What makes a pub great

Why do some pubs fail where others succeed? Katie Taylor unpacks the secrets of survival in the pub game


In our bubble of well-stocked fridges and tap takeovers, it can be easy to dismiss the closing of pubs as something that happens to Other Places. While larger, traditional pubs form the structural reef of our high streets, they’re struggling to thrive. Passing them on our way to newer, shinier places, we’ve created an expanding world of beer exploration but as we’ve slowly migrated, we’ve deserted the ones who came first.

Is it our fault for following the current, though? When we can choose from a technicolour variety of independent archway bars and renovated saloons all with the bright promise of excellent beers and the best times, you can’t blame us for turning our heads. But as we do so, the sad phenomenon of the empty pub continues to spread throughout the nation. So what can we do about it? And should we do something about it? After all, if we support the pubs we love, surely we’re doing our bit? This is not an article where loaded descriptions of boarded-up bars are used to guilt you into heading to an unfriendly local for a disappointing pint because you feel you should. This is an article celebrating what’s great about our favourite pubs, and an attempt to find out why we love them so much. It’s a look at what sets great pubs apart from the rest, to try and figure out what we actually want, and what the pubs of the future could look like if they followed their lead.

Ask any beer drinker who’s visited Manchester where you should be drinking and the chances are they’ll point you towards The Marble Arch Inn. For twenty years it’s been providing perfect pub vibes and freshly brewed Marble beers – oh, that’s right, it happens to also be Marble Brewery’s flagship pub, and a Grade II listed building. Cask Pint. Yes.

Jan Rogers, Marble’s director, explained what makes The Marble Arch such a success, and what drives her and the whole Marble team to keep working at making it so. “A good venue is more important than how that venue is defined,” she said. “Those busy defining what’s a bar, what’s a pub and what’s a micro bar should take a look at how the definition of tap room has changed recently and understand that a wide selection of customers visit many types of thriving establishments.”

“I think there has been a drinking den on the site of the Marble Arch since the 1500’s.

The building has been there since 1888. It would seem a good aim to make sure that it survives beyond our tenure. To do this, we open our doors to all who aren’t in the business of taking others down. We offer the best beer and food we can. We do it with as much interest in you, the customer, as we can muster. We charge so that we can make a living. We have a diverse and incredibly intelligent staff and clientele; we’ve had a party over the years and are beholden to no-one.”

“We don’t always reach everyone’s expectations but we’re not in the business of giving a lifestyle experience to be judged, we’re providing a space. Hopefully, people will have a good time with friends and family, or a quiet read and time for reflection, or a hooley and God almighty hangover the next day. If we’re lucky they’ll meet and talk to others – there’ll be friendships made and ideas exchanged.”

Jan also shared a pertinent point regarding why some pubs close, and why it might not always be the tragedy we envision.

“Good pubs, especially free houses, aren’t dying, they’re being joined by a wider drinking vibe, sometimes from new independent, creative peeps, sometimes from more established businesses who are seeing that it’s important to take a long-term viewpoint and embrace quality. Where pubs are closing, they are usually corporate, shareholder businesses that run the premises and staff into the ground in the pursuit of short term profit. They are bossed by people who can’t see beyond money as the ultimate goal and have all the creativity of an evening in an airport lounge. PubCos are a blight.”

Over in Liverpool, where the beer scene is colourful and only getting brighter, a pub called the Ship & Mitre offers great pints, good food and beer brewed in-house at their Flagship Brewery. A former CAMRA pub of the year and home to the largest selection of hand-pulled beers in Merseyside, it’s a classic, straightforward beer-drinkers pub that seems to have found its way into everyone’s hearts.

Assistant Manager Cesca Kearney says that giving people something they don’t even realise they want is part of what keeps them busy. “We have such a different range of customers: your real ale drinkers, your craft drinkers, then your weekend drinkers. The pub stands out to each of them individually because we have what each of them is looking for.”

“It can be hard to keep up with other ‘chain’ brands. We have our standard week days and nights, but we also host tasting eveningS, gin nights, rum nights and quiz nights. This gives us a chance to show off our knowledge. The work that goes behind these evenings is so noticeable and personal that it keeps people coming back. We don’t just regurgitate words and information, we research it, care about it and know our stuff. Which for me, makes an experience.”

Back in Manchester, a little café on Fog Lane called Reasons To Be Cheerful won the City Life Pub of the Year award in January of this year, proving once and for all that in 2019, pubs are what you make ‘em. No Axminsters required. El, one of the family members who runs it, said one of their main aims was to create a sense of community. “We maintain the inclusive to everyone rule, and behave like everyone who walks through the door is an old friend you’re greeting. We want to make people feel welcome.”

“Of course we also keep the beer well, order well and have a good choice of styles available.

We make good use of social media, but we communicate a certain fun message and don’t take ourselves too seriously. We play good music.”

“People often comment that they appreciate we are independent and family run, which we make really obvious. It’s not exactly the slickest of operations and people like that. They can see a few cracks here and there but it’s not faceless and they can see we really care.”

“We want to offer an alternative to the traditional pub, creating a friendly and inviting social space for all of the community. We want to have some fun, and to make people happy. For me personally there was an aspect around supporting mental health. I have my own problems and we set up the business partly so that I would be able to work long term. If you’re having a tough time you can be safe here and we are always here to talk.”

“We know exactly what we’re about and that consistency has helped us. People have grown to like us and we’re well supported, we’ve got a really wonderful group of regulars, many are people we now consider friends.”

Looking at how these three very different pubs create their own worlds shows how diverse our scene really is. The imaginary world of fickle, trendy, pine-clad micropubs taking on big bars and winning really is a fiction – places like The Marble Arch are staunchly independent, proud of their beer and their food, succeeding because of their hard work and integrity. For Reasons To Be Cheerful, it’s about connecting people, and having fun, and providing a safe, welcoming space, with great beer at the centre of it all. The idea that drinkers visit for many reasons rings true across all the pubs mentioned, showing that to win us over, you need to be more than a bar, or a community centre, or a flashy showroom for your latest brews. You need to be honest. And that’s something many ailing pubs simply cannot be.

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