Back to the bar

While the media zealously focused its attention on various nightclubs opening on the stroke of midnight for the ridiculously named “Freedom Day” as they satisfied lengthy queues of youngsters, the reality on the ground on 19 July was more subdued and felt rather like the previous Monday in the pubs I visited.

Bar stools: A welcome sight

Any enthusiasm people might have had for this momentous day had been somewhat overshadowed by the rising cases of covid-19, which on 19 July itself, coincided with a sell-off of global stock markets. The caution people have sensibly had during the pandemic remains firmly in place despite the easing of many restrictions. As many as 77% of people intend to continue wearing a face covering in some or all public spaces, including shops and hospitality venues, according to a survey from Walnut Unlimited.

Any cautious, hesitant characteristics certain individuals might have had pre-covid-19 have been able to develop unchecked over the past 18 months and we now have a grouping that a business associate likes to call homo-trepidatious. So while 19 July for me brought the much-awaited opportunity to order and drink at the bar, I was not joined by many people.

This special moment came in a long-time favourite pub – The Pride of Spitalfields – on the edge of the City of London, where I ordered a perfectly kept Crouch Vale Brewers Gold (double winner of the Great British Beer festival Supreme Champion beer award for those interested). Being able to drink it on the spot without having to sit at a table was a joyous experience. I also spotted bar stools, the return of which I have regarded as a serious indicator of some sort of normality returning.

Small but perfectly formed: The Pride of Spitalfields

Despite my own enthusiasm for bar stools and propping up the bar, it has gradually dawned on me that I might actually be in a diminishing grouping. Covid-19 has possibly brought about a variety of changes to pub life that might just stick. This is being driven by the growing numbers of homo-trepitatious and pub operators that are both catering for this dynamic as well as continuing with certain procedures introduced during covid-19 and which they have found to be advantageous. Chief among them is table service.

Oakman Inns is to continue with table-only service, Shepherd Neame is only allowing bar service in some specific sites, City Pub Group is encouraging ordering from the table and hopes to retain the 50% level of customers who order food and drink via its app. Even JD Wetherspoon is pushing its customers to continue using its order and pay app. 

Thankfully, some operators appear to be in my camp with both Fuller’s and Young’s welcoming the return to bar service. From the Young’s-owned The Windmill in London’s Mayfair Oisin Rogers stated: “We can be a free-flowing place and we’ll be back to enjoying some normality – standing, talking and having a pint.” I’ll drink to that.

Both these operators do, though, reflect other changes that covid-19 has brought to the industry – namely a move to offering more open-air eating and drinking. Fuller’s has invested heavily and is set to commit £4m more to what its chief executive Simon Emeny calls “winterisation” projects, including introducing pergolas, giant teepees and huts at many of its properties.

individually serviced huts: The Bell Inn at Balsham, Cambs

This sits very well with the government’s move towards more alfresco dining. The explosion in pavement eating and the outdoor sale of alcohol has proven to be sufficiently successful during covid-19 that it has become part of Boris Johnson’s strategy to regenerate high streets and his “levelling up” drive, whatever that actually means. 

Such moves will undoubtedly push the UK towards a more continental cafe culture, which, interestingly, was touted as one of the upsides to the relaxed alcohol licensing laws that came into force way back in November 2005. It didn’t really happen but this vision might now finally be coming to fruition a good 16 years later. It took something as dramatic as a pandemic to bring about such a change in the country’s drinking activity but it will take a lot more than that to prise me away from standing at the bar though.

Glynn Davis, editor of Beer Insider

This piece was originally published on Propel Info where Glynn Davis writes a regular Friday opinion piece. Beer Insider would like to thank Propel for allowing the reproduction of this column.