The British pub is alive and well. That's a claim that should cause the men in white coats to cart me off for a period of quiet contemplation in a padded cell. It's common knowledge that the pub is finished and heading for the great saloon bar in the sky.
Battered by the smoking ban and the attractions of watching multi-channel TV from the comfort of your couch with a four-pack of supermarket lager, is it any wonder that the average pub is as empty as a ministerial promise?
And pubs that are still going strong – do they really deliver the dream? The perfect formula requires food that's delicious but unfussy, a room that's smart but not grand, and drinks that are as good as you want them to be without costing a fortune. And, of course, none of that rowdy music. That's what the great British boozer promises. And, of course, a decent pint is essential – if sometimes hard to find.
But in the new edition of the Good Beer Guide, which I edit, some 280 pubs serving great beer are listed in London alone, with thousands more throughout the country pulling pints of cask ale of the highest quality. These are the ones that get it right, and they're supplied by a growing army of small craft breweries that give Britain the greatest choice in beer it has enjoyed for 30 years or more.
Still, I'm aware of the statistics: 36 pubs close every week. The reasons are not hard to find. First came the smoking ban. As a non-smoker, I'm delighted to walk into a pub and not be assailed by the noxious odour of stale cigarette smoke. But the Government handled the change insensitively. As the Campaign for Real Ale (Camra) and other organisations argued, pubs with more than one bar should have been allowed to set aside an indoor area for smokers, with a later date set for a complete ban on smoking in pubs. The total lockout of smokers has driven them to the supermarkets, with a drastic decline in the number of people visiting pubs.
Then came Hurricane Darling, with a swingeing increase in excise duty on beer in this year's Budget that put 16p to 20p on the cost of a pub pint. In some parts of the country, a pint will set you back £3. The supermarkets, which are big enough to demand that the brewers bear the brunt of these taxes, sell slabs of lager that retail at the equivalent of between 57p and 77p a pint. Their chief executives must have the Chancellor high on their Christmas card lists.
And yet it's not all gloom in the pub trade. The evidence from the new Good Beer Guide is that publicans who do the basics well and avoid gimmicks are attracting custom. Pubs are no longer spit and sawdust joints offering pints of mild and pickled eggs. You'll often find a well-chosen range of wine, food at affordable prices and good service. But success, increasingly, is based on offering a wide variety of cask beers from the growing number of small craft breweries.
Take the Bricklayer's Arms in Waterman Street, London SW15, a few yards from Putney Bridge. It closed as a result of drug-dealing and other unpleasantness. Then, in 2005, a local resident, the former actress Becky Newman, rescued it and revived it by offering top-quality real ale from a brewery not well represented in London: Timothy Taylor of Keighley, West Yorkshire.
Taylor's prize-winning premium bitter Landlord is available in the capital, but Newman installed the brewery's full range, including an unfashionable dark mild. The result is a busy, successful pub. Newman offers four other cask beers from small breweries and stages beer festivals. Her greatest achievement has been to persuade football fans who use the pub after matches at Fulham FC to switch from lager to real ale.
The Bricklayer's proves that it's beer that will save and drive the pub. There has been a quiet brewing revolution in Britain in recent years. As national and regional breweries declined, craft or micro producers rushed to replace them. There are now about 550 craft breweries, more per head than any other country. Their owners have passion, commitment and a willingness to innovate. It was the craft brewing sector that first introduced golden ales as a refreshing style for the summer and an attempt to win younger drinkers from lager to cask beer. The craft sector has also revived once-famous British beer styles such as porter (a lighter version of stout), India Pale Ale, old ale and barley wine. There's more than just mild and bitter in the modern pub.
In 2007, the Society of Independent Brewers, which represents most craft breweries, reported that its members achieved an average increase in sales of 11 per cent, at the same time that Stella Artois, the biggest-selling premium lager, had seen a 10 per cent fall in its sales. As craft brewers concentrate in the main on draught ale, pubs are their target audience – and the pubs offering a good range of ales are prospering.
Earlier this year, the revamped St Pancras station installed a pub, fittingly called the Betjeman Arms. It's spacious, modern, attracts mainly young people and serves restaurant-quality food. The bar offers a wide range of keg beers, lagers and ciders but Ed Turner of Geronimo Inns (which owns the pub), told me that cask beer – Adnams, Fuller's, Sharp's from Cornwall – were the biggest sellers. Bigger, would you believe, than lagers.
It's not only new breweries that are doing well. George Bateman and Son of Wainfleet, Lincolnshire, is a family company established in 1874. It owns an estate of 64 pubs. Managing director Stuart Bateman told the Good Beer Guide that 2007 was the most successful year in the brewery's long history. Profits were up, sales were up, and cask beer sales grew by 10 per cent. This year, in spite of the smoking ban and the Budget duty increase, 21 of Bateman's pubs are showing "significant growth". Bateman's installed a new brewhouse in 2002 that boosted annual volumes to 30,000 barrels, but it needs to add new fermenting vessels to extend to 40,000.
Timothy Taylor, celebrating 150 years of brewing this year, has invested £10m in new equipment and has seen production double from 30,000 barrels a year to 60,000 in the past 20 years. Adnams of Southwold, Suffolk, has invested close to £10m in a brewhouse and warehouse complex, complete with energy-saving devices. St Austell in Cornwall, with a substantial estate of 160 pubs, has grown from 15,000 barrels a year in 1998 to 45,000 barrels and is so keen on energy efficiency that managing director James Staughton has swapped his Mercedes for a Smart car.
If craft breweries are not standing still, neither are their pubs. When Camra and the Good Beer Guide were launched in the early 1970s, pubs were utilitarian places, shorn of comforts and appealing mainly to men. Food, at best, was a cheese sandwich, at worst a packet of pork scratchings. Today, they offer real service, welcome women and families and, increasingly, serve good food at sensible prices. I'm not a fan of gastropubs; all too often they cease to be pubs and turn into restaurants.
Food should also be imaginative. With 55,000 pubs all over the country, it's not difficult to source local food and create tasty and affordable dishes without the aid of a microwave. Reports show that, as a result of the credit crunch, people are forsaking expensive restaurants while pubs that offer unfussy, well-priced food are attracting new custom.
Publicans also need to remember that pubs are at the heart of their communities. I'm struck by the number of successful pubs that emphasise that role by staging beer festivals, quiz nights, charity fundraisers, and celebrations – often with beers brewed specially for the occasion – for Hallowe'en, Bonfire Night, Christmas and New Year.
And, contrary to this newspaper's recent leader article, I'd argue that beer quality has never been better. Neither are all pubs full of hideous din. Many are music-free.
My local has neither piped music nor television screens. So if you fancy joining me in the King William IV in St Albans, that's me at the bar with an empty glass and a hopeful smile.
'Camra Good Beer Guide 2009', £14.99, from bookshops or www.camra.org.uk. To order a copy at the special price of £13.49 (inc p&p), visit www.independentbooksdirect.co.uk
The quest for the perfect pint: Britain's 25 best pubs, chosen by Roger Protz
Birmingham: Old Joint Stock, Temple Row
The extensive seasonal menu – with "legendary" pies – Fuller's beers and guest ales from local micro-breweries make for one of the best watering holes in the city centre. The interior is impressive, too, with a glass domed ceiling the centre-piece of a neo-classical and Georgian design, formerly the home of Birmingham Joint Stock Bank. For the culturally-inclined, there's even a theatre upstairs.
Bristol: the Cornubia, Temple Street
Believed to date from the 18th century, this Grade II-listed Georgian building was saved from an uncertain fate several years ago by the Hidden brewery. It specialises in West Country beers; in addition to the regular selection there are two or three guest ales and ciders which change daily.
Cambridgeshire: the Queen's Head, Fowlmere Road, Newton
The quintessential warm and friendly village pub, the Queen's Head dates back to 1729 and has beer served straight from the cask, bar skittles and a comforting inglenook fireplace.
Cardiff: y Mochyn Du (Black Pig), Sophia Close
About five minutes' walk from Cardiff Castle, next to Sophia Gardens and Glamorgan cricket ground, the Black Pig is well-known for its distinctly Welsh atmosphere, strengthened by the sporting memorabilia decorating the pub. Nevertheless, a mixed crowd come to enjoy the old-fashioned pub food and local Brain's beers.
Cornwall: the Blue Anchor, Helston
This ancient alehouse, which started life as a monks' hospice, brews its own, powerful "spingo" beer. It is the oldest brewery in Cornwall and is reputed to be the most senior of the four pubs remaining in the UK which produce their own ale.
Cumbria: the Black Bull Inn, Coniston
Set in the picturesque village of Coniston, this spacious hotel has its own craft brewery at the back where you can try a pint of either of its renowned bitters, Bluebird or Old Man, the former named in tribute to Donald Campbell and his final record attempt on the water nearby.
Derby: the Brunswick Inn, Railway Terrace
This historic pub, only a few yards from Derby's mainline train station in row of former railway workers' cottages, is reason enough to visit Derby. It was painstakingly restored in the 1980s, and now has its own brewery with a commitment to real ale.
Derbyshire: ye Olde Gate Inn, Brassington
Nearly 400 years old, this wonderful pub is reached up lonely roads with only the hills of the Peak District for company. It is blessed with oak beams, ghosts, open fireplaces and a cracking pint of Pedigree.
Dorset: the Square & Compass, Worth Matravers
This delightful inn, run by the same family for the past 100 years, is a 20-minute walk away from the sea. The simple, unspoilt stone building has no need for a bar – the excellent Ringwood beer is served up straight from the keg, through a hatch.
Durham: the Dun Cow INN, Old Elvet
Birthplace of the Dun Cow challenge – a drink from every pump along the bar – this ancient alehouse dates from the 16th century. Students and locals drink together in this old-fashioned watering hole, complete with a snug and a larger lounge. The staff rustle up home-cooked food and there's a range of local beers as pleasant as the friendly atmosphere.
Edinburgh: Cafe Royal, West Register Street
Just far enough from the Princes Street throngs lies this sumptuously-tiled Victorian pub and island bar. In addition to the surroundings, a great selection of Caledonian brewery beers means that the bar is often packed, while the writer Irvine Welsh recommends the upstairs restaurant for a glass of champers with oysters.
Edinburgh: the Oxford Bar, Young Street
Made famous as the drinking den of both Inspector Rebus and his creator Ian Rankin, "The Ox" is one of Edinburgh's best (almost) kept secrets. Don't let the legendary rudeness of the landlords put you off: it's all part of the experience. The pub's particularly fine pint of Deuchar's IPA alone justifies a visit.
Essex: the Queen's Head, Churchgate Street, Chelmsford
A virtual shrine to the local Crouch Vale brewery, this quaint pub is also extremely handy for the Essex cricket ground. It has eight of the brewery's cask ales on tap, plus four ever-changing guest beers from craft, micro and regional brewers.
Hertfordshire: the Lower Red Lion, Fishpool Street, St Albans
The interior of this 17th-century coaching inn is all exposed brick-work and oak beams. There are two bars serving craft beers from all over the country, regular beer festivals and it's very handy as a pit-stop between visiting the Abbey and Roman Verulamium.
Kent: the Anchor Inn, Faversham
Nestled in the medieval streets of this conservation town, the 17th-century pub sits by a quayside and has a large selection of beers from the impressive local brewery, Shepherd Neame.
London: the Buckingham Arms, Petty France, SW1
This superb Victorian Young's pub hidden in the back-streets of Victoria is one of only 10 pubs to appear in all 36 editions of Camra's Good Beer Guide. It has also survived a recent upgrade and has retained its individuality and excellent beer.
London: the Star Tavern, Belgrave Mews West, SW1
It is claimed that the great train robbery was planned at this 19th-century Fuller's pub; it's a tiny place but has comfortable seating and an array of fine ales.
Leeds: Whitelocks, Turks Head Yard
Once described by the poet John Betjeman as "the very heart of Leeds", Whitelocks dates from 1715, and has preserved much of its traditional decor with a lot of marble, brass, and old brewery mirrors. A popular lunch haunt with good beer to match.
Lincolnshire: Bateman's, Visitor Centre
The circular Windmill Bar, adjacent to the museum and visitor centre in "the most picturesque of breweries", testifies to the years of hard work by one of the country's oldest brewing families. Bateman's beers and good old-fashioned Lincolnshire cooking provide everything the public house enthusiast could hope for.
Manchester: the Marble Arch, Rochdale Road
A traditional listed pub with a magnificently-tiled Victorian interior, the Marble Arch is a place for beer connoisseurs and recent converts alike. Famed for its Ginger Marble and extensive range of real ales, this boozer is well worth the short walk from Manchester city centre.
Newcastle: the Bodega, Westgate
This is one of the city's best bets for a brilliant choice of local cask ales. The domed glass ceiling and the old brewery mirrors also make for fantastic surroundings too.
Nottingham: ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem
Dating back to 1189, there's nowhere more steeped in history than England's oldest inn, carved from the same rock as Nottingham Castle, once the stronghold of Richard the Lionheart. Resident ales from Hardys & Hansons and Greene King rub shoulders with numerous guest ales.
Staffordshire: the Coopers Tavern, Cross Street, Burton-on-Trent
Although not much to look at from the outside, this former Bass bottle store serves a great range of local brewers' beers straight from the cask and rates highly with punters. Arched ceilings add to the intimacy of the building.
Suffolk: the Lord Nelson, East Street, Southwold.
Only a stone's throw from the sea, the appeal of this pub's beautiful exterior is easily rivalled by the flagstones and open fires that greet you once you venture inside. Children and dogs are welcome, there's a full range of Adnams' beer and excellent pub grub.
York: Brigantes, Micklegate
In a city that claims to have a pub for every day of the calendar year, this newcomer can claim to be one of the best. Housed in a listed Georgian building, with wood-panelling and a period function/dining room upstairs, the Brigantes serves eight cask beers alongside a massive range of imports. With good food to boot, the diners aren't disappointed either.Reuse content