One of Great Britain's great institutions is under threat: the pub.
The British Beer and Pub Association says an average of 52 pubs are closing each week.
Changing consumer tastes, a two-year-old smoking ban and the deepening economic recession have hit pubs hard. But for thousands, the death blow has been dealt by rising government taxes on beer — up to 20 percent in the past two years. The traditional pint glass of beer now runs about $6, meaning few working-class Brits can afford that other British tradition: buying your friends a round.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown has refused to reconsider further increases in the tax on beer. Industry leaders say that means thousands more pubs will close their doors.
On a quiet, drizzly afternoon, Mike Franklin, manager of London's Cross Keys pub, greets his customers by name — all three of them.
Jerry Wright is perched on his usual stool, a pint glass of lager at his elbow. "I've been drinking here for 30 years. ... Everybody's friendly; everybody knows everybody else. It's a real British pub — it's how it should be."
But business at the Cross Keys is largely confined to weekends now. Franklin says the days of locals crowding in for a beer and chat most evenings are pretty much over.
"Before, people would go out for a pint, maybe on a Tuesday, play darts, on a Wednesday after football — because beer was a cheap enough commodity at the time. And on the weekends they'd always go out," he says. "These days, beer is a lot more expensive, and people are put off by that."
A Social Cost
At Fuller's Brewery, a mile down the road, Tony Johnson explains there's been a brewery in the area since Elizabethan times.
As a supplier, Fuller's says it is holding its own amid the recession because increased supermarket sales are almost filling the gap left by the failing pubs. But that fact tells a story, too: The big supermarket chains are able to undercut pub prices. So, thousands of customers are deserting the ever-more-expensive pubs to drink cheaper beer at home — alone.
Michael Turner, Fuller's chairman, is also the head of the British Beer and Pub Association. He says there's not just an economic cost but a social cost when a pub fails, especially in the countryside.
"There is no alternative to the pub," he says. "It is the center of the community. And all the social interaction that goes with a pub is likely to be lost when the pub goes. I mean, you can go from three pubs to two pubs in a community, but when you lose the last pub — that's it."
For many pubs, it's come down to this: adapt or die. At the Black Lion pub in West London, for example, you can play bingo some nights, or even have your fortune told.
"We have psychic nights, which are like really very popular — oh, Moroccan nights we do, with like Moroccan food and belly dancers and all that," says assistant manager Carl Faulkner.
In addition, the menu is strategically placed several notches above ordinary pub grub, but priced well below the gourmet fare available at so-called gastro pubs.
Staffers at the Black Lion don't just dispense beer — they deliver an experience.
"Films we show in the winter ... yeah, we do all sorts — anything to get 'em in, really!" Faulkner says, laughing.