Costa or The Caledonia? Are Thirty-Somethings Opting For The Former

A look at as to why people under 35 years old are drinking less than their parents.

I like a good coffee now and again. Sometimes it may be from Costabucks Nero or the local supermarket café. I am also a connoisseur of fairtrade brands, not only coffee but also tea. For me, substandard tea or coffee is anathema to productivity and workplace relations. In a ideal world, I would like to see Taylor’s of Harrogate’s finest beverages in almost every office throughout the UK, or another reasonable fairtrade brand.

Unfortunately, some people don’t give a flying stuff about workplace tea and coffee: they don’t mind if it’s PG Tips or Tetley, or Nescafé. If given the choice, they could nip to their local supermarket or franchised coffee shop. Or a nearby filling station which has a Starbucks or Costa vending machine.

Supposing we go out for the weekend or after work to a main urban centre, we may choose to pause for a drink. Some might favour the pub, others may prefer the local coffee shop.

For local interest groups, the coffee shop is becoming a favoured rendezvous spot instead of the pub. In spite of the premium price for its beverages, they offer something which modern day pubs have offered for years.

One is comfy chairs. Another is a family-friendly atmosphere. Others include proximity to local bus termini or rail services and free WiFi. Another caveat, all the more appealing to families, no drunken persons. For many, a quieter alternative to the local pub. They seem coexist peacefully in most locations along with local cafés, public houses.

It is worth noting that the UK’s favourite coffee shop chain is owned by a former brewery. Costa Coffee is owned by Whitbread. Once famed for its Trophy bitter and gobbling up local breweries like no tomorrow, the company sold its beer brands to Interbrew (now InBev) in 2000. Today, its best performing subsidiaries are the Costa Coffee and Premier Inn chains. In the space of 35 years, from ‘the pint that thinks it’s a quart’ to ‘the espresso that thinks it’s a grande’.

Costa’s beverages can also be savoured in a number of pubs, motorway service stations and Tesco’s instore cafés, as well as numerous railway stations and outlets in prominent positions.

From 1979 to 2014, paying the same price as a pint of Boddingtons for a cup of coffee has become more socially acceptable. Who, in the same year when Whitbread took a substantial share in the Strangeways Brewery’s offerings would have paid 25p for a cup of coffee when 15p was around the norm then?

Psychogeographical shifts

Summer 1994: after all-day opening was introduced on weekdays and Saturdays, Sunday fell in line. Though pubs were bound by 11pm closures (10-10.30pm on Sundays), the introduction of all-day opening in 1988 and 1994 was a fillup for food sales. Incumbent chains, such as Toby Carvery (Bass) and Harvester (Whitbread), rose in popularity.

In 1995, when Costa Coffee was taken over by Whitbread plc, pubs increasingly became family-friendly. Food, ball ponds and hot drinks coexisted with the beer. This reinforced The Sensible Way of Social Drinking. With Hunters Chicken or Chilli-con-Carne instead of crisps or a sandwich. Family friendliness would mean a nudge towards families leaving the pub after a sit-down meal. What could be made in the wet trade over a five hour session could have been made in minutes with two childrens’ meals and two adult main meals. With or without dessert.

At around 1995, the main players would increase their hold. In came other brands such as Two For One, Big Steak Pubs, It’s A Scream, Henry’s Table and Sizzling Pubs. A far cry from the days when a Berni Inn epitomised family-friendly pub dining. What was gained in terms of brand awareness was lost in terms of decor. In other words, a sameness throughout the UK; whether the pub was The Story Book in Boldon, or The Owl and the Pussycat in Barrow-in-Furness, same everywhere. Same food, same beer, same grab machines. Same architectural styles too! Today’s under 35s would have been badgering their parents to order unlimited ice cream or to take them into the Wacky Warehouse.

In 1995, the 18 to 35 year old drinker would choose to go to a ‘proper pub’, or a ‘fun pub’, as well as the local nightclubs. Franchised coffee chains were a rarity outside of principal city centres. Even then, drinking coffee in a public house didn’t seem like the done thing.

Besides the chain pubs mentioned earlier, one pub group did more to make drinking coffee in public houses less of a taboo. Also whilst offering affordable food and raising the profile of cask conditioned beers and ciders. They eschew the identikit approach of its peers in terms of architecture and feature in many towns throughout the UK.

35 years old this year is the J.D. Wetherspoon chain. Owned by Tim Martin and named after a teacher, who wrote him off at high school, they seem to have bridged demographic gaps. It is no surprise as to why a typical Wetherspoons has a mixed clientele: families, students, elderly drinkers and a wide ranging menu as well as free WiFi. Each pub distinct from each other. Having a coffee is just as acceptable as a pint of real ale; and coffee prices, allowing for inflation would have been at least 15p in 1979 prices.

Where the average ‘Spoons falls down on is the open plan nature of some of its hostelries. This discourages meetings whereas traditional multi-roomed pubs had Snugs, Committee Rooms and Commercial Rooms as well as Public Bars, Vaults and Lounges. This is where the smaller coffee shop sometimes has the upper hand owing to quieter surroundings and wider availability of free WiFi access.

Not only that, have you seen anyone staggering home from a seven Grande Americano bender? They may be likely to run the whole journey home if they’ve missed the last bus – supposing they don’t have a toilet stop en route.

The classless appeal of a franchised coffee shop

Since the 2008 Global Economic Downturn, consumer spending has been depressed on major purchases. ‘The big shop’ is less of a big shop as customers shy away from superstores in favour of discounters and independent shops. Buoyant since the downturn is our love of ground coffee. Often an occasional treat, or a tonic for commuters awaiting a dreaded Pacer unit, its non-invasive and genial atmosphere, in many eyes, appeals to all sections. For example, parents may be more inclined to go to Costa, Starbucks, Caffe Nero or Java instead of the local café as an extra special treat.

The coffee shop is a good leveller across cultures, religions, backgrounds and age groups. One minute, a family could come in; schoolchildren another; unemployed persons one minute; pensioners the next. With increased usage in mobile device, free WiFi alongside a quieter ambience is another leveller.

Though I sometime tweet about the pubs I frequent (or photograph pictures of my pints with Instagram), some people are more averse to partaking in this activity. The message which is coming out to some sections of the population is that of ‘coffee = good, pub = bad’. This is where the media comes in.

Teetotalism Uncovered (or: Why My Trip to Sparx Could Have Cost Me A Job)

Once upon a time, some time in the Anglo-Saxon era, there was this popular tactic used in the 1069 Harrying of the North. It is still popular today with certain commentators: divide and rule, or divide and conquer. In other words, Northerners versus Southerners; Eurosceptics versus Pro-Europeans; Drinkers versus Teetotalists. Some claim a similar tactic was used between smokers and non-smokers in relation to the 2007 Smoking Ban. They claim drinkers could be next, even moderate social drinkers.

To use similar parallels with the Smoking Ban misses the point. A lot of drinkers know where their limits are, both mentally and financially. Raising pub beer prices to lower consumption, whilst encouraging off-sales discounting is counterproductive. Result: pubs close, drinkers preload at home, and HM Government loses a sizeable chunk of duty revenue. Superstore chains selling cans of lager for less than the price of a pub soft drink see less tax revenue. Some chains pay even less in corporation tax. A massive corporate tax dodge whilst the scapegoating of moderate drinkers is a convenient foil? You bet.

From the late 1990s onwards, some viewers may have been watching Ibiza Uncovered/Booze Britain style crapumentaries over a few cans of Carling from their tax-evading store chain. Then in later years they wonder why their local pub has closed for good. Some may take the crapumentaries as a form of entertainment. Others assume it’s an accurate reflection of Britain at play.

Then what happens…? Thanks to operant conditioning by our mainstream media, it reinforces the myth that drinking to excess (or even drinking at all) is unacceptable. Soon it will get to the point where hedonism of any sort becomes antisocial. With social media, anyone can see our nights out if placed in the wrong hands. If for example your boss has seen your Facebook profile.

Which takes us to why 18 to 35 year olds are less likely to frequent public houses. Or consider social drinking of any nature.

Firstly, they have seen enough of the crapumentaries, reports and abstinence campaigns in the mainstream media, and fear being caught that way. Secondly, this age group has been hit the hardest by the Global Meltdown. Over a million 18 to 25 year olds are unemployed or in low-paid jobs and are priced out of public houses, let alone the property market. Whilst looking for work, there has been suggestions that unemployed persons should be teetotal when between jobs.  Thirdly, it could be claimed that any money saved from going to the pub has gone towards electronic devices and video games (in other words, a few cans in front of the Xbox 360 or PS4).

Recent statistics show that 18 to 35 year olds are drinking three times less than people over 60. So much for the stereotype of lager louts and binge drinkers being in the former category. Perhaps the younger generation aren’t too impressed with the perceived peripherals of a trip to the pub: the taxi queues, takeaway traumas, hostile night buses and antisocial behaviour. But is it enough to put them off the odd pint or two?

Less is more

When I started drinking legally in 1997, alcopops were on the ascendency amongst young drinkers. From the pioneering Two Dogs and Hooch brands, the likes of Smirnoff Ice and WKD rose in popularity well in to the noughties.

At 18, I was in to cask conditioned ales whilst my contemporaries preferred a bottle of Hooch or a pint of Caffreys. I eschewed (and still eschew) the vertical drinking dens, and alcopops. I favoured three glorious pints of real ale instead of nine middling pints of Carling (and I still do).

The ‘less is more’ philosophy I have taken seems to be adopted by today’s 18 to 35 year olds. Today, a major growth market within this age range is cask conditioned beers and craft ales. For their £2.50 – £4.50 a pint they demand something more esoteric than a pint of Carling. Hence the popularity of Wetherspoons houses and unique pubs like The Marble Arch on Rochdale Road, Manchester and the Stalybridge Station Buffet Bar.

Plus they are also part of the production of craft ales and cask conditioned ales. Their wares increasingly displayed in free houses, select off-licences and beer shops, and beer festivals. Maybe the way they are drinking as well as their preferred venue has changed.

At a recent beer festival in Stalybridge Labour Club, what struck me was the number of drinkers similarly aged, or younger than me, who were sampling the real ales. The choice is greater, but the pub is under pressure from profiteering Pubcos as well as coffee shops and convenience stores.

However, pub prices tend to be higher than off-licence equivalents due to higher overheads. The price of a pint covers fuel bills, staff wages, performers, leaseholds and wholesale beer prices. Some Pubcos’ have ripped off landlords, charging over the odds for rent or wholesale prices. Drinkers are priced out; the rents are jacked up; the pub closes. In some cases it is depubbed or has a high turnover of managers or landlords.

Community vibe

When we lose a pub forever, we also lose a community facility for good. Besides being a purveyor of alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks, food and a meeting point, it is an outlet for showcasing local pop groups and solo artistes. It is a place for local groups to host meetings; also a place for its own darts, football, pool and quiz teams. In this context, the pub is classless and serves a wide range of clientele from 18 to 108 years of age.

Though the franchised or independent coffee shop is a good meeting place for a drink for a wide number of people, it doesn’t have the same vibe. Where are the meeting areas? Where’s the scope for privacy which a multi-roomed pub – or a pub with an upstairs function room? As for hosting a meeting after 6pm, well you must be joking as the likes of Costa in most towns close for 8pm.

Plus the price of a grande Latte isn’t too different to that of a pint of bitter in Northern England. Coffee’s hardly sessionable compared with a good light ale. Would I be drinking a grande Latte at 11pm? No way Pedro! In the morning, maybe so.

We need pubs. We also need coffee shops too. Most of all, we also need a better understanding of our drinking habits away from the sensationalist crapumentaries. What happens in the taxi queue at one place after the pubs turn out is a small part of the full picture. Perhaps 90% of thirty somethings drinking sensibly doesn’t sell newspapers or make for good television.

On the other hand, I do enjoy the odd coffee at a J.D. Wetherspoon pub. That’s usually to avoid spoiling a later session. Preloading’s a no-no for me as is drinking at home instead of in the pub. If I was to drink at home, Yorkshire Tea, water or Vimto for me. Maybe a single malt whisky on New Year’s Day.

Oh, and I am 35 myself. Most of the people I have seen in pubs aged 18 to 35 are usually behind the bar or carting plates of budget priced pub lunches to families.

S.V., 07 November 2014.

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