Twisting tap: making the most of free water

By Sophie Atherton

- Last updated on GMT

Hell or high water: The Refill drive reduces plastic consumption
Hell or high water: The Refill drive reduces plastic consumption
Beer writer Sophie Atherton explains how, with a simple twist, pubs can turn free tap water to their advantage

When it comes to plastic, beer drinkers probably feel less guilt than others. Simply by avoiding brews from single-use plastic kegs and cans connected by plastic yokes we can enjoy the feeling that our beverage isn’t adding to the world’s plastic woes. Yet beer isn’t the only thing we drink – and that brings me to water.

That water isn’t as simple as it could be was first brought home to me when a man who, upon hearing of my beer sommelier accreditation, asked if I also did any water sommelier work (yes, apparently it’s a real thing.) I told him, of course, I knew that water being soft or hard is important in brewing and that there are subtle flavour differences, but I wouldn’t go as far as pairing water and food. It sounds too much like the topic of one of those pointless, but fun, arguments we all used to have over a pint before the internet and social media came along.

In the new digital environment, things become much more heated than they ever did down the pub – or at least the pubs I frequented. Hence one of the latest furores, sparked by Sam Espensen of Bristol Spirit when, in a since deleted social media post, where she kicked off about those who order free tap water.

A few weeks later and a bartender from a North Tyneside pub was accused of trying to charge a customer £1 for tap water. All I can say about that matter is it seems people can get pretty excited about water!

The good news for pubs is they can turn this to their advantage. Butcombe Brewery, which has some 30 pubs across the south-west of England, is one of the latest to see the light following the lead of the likes of St Austell Brewery and Fuller’s.

It has signed up to the Refill campaign, which is working to reduce plastic pollution by making it easy for people to refill reusable water bottles instead of buying a plastic one. The campaign has created a network of Refill stations across the UK and reckons if everyone in the UK filled up just once a week, we’d prevent the making of 340m plastic bottles every year.

Some effort required

Given the popularity of the recent BBC TV series War on Plastic with Hugh and Anita, that’s going to be a powerful statistic for a lot of people. And if you consider the scale of the problem, it’s not something people are going to stop thinking about any time soon.

With pubs in visitor destinations like Bath and Lulworth Cove, Butcombe Brewery has not only made itself look good but will probably draw new customers through the door. I won’t be the only one who would pick a holiday lunch venue where I know I can fill up my water bottle without a fuss and enjoy my afternoon activities all the more for it.

With certain requirements for providing a refill tap and advice that it should be a clean, hygienic stand-alone cold water tap (not a mixer tap) and must not be located in the toilets or over an open drain – there’s clearly some effort involved for pubs who want to provide free tap water refills.

The way to look at it though is akin to money spent on marketing. Just like some adverts or promotions not hitting the mark, there might be people who come in and refill but don’t give you their custom.

However, they’re unlikely to come in droves and, in any case, you’ve given them the chance to see inside your pub. If it’s a place to be proud of, then they’ll probably come back as a customer and tell their friends too.

More likely, existing customers will consider it a bonus that they can fill up and look upon you more kindly as a result.

Then there’s the whole social media aspect of people promoting your pub because you’re doing your bit for the planet. People get excited about water and your profile and reputation gets a boost as a result.

Providing free tap water refills may also benefit your local community by reducing plastic litter in the area. Again, good for pubs and the environment. Still need convincing? Costa Coffee is already on board with the Refill campaign.

Pubs need to seize this opportunity to be part of the new eco-friendly world, or risk being left high and dry.

Related topics: Soft & Hot Drinks

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