How sociology can help pubs understand their customers

By Phil Mellows

- Last updated on GMT

Doctor's orders: Pubs can learn about their customers through sociology
Doctor's orders: Pubs can learn about their customers through sociology

Related tags: Real ale, Public house, Alcoholic beverage, Cask ale, Camra

Doctor Tom Thurnell-Read is not a medical man, but he can help you with the health of your pub. Meet the sociologist whose research can teach publicans about their customers and their drinking culture.

Among the teeming bibulous masses that no doubt throng your pub most nights, consider that one of them might be a sociologist, watching and listening while they sip, making
mental notes for that paper on drinking culture that will reach the inevitable conclusion: more research needed.

Doctor Tom Thurnell-Read is off duty on this occasion, though. It’s mid-afternoon at the Victoria, Beeston, a fine, old, high-ceilinged station hotel on the outskirts of Nottingham with a nifty little gate opening straight off the platform into the beer garden and a well-kept selection of cask ales.

He pops in here occasionally on his way home from work as lecturer in cultural sociology at the University of Loughborough – proof that his interest in drinking is not purely academic.

A Radio 4 regular

Thanks to his sexy research topics – stag parties, real ale, microbreweries and, most recently, craft gin – he’s also a regular on Radio 4’s sociology show Thinking Aloud.

He has written essays on subjects ranging from Brits abroad Off The Leash and Out of Control​ to The Embourgeoisement of Beer​, and the challenge the craft movement poses for the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA)

While many academics in the alcohol field pathologise the subject, always looking for the negatives, Thurnell-Read’s work is in a dif-ferent tradition.

“I always wanted to look at drinking as a social activity. A lot of the academic discussion is around good and bad drinkers, but the social context changes so much.”

In other words, it’s not about how much you drink, but when, where, why, how and with whom you drink it. But has he anything to teach publicans? And how on earth did he manage to fall into this game, anyway?

“My PhD at Warwick University was on tourism as a social phenomenon and, 10 years ago, I studied stag tourism in Eastern Europe. I was interested in the anthropology, the rituals of heavy drinking, fancy dress and practical jokes.

“From that I started thinking about real ale. I was a member of the Real Ale Society at university and wanted to do something on CAMRA, which had an older male demographic and hadn’t attracted much academic attention.

“Most of the alcohol literature in academia was focused on drunkenness and losing con-trol, or on very traditional drinking practices, and it struck me there was something else going on with CAMRA – what I came to call ‘serious leisure’.”

Thurnell-Read had the full support of CAMRA and the local branch for his research which, as with his study of stag parties in Poland, required him to join in.

“I wanted to be part of the group, so yes, I drank. That brings problems of recall and judgment, so I had to manage that, but drunkenness is part of the experience. I do qualitative sociology. It’s not treating people as raw data, it’s understanding them.

“It was challenging but fun. I didn’t really know these people, but they got used to me being there.”

He describes what CAMRA members do as “a particularly meaningful form of drinking that’s important for people’s self-identity. It symbolises what kind of person you are”.

“A lot of ale drinkers are drinking significant amounts, but it’s seen as healthy and sociable. The drinking is more spaced out, socially embedded, and is seen as making a contribution to the community.

“CAMRA members feel they have a duty to drink to preserve a British brewing heritage.”

That committed form of drinking is reflected in the grassroots activists who keep the organisation going – and Thurnell-Read worries that their ageing ranks may not be replenished.

“There are members who have put in a lot of time and effort over 20 or 30 years that must be worth tens of thousands of pounds in volunteer labour. They are the kind of people who are often also active in the jazz club or their trade union, community-focused people who get involved in things.

“New people are joining, the membership is going up, but they’re joining for different reasons, I think. The core of engaged members has stayed the same.

“It isn’t that CAMRA is stuck in the mud, it’s part of a wider social change. New members might be just as passionate about real ale but they have less time to commit to it.”

Resistant to change

He describes the organisation’s core of activists as its “biggest strength and its biggest weakness” – because they are resistant to change.

That strength and weakness has, of course, been severely tested by the brash rise of craft beer. Yet Thurnell-Read believes “craft and cask drinkers have a lot more in common than you think”.

“They both have a thirst for knowledge. Whether they’re older or younger, they want to try a new beer and have an opinion on it.

It’s symbolic of an aesthetic discrimination. The references are different, of course. With cask it’s rural, industrial, heritage themes, while craft uses more modern language – ‘punk’, for instance.

“You have the idea from craft that real ale is boring, brown and bland, but when you look into the origins of the craft beer movement in the States you see it was the result of a trans-Atlantic exchange.

“Brooklyn Brewery’s Garrett Oliver was coming to the UK in the 1980s for collaborative brewing, the late Peter Austin of Ringwood Brewery built a lot of the first microbreweries over there. American craft brewers recognised that British house bitter is, in some ways, the epitome of a brewer’s craft.

“And now you have traditional brewers in the UK looking at the new craft brewers and most of them are saying ‘fair play to you’. They started innovating too, building their own pilot breweries to experiment on. There’s a blurring between the two camps.”

Contemporary craft aesthetic

Thurnell-Read has lately turned his attention to the “contemporary craft aesthetic” demonstrated by the new wave of gin makers, interviewing small-batch distillers around the country to get a grip on what ‘craft’ means.

“It’s about the quality of the product in the glass, yet it’s also about geographical authenticity, being local. People respond well to locality. I’ll always favour Cornish beers because that’s where I come from – but wherever I am I’ll also order a local beer I haven’t tasted before.”

He’s also struck by the way that these micro-distillers, like craft brewers, will very readily open their doors to visitors.

“Visits are important. People can see how it’s made, meet the people making it, and become invested in it. A brewery taproom enables people to engage with the product.

“As a craft producer, you’re on display. It’s what’s known as ‘emotional labour’. The maker is part of their product. It’s a performance. Meet the brewer evenings at pubs are a good example. You don’t just produce a gin or a beer, you’re there to educate the consumer.

“It’s a response to the disengaged, rational supply chain of big business, a way in which small businesses can create a space for themselves where they can compete.”

Which leaves us with the question of how publicans can relate to this, what their future might be in this complex new marketplace.

“There are clearly many reasons why pubs are closing,” says Thurnell-Read. “There is competition from the off-trade, not only on price but from specialist online retailers. The Beerbods club hosts an online beer tasting every Thursday at 9pm. It’s effectively creating a digital pub.”

Competition within the beer-led pub trade, from real-ale destination pubs and craft-beer bars, is making it difficult for local community pubs that rely on a regular trade. They are drawing in a breed of customer who might concentrate their drinking on a single night of the week.

“Many craft drinkers are binge drinkers who wait till the weekend,” as he puts it.

Destination pubs and bars also tend to be better at taking advantage of what he has termed “the embourgeoisement of beer”.

“It’s gone from being a mundane everyday mass product to something rather more com-plicated, something you have to learn about. Some pubs forget about that, though many also do it well now.

“Beer flights, for instance, are a great way to engage customers, demonstrate the beer and make beer drinking accessible. There’s a good trend there towards people knowing what they’re consuming.

“But some enjoy mystification because it’s an opportunity to show off, and certain pubs play to that with a wide range of beers and tap take-overs – deliberate ploys to bring in more know-ledgeable consumers.”

Back-to-basics approach

Micropubs, meanwhile, are evidence of an alternative trend. “They show there’s a demand for a back-to-basics approach against the received wisdom that pubs need to innovate and do lots of different things.

“The danger is, though, that we end up thinking you need different pubs for different people. In reality, lots of people have a portfolio they will drink from. It’s not some consumers going one way and some going another.”

He also believes there’s a deep desire among people for the local, even though they are using them less often.

“When people are moving house, the presence of a few nice pubs has got appeal. We’ve not given up on the idea, it’s just not translating into practice.

“People face pressures from the rest of their lives. There are a number of pulls away from the pub. One factor is that traditional gender relations have changed. In the past, the wife was at home preparing the dinner while the husband went down the pub. We don’t like to mention it but, historically, that’s true.”

Thurnell-Read’s sociology is part of a long tradition of academic study that sees pubs as playing a positive role in social bonding, in bringing people together in a meaningful way.

And as he quaffs his pint of Black Sheep Rye Mild, it’s hard not to mention that he seems to be his own research subject.

“I suppose I am studying myself in a way – but all sociologists study themselves, really.”

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