The future of the great British pub was debated by an audience of around 50 brewers, licensees, writers, marketeers and drinkers at an event staged recently in Leeds by the British Guild of Beer Writers. The debate, held in the Old Courtroom of the city’s Town Hall, coincided with Leeds International Beer Festival.
John Grogan, former chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Beer Group, chaired the debate, noting the aptness of the courtroom, where historically the licensing decisions that shaped Leeds’ pub scene were made.
Before hearing arguments, the audience listened to a context-setting presentation by Peter Martin of CGA Peach, highlighting developments in the eating and drinking out market. He noted that, while many trends start in London, other cities including Leeds now have an equally buoyant and fast-changing food and drink scene.
The debate proper started with Dan Murray of Leeds-List.com proposing the motion, “This house believes that coffee shops, café bars, restaurant chains and take-aways are making the traditional pub less relevant”.
Andy Shaw, CAMRA national director, spoke in opposition, seconders for both sides – Anja Madhvani of Northern Monk for the motion and Imogen Bennett of the Fox & Newt against it – put their case, and the audience then engaged in lively debate. Brewers Thornbridge, Little Valley, Northern Monk, Roosters and North Brewing kindly provided beers.
The final result was a 56% to 44% defeat of the motion.
Commenting on the event, Guild chairman Tim Hampson said, “This debate was a first for the Guild, but such was its success that I’m sure we’ll stage others in future.
“The future of the pub was a subject close to the hearts of everyone in the room. Proposer, opposer and seconders on both sides presented compelling arguments and many in the audience contributed insightful comments.
“Although one side had to win, there was much common ground between them, most notably an agreement that quality drink – accompanied often but not always by food – friendly staff and a sense of community are what makes a pub a pub, regardless of whether it sells as much coffee as craft beer.”
The event was organised jointly by Frances Brace, Guild committee member, and Simon Jenkins, a Guild member and former Beer Writer of the Year, based in Leeds.
Brace said, “What the debate made clear is that it’s not a case of traditional pubs failing and hybrid venues thriving. Many traditional pubs are succeeding not because they’ve morphed into gastropubs or themed diners but because they know how to target their offer – and excel at what they do.
“Others have been slow to react to change and, by comparing themselves only with other pubs, have made themselves vulnerable to the café-bars, coffee shops and pop-up enterprises that have sprung up on the high street and nibbled away at their trade.
“The Great British Pub Debate was designed to give voice to excellent traditional pubs as well as to amazing hybrid venues and the proposers and seconders for both sides were brilliant.”