Pubs began as the place where drinkers would meet up with like-minded folk to put the world to rights, but the pub as we know it today has drastically changed.
While the number of wet-led pubs is still in decline, this figures is slowing, which is a result of the food-led market becoming oversaturated, according to experts.
In 2012, the number of wet-led pubs was at 30,080, falling to 29,126 the following year – a decline of 954 sites.
In 2014, the number of wet-led pubs fell once again to 27,522 – a drop of 1,604 from the previous year.
But in 2015, this slowed as the total number of wet-led pubs was at 26,438, a decline of 1,084. While the rate did speed up in the following year with a decline of 1,322 pubs, this fell significantly when comparing 2015 to 2016 when just 664 wet-led pubs closed their doors.
CGA commercial director Graeme Loudon said: “Almost since the smoking ban in 2007, the traditional wet-led pubs of the on-trade have been under severe pressure to keep their doors open and the lights on.
“As a result, the number has dwindled by almost 20% over the past five years to 24,442, but within the past year, we have perhaps begun to see the sector begin to fight back, slowing the rate of annual decline from 6% in 2014, to 3% in 2017.
“This improvement in performance suggests we may be beginning to see the market bottoming out, many of the outlets which have closed in this sector have been the poorer quality outlets, which may not have changed or adapted their offer since the smoking ban.
“But even within the past five years, where these declines have manifested themselves and against much of the narrative of the market, wet-led pubs have continued to thrive.
“The better quality and better run wet-led pubs have flourished and they have done so by offering the consumer great choice and great quality, offering the consumer an experience in clean, modern surroundings
“I expect that over the coming years we may see the momentum in wet-led pubs continue and as the food and casual-dining market becomes increasingly competitive, many operators will look to the wet-led pubs market to offer the next wave of growth.”
Craft Union Pub Company prides itself on its wet offer and aims to be the pub of choice for locals to meet up and watch their favourite sports.
Craft Union business operations director Frazer Grimbleby said: “We aim to put great quality wet-led pubs back at the heart of the local community as we strongly believe pubs play a vital role in the lives of their customers.
“The community is at the heart of every decision we make and our tailored offer reflects this. In a Craft Union pub, customers will see their favourite quality brands on the bar at competitive prices alongside a wide range of sports and entertainment.
“As our estate continues to expand year on year, it is clear our pubs really are the hub of the community.
“Absolutely key to the proposition is the close relationship and extensive support we provide our operators as they practice their craft of running outstanding pubs.
“With the right investment in areas such as sports viewing, entertainment, quality interiors and affordable drinks, we are confident our pubs will continue to thrive and grow.”
Drink-led business Be At One has seen significant growth for the past 10 years and chief operating officer Andrew Stones doesn’t see signs of this stopping.
He said: “As the leading operator of wet-led cocktail bars, Be At One has witnessed strong and uninterrupted revenue growth for more than a decade, delivering consistent like-for-like sales growth, and is well positioned for continued expansion over the next couple of years.
“The headwinds confronting the wider leisure and hospitality industry have been well-documented, but we are confident in our business model and pressures on consumer spending are likely to work in our favour, with consumers seeking our differentiated, high-quality experiences.
“We recently experienced record trading over the festive period across all sites nationwide, which has continued into 2018, clearly demonstrating that this market is continuing to grow.”
On a wider level, trade body UKHospitality put the slowing down to innovation.
Chief executive Kate Nicholls said: “Consumer tastes may have evolved dramatically in recent years, and many pubs have branched out into new and exciting areas, predominantly food, but wet-led pubs are still an integral part of the UK’s hospitality [industry]."
Reaping the rewards
She added: “Just as many pubs have updated their offers and morphed into food-led pubs, many wet-led pubs have innovated and now offer a fantastic range of drinks well beyond anything that would have been available 10 or 20 years ago.
“Exciting pubs offer a wide range of intricate cocktails, wines, spirits and soft drinks options from every corner of the globe and new and exciting craft and cask beers that tap into the current trend for interesting beers.
“These pubs have adapted their wet-led offers to provide customers with something new and they are reaping the rewards for their ingenuity.”
Evolution is another part of the changing industry, according to the British Beer & Pub Association. Chief executive Brigid Simmonds said: “In the years following the smoking ban, it was wet-led pubs that suffered the most.
“This led to some evolution in the industry and now food is clearly a hugely important part of the pub offering. We serve a billion meals a year.
“Moreover there are now 50,000 bedrooms available in pubs, which showcases another way in which pubs are evolving.
“However, we also have 2,000 breweries, brewing thousands of beers and campaigns like There’s A Beer For That have helped reignite our nation’s love of beer.
“Wet-led pubs in the right place can thrive and their rate of decline has slowed considerably. With such a huge range to choose from, they provide an opportunity to experience the wide range of styles and tastes of so many different beers.”
The past 12 months has brought good news for the pub trade, including the beer duty freeze, according to the Campaign For Real Ale (CAMRA).
Head of communications Tom Stainer said: “It is heartening to hear that the rate of wet-led pub closures is slowing, which can be attributed to some recent pub wins.
“From closing planning loopholes to better protect pubs from closure, to freezing beer duty in the latest budget, there has been some good news for pubs over the past year.
“However, it is important the sector does not become over confident at this news. While pub closure rates may be slowing, they are still in decline and there is still more work to be done to safeguard Britain’s pub culture.
“Most important, CAMRA would like to see greater business rate relief for struggling pubs as well as further duty cuts to help keep pub-going an affordable activity for consumers.”