"There is a lot to learn from America but our visit also confirms that we do some things better than the rest of the world anyway."
So I recently had the good fortune to go on a little study tour (I believe that's the accepted euphamism for work-related pub crawl) in America.
I was out in Portland, Maine, with Marston's who have a partnership with Shipyard brewery. I also got the chance to visit Boston and take in plenty of bars, pubs and breweries along the way.
Much of the detail from this trip will feature in the July issue of Inapub magazine, when we take a closer look at how America is influencing our pub scene, but for now here are a few things that I discovered on my travels.
Craft is only just beginning...
OK, I admit it, I thought the craft bubble in the UK might be about to burst – after all how can we possibly sustain so many new breweries? Visiting America, where craft accounts for around 12 per cent of beer sales, has made me re-evaluate that opinion. Beer drinkers are demanding more variety, greater consistency and more challenging beers. The difference is that craft is more mainstream in America whereas it is only starting to attain that status over here. When the craft beer world is no longer seen as the preserve of beer experts and hipsters the rate of growth will speed-up.
Make more of merchandise
Shipyard brewery in Portland, Maine, is an impressive place with great beers, but we were kind of expecting that anyway. What knocked me out of the ballpark was the incredible amount of merchandise on offer in the brewery shop. There were so many ranges of clothes available that you could dress for any occasion going, as most of the Shipyard team seem to do. Hundreds of different T-shirts, cycling and running kit, fleeces, hoodies, shirts, polo shirts and baseball caps are all available for customers to buy. Then there's the beer mats, fridge magnets, bottle openers, glassware...and quite a few beers too. It is all branded and has been known to bring in $1m a year. It is certainly a revenue stream British breweries and pubs should take note of.
Flights of Fancy
Yes beer flights are gaining in popularity over here but we are still a long way behind the curve. These are basically standard in every tap house and proved to be the ideal way to share and sample drinks in a group. Ordering a beer in the UK in anything other than a pint glass is still generally considered to be going against the grain.
These are in every pub or bar that boasts a decent range of beers. It is handed to you and you are given a chance to read it before feeling pressured to order the one drink that you recognise. When you consider that many pubs have 70 or so beers on tap and hundreds of bottles in the fridge it seems crazy not to have any literature describing your range.
Order a beer, get a water as well. No fuss and complaints that it costs money for the pub. This is standard, sensible and an idea pubs should take note of.
So that's what a growler is...
Beer lovers in America do like a growler. These are basically beer flasks that you can take to a brewery tap and fill up to take home. In most states breweries are only allowed to fill up growlers that have their own branding on it. Scrumpy drinkers in the West Country are very familiar with this concept and it has started to infiltrate pubs over here but not on quite the same scale.
Pool tables still have a place in quite a few bars. The pockets are much bigger but they do not appear so after a long session sampling various brews.
You will have a nice day
Actually nobody said 'have a nice day' but the bar staff were incredibly knowledgeable and friendly. Two things that don't always go hand-in-hand in England. In fairness our levels of customer service have improved massively but there is still a little way to go. That said, there is also a limit to the amount of times you want someone to say 'you're so welcome' to you.
Americans do get irony
Yep, that surprised me but the sight of a bar full of kickball players (I still don't know what that is) dressed up in ludicrous stars and stripes attire and shouting 'USA' will live long in the memory.
Sometimes you want to go, where everybody knows your name...
But Cheers isn't a real bar...it was created after the show, which came as something of a disappointment. Still, people make a pub whether you are in Boston, Massachusetts or Boston, Lincolnshire. "It's nice to be nice," as one chap told us as he bought the bar a round following a win on the gee gees. Great beer, food, staff and entertainment can all be ways of attracting the most important element in your pub – great customers.
We have history...
There is a lot to learn from America but our visit also confirms that we do some things better than the rest of the world anyway. Our pubs certainly have more history and character, plus the layout is generally more conducive for groups to sit and chat. There is also more variety in the look and feel of our places. We are British, we do pubs bloody well but we can also make them even better.