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03-02-2016, 18:20
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A phrase we’re hearing increasingly often nowadays, used in a dismissive sense, is old man pub (http://transatlanticbrews.com/real-ale-vs-craft-beer-divide-damaging-traditional-pubs/). The connotations are pretty clear, but is it all that different from what we used to call a “traditional pub”? Going back a generation, there were some pubs that were clearly defined as “young people’s pubs” with garish colours, knocked-out walls, chrome furniture, pool tables, loud music and TVs showing music videos. These were the pubs that didn’t tend to get into CAMRA guides. That style of pub has now largely disappeared, but a different kind of divide has opened up.
From the mid-80s, there was a growing number of specialist multi-beer alehouses, but they generally adopted a bare-boards kind of ambiance and couldn’t really be said to be trendy. However, more recently, over the past ten years, we have seen the development in major city centres of “craft beer bars” which adopt a much more modernistic style of industrial chic – very open-plan, dominated by long bars, with hard textures and a dearth of comfortable upholstered seating.

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The interior of a trendy pub
popular with hipsters

Many brewer and pubco refurbishments have started to follow this style, especially in urban areas with a high proportion of younger drinkers. And anything that doesn’t conform to this model is dismissed as an “old man pub”. But what is wrong with a pub that offers cosy, intimate spaces, comfortable seating and a limited role for electronic distractions? Last year I saw groups of students having a good time in Sam Smith’s Colpitts Hotel in Durham, which even by Sam’s standards is about as traditional as you can get.
It’s not necessarily a hard-and-fast distinction – things like being popular for food, welcoming children, loud piped music and live bands can all make a traditionally-styled pub less “old mannish”. Even TV football on its doesn’t debar a pub from qualifying. In Heaton Moor, not too far from me, the Crown definitely is an “old man pub”, despite showing all the football, while the nearby, much more stylised and designed Plough and Elizabethan are not.
The writer of the article has suggested that “old man pubs” should make more effort to appeal to a younger generation by putting craft beers on the bar, but that will make no difference to the pub’s overall ambience. The other night I was in the Blossoms in Stockport, where they have plenty of craft bottles in the fridge and Pilsner Urquell on the bar. But the general cosy, multi-roomed feel would still be “old man” regardless of what beers were on sale.
Surely there is a parallel here with dismissing established real ales as “boring brown beers”, another product of the US-influenced British craft evangelists deciding that their main enemy was not the mega-brewers, but the existing, successful craft real ale scene. It’s all a bit divisive and counter-productive.
Eventually, the wheel will come full circle. I remember in the 1970s seeking out the most down-to-earth, basic, old-fashioned pubs there were in the search for real ale, and being captivated by their atmosphere. In more recent years, the tide has swung against valuing tradition, but, one day, young drinkers will realise once again that “old man pubs” have a story to tell.

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