It would be nice to think that the British public considers ale and lager to be liquids every bit as essential as diesel and petrol. And that, if draymen threatened to go on strike at some unspecified time within the next few weeks, pub bars would be 10-deep with worried beer lovers buying in bulk, and pub car parks would fill up with people decanting their brew of choice into jerry cans, lemonade bottles and jam jars.
Given the old adage — you don’t know what you‘ve got until it’s gone — perhaps a short, sharp beer shortage is exactly what we need to remind people about the greatness of our national drink.
Fuel and beer have some things in common. They are both increasingly expensive amber-coloured liquids, and both need to be handled with respect.
But we have very different relationships with fuel and beer. We love beer in itself, for what it is, how it tastes and how it makes us feel. We don’t love fuel in itself — we love only what fuel provides, namely warmth, transport and freedom.
As I filled up my car with diesel last week, suffering traumatic bill shock at the £105 total, I wondered what exactly I had bought. I reckon I had purchased, at most, 10 miles of driving for each £1.50 litre.
What would I get for an equivalent spend on beer? For the supermarket, I might be able to buy and consume enough beer to make driving illegal. But in a pub, I’d be lucky to get half a pint.
Of course it’s almost meaningless to compare such products and prices — except in one regard, and that is the way the prices are displayed.
With fuel, one is presented with a giant monolithic display outside the forecourt, showing the price per litre, and then a counter on the fuel pump calculating how much you have bought. For beer, the customer rarely knows what he or she has committed to spend until the drinks have been served and delivered. In a pub, with the exception of some managed houses with standardised pricing, one can order three pints of beer and genuinely have no idea whether there will be any change from a tenner. I can’t think of any other retail environment in which this is the case.
Now I’m not necessarily advocating the display of key beer price-points on pub signposts. Maybe it would risk commoditising beer to advertise it in this way. And perhaps explicit price promotion would remind people just how expensive beer has become thanks to the duty escalator. But you could say the same for fuel, and they were queuing round the block for it last week.