Could a new generation of young landlords help to save the Great British pub?

While many have already been forced to call last orders, the end is not quite nigh for Britain’s boozers. David Hewitt reports.

Scott Westlake Landlord at the Myrtle Tavern, Meanwood. 4 August 2015. Picture Bruce Rollinson

Yorkshire drinkers are no strangers to seeing students pulling pints behind the county’s bars. These days, however, that fresh-faced 20-something taking your order could just as feasibly be the owner as the hired help. While much

written about the pubs industry in recent years has painted a picture of terminal decline, away from the boarded up locals, forced to close through lack of regulars, the sector finally seems to be enjoying a new lease of life thanks to a fresh generation of licensees.

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According to one recent study carried out by Barclays, the number of British pub landlords aged between 25 and 34 has risen by around 25 per cent over the past three years alone. With average pub turnovers having also increased by 23 per cent over the same period, it’s these younger operators who are being credited with halting years of steady decline and bringing the Great British boozer back from the bink.

One of the country’s brightest brewing stars is Sam Moss, the co-founder and owner of the thriving Leeds Brewery company. Like many, his introduction to the trade was through a part-time job while at university in York.

“Myself and my business partner Michael [Browthwell] both worked for York Brewery while we were students,” the 29-year-old explains. “That experience showed us that, far from being a dying industry, the pubs business was full of opportunity. Like many people do when they’re working for somebody else, we thought to ourselves, ‘We can do better!’ So, when we graduated, we set out to do just that.”

Degrees in hand, the pair learned that the Leeds Brewery name had yet to be registered, so they snapped it up, and set about creating their own beers and distributing them throughout the city and beyond. They now also own six pubs dotted throughout Leeds, the newest of which, the Lamb and Flag, situated right next to Leeds Minster, opened its doors just a few weeks ago. At a time when dozens of British pubs are still calling ‘last orders’ for good each month, what’s the secret of their success?

“What we realised from the start is that consumer demands have changed a lot over recent years,” Sam says. “Drinkers want interesting beers and to be able to drink them in interesting places. Since we were new to the industry, we were able to bring fresh ideas to the market, whether it’s teaming up with local food providers to offer fresh, locally-sourced menus or offering something different from the usual mass-produced beers.”

It’s this willingness to embrace new ideas that has also helped one other young publican, Scott Westlake, revive the fortunes of the Myrtle Tavern in Meanwood. Now 29, he went into the trade straight from college as an 18 year old, working in Derbyshire and Leeds city centre. With that experience under his belt in 2010, he took on an establishment that was just days away from being boarded up. Since his name has been above the door, the Myrtle Tavern has been reborn and was named Leeds CAMRA most improved pub of the year in 2013.

For Scott, it’s the movement away from the large brewery chains that has helped this new generation of publicans create places people actually want to go to and spend their money in.

“It’s not an easy business, that’s true. But, by breaking with the big chains, you’re able to put your own stamp on a place and give your customers what they actually want,” he says. “This freedom lets you serve more interesting food and drink, layout your pub in a way you would like to see it if you were the customer and you’re also free to use social media to promote your pub how you want – all reasons why young, independent-minded publicans are enjoying great success right now.”

He disagrees, however, that it’s purely down to their fresh way of thinking that young licensees are thriving where others are struggling.

“Yes, you are seeing young landlords outperforming what you might call the ‘traditional pub landlord’, that is the older men who are often found propping up the bar,” Scott says. “This is partly because it’s such hard work these days. It’s exhausting working long, long hours, trying to offer what the modern drinker wants, managing your social media as well as the cellar. Perhaps the pubs business has become a young person’s game.”

One thing it definitely is not these days is a ‘job for the boys’. In fact, according to that same Barclays report into the state of the industry, one in five UK pubs are now owned by a female and, more interestingly, one in three of pub owners and licensees under the age of 35 are female.

For Kate Major, who has been landlady of the Three Tuns in Sheffield since September of last year, joining this new wave of female licensees presents problems of its own.

“Being young and in charge of a pub is one thing, but being young and female and being the boss is still quite a shock to many,” the 26-year-old University of Sheffield history graduate says. “Lots of customers simply assume I’m a barmaid, and there have been countless occasions when someone has asked me if they can speak to the landlord.”

However, just as they have happily accepted seeing big-name lagers replaced with craft beers, so too have her older customers come to accept she’s the boss, and welcome the changes she’s steadily bringing in.

Through the use of social media, as well as through making connections with other young publicans in the city and by writing her own online beer column, Kate has transformed the Three Tuns from being a quiet, hidden-away boozer to being a vibrant night spot and, perhaps more importantly, a designated stopping point on the city centre-to Kelham Island craft beer pub crawl.

“There’s definitely been a big change in the pub scene in the past five years, and Sheffield is, I think, at the forefront of this,” she explains. “People have become more picky about what they drink, and the movement towards craft beers is both being driven by and, in turn, driving the rise of young bar owners.

“There will, of course, always be a place for all sorts of pubs, but for now, I think, the stereotype of a landlord being an old, grumpy man who lives above the bar is definitely outdated.”

Back in Meanwood, Scott believes it’s just the beginning of a new era for pubs.

“Even when I was in school, which is not so long ago, owning and running your own pub was never presented as a career path you should follow,” he says. “Now, as more and more people in their 20s and 30s become the visible faces of the business, I think we’ll see this change.

“Old pubs that refuse to adapt may be dying out, yes, but there’s no reason why the new places opening up all over should go the same way.”