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Is this the end of the traditional British boozer?

If pubs in tier three cannot serve a 'substantial' meal alongside a pint, their days might be numbered

The Philharmonic pub in Liverpool
Enjoying a pint without food may soon be off the menu. Picture here: The Philharmonic pub in Liverpool Credit: Paul Cooper 

Liverpool is one of England’s great pub cities. The last time I was there, I spent time in a traditional backstreet pub, where the beer was glorious and the company gregarious. Then it was off to The Philharmonic with its splendid Victorian architecture, where the gents are as ornate as a palace.

However, as of Wednesday October 15, the beating heart of this vibrant pub culture will fall still, since the majority of drinking venues will have to close their doors following the announcement of the government’s three-tier system.

Liverpool has been placed into tier three (for areas with a very high level of infections), which means that all licensed venues must close unless they have a substantial food offering (thus the city's Wetherspoons pubs, incidentally, can remain open).

Ever since the first lockdown began, back in March, it has felt like the British hospitality industry has been put through the wringer. Even though financial support was available for many (and the small breweries that supply them), there has been a steady stream of closures. Liverpool is the latest blow.

Liverpool, home to The Philharmonic, has been placed into tier three (for areas with a very high level of infections)  Credit: Paul Cooper 

The latest announcement that absolves pubs serving food (or gastropubs, if you like), suggests that the days of the classic, 'wet-led' pub – where I, along with many contemporaries, first started sipping not-very-good lager – with just crisps and pickled eggs on the menu, might be numbered.

According to Tom Stainer, CEO of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), such venues are definitely at risk. "For me," he says, "the message to operators is that they are supported if they serve food, but if you run a traditional wet-led pub you are being nailed all the time." Such measures are imbalanced, he argues. "The reality is that the majority of licensees are doing a really good job and their pubs are a lot safer places than mass gatherings in off-licences after 10pm, and in private homes." 

For a view from the wet-led frontline I spoke with Ben Garner, licensee of the Ship & Mitre, close to Liverpool's Lime Street Station. This is a popular place, with an immense range of beers including those of award-winning local beer heroes Neptune brewery. The pub also serves food – which sure means that Garner might be able to weather the coming storm?

Not so. "Staying open is not commercially viable," he says. "[Our offering is] 80 per cent wet and 20 per cent food. We could stay open, but it is not viable. The wider situation is difficult, I agree, but I do believe that pubs have been made a scapegoat, and are being painted as a threat to the populace. The infection spikes are not because of hospitality; there were no spikes when they opened in July and we all ate out to help out. The spike happened when the schools and universities went back. Curfews and closing pubs is an easy win."

As someone who has loved real drinking pubs since my late teens, I would miss the serenity that these stalwarts offer. I have fond memories of pub trips through the years where I would sit quietly in a corner, reading a book or newspaper, or chatting and laughing with friends while enjoying several pints, and not being asked if I had booked a table for lunch.

The recent phenomena of craft brewery taprooms, at which the only food offering is a pork pie from the artisan butcher’s next door, is the modern equivalent: somewhere like my local, the Topsham Brewery Tap on Exeter Quay, where recently during a cool autumnal afternoon I felt safe and snug in its interior of bar brickwork and distressed wood.

There is something atavistic about a wet-led pub or taproom that a gastropub, no matter how good its locally-sourced, seasonal menu is, simply cannot come close to. It is the pub at its most vital, and I hope it will outlast Covid-19 for many years to come.

Or else we face a bleak landscape about which a modern-day Hilaire Belloc might write, ‘When you have lost your wet-led pubs, drown your empty selves, for you will have lost the last of England’.

Read more: 'All I can see is redundancies': pubs and restaurants fear the worst as three-tier system hits