their uniqueness and emphasis on their vision, for better or worse. Sound like you’ve read that before in different form? That’s because it’s how the alehouses functioned before breweries bought them out and began the tied house system, the future becomes what history once was, and the circle is formed!
If that is happening in the UK, is North America caught in the same cycle?
At the moment, North America is fortunate to have a large and growing independent brewers who are opening their pubs/bars known as brewpubs. In Canada, a brewer may own several locations. Central City Brewers & Distillers in Surrey, BC, for example, just opened a second location, all primarily carrying their product, of course. This could be the beginnings of a tied house system as seen in the UK currently. If it follows the cycle forming, we’ll later see expansion into other industries. The specificities are hard to say, but most likely involving tourism services (i.e. lodging, restaurants, spas, etc.).
In a dissimilar fashion, America is bound by a three-tier system that is a hangover from prohibition requiring larger brewers to sell to a third-party before reaching consumers. Conflicting with country-wide legislation, some states allow smaller brewers to be involved in two of the three tiers, acting both as brewer and distributor before reaching the final tier of consumers, brew pubs are an example of this. This exception could lead to legislation later that, more-or-less abolishes the three tier system and allows tied-house systems to form as they did in pre-prohibition times.
Whether the above comes true or not, pubs will always remain. They may change face to adapt in new eras, but the social need for pubs, as a place people can come together and belong, will never change.