In Ireland, pubs now offer more than just a pint

By Yvonne Gordon, BBC Features correspondent

Irish tastes are changing, and the venerable staple of Irish culture has a new look and feel.

Visit a pub near Dublin’s International Financial Services Centre on a Friday evening, and you’re more likely to find tables of friends sharing food and a bottle of wine, instead of crowds of besuited workers clutching pints.

The pub is still a key part of Ireland’s social fabric, yet drinking culture in the country has changed a lot in the past two decades. Alcohol consumption has fallen, and zero-alcohol drinks are on the rise. By some estimates, sales of non-alcoholic beer more than tripled between 2017 and 2021. And research by Drinks Ireland shows alcohol consumption in the country has decreased by around 30 percent in the past 20 years.

While the behaviour change is cross-generational, it’s more pronounced among younger age groups.

As alcohol consumption trends down, the gastropub is rising. The pub-food sector grew from 2 percent in 2019 to 13.9 percent in 2023 across the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, with consumers spending €1.5 billion (NZ$2.6b) on pub food in 2023. Some gastropubs are achieving global acclaim: in 2018, the Wild Honey Inn in County Clare became the first Irish pub to win a Michelin Star.

As consumers seek more balance in how – and what – they drink, they’re also responding to other societal factors that have knock-on effects for pub culture in Ireland. People are working from home and going for after-work drinks with colleagues less often, and seeking different ways of socialising, particularly as the cost of living continues to soar.

Republic of Ireland, County Dublin, Dublin, The Temple Bar Pub (Photo by GERAULT Gregory / / / Hemis via AFP)

‘Wednesday is now the busiest day of the week’

Running a pub now is a moving target with lots of challenges, says Ronan Lynch, owner of The Swan Bar on Dublin’s Aungier Street.

This has particularly been the case as hospitality-business owners are still recovering from the pub restrictions of the Covid-19 years, during which strict lockdowns forced them closed for months at a time. Other factors, such as an increase in the minimum wage and higher national VAT, have inflated prices across the sector; they’ve also nudged up costs and reduced operating hours of the surrounding restaurants, which are crucial to driving the pub’s before-and-after-dinner business.

Rising cost of living also has an impact.

“It’s not cheap to eat out in Dublin. Food has gone up because the costs have gone up across the board on everything,” says Rory Killeen, general manager at the Harbourmaster Bar and Restaurant in Dublin. Indeed, experts partly blame rising prices for the closure of many Irish pubs – particularly in rural areas.

Killeen says the shift to hybrid-work has also impacted revenue. People used to come in for lunch or after leaving the office during the week, he says, but that foot traffic has reduced with people working from home.

The Harbourmaster is located in the IFSC, home to some of the world’s leading financial services companies and banks. The tens of thousands of workers employed there compose most of their customers. In a major shift, many of these firms have introduced post-pandemic hybrid-work policies, meaning employees are in the office fewer days each week.

It’s changed the way they patronise the pub.

“Wednesday is now the busiest day of the week,” says Killeen. “They don’t come in [to the office] on a Monday or a Friday because they want the long weekend.”

With the reduction in office traffic, the Harbourmaster has had to diversify its business. Food has always been a big part of its model, and it has a large upstairs function room, but they are now hosting both tour groups for meals as well as taking on new functions, such as First Communions or Confirmations.

Evolving traditions

These cultural changes have ushered in a new era of experimentation, including the introduction of alcohol-free pubs and venues that offer more than just a drinking experience.

In January, Board Dublin, a non-alcoholic board games bar on Dublin’s Clanbrassil Street, opened its doors. Chris Raymond, head of marketing at Bodytonic, which owns the pub, says that they started it because the owners and management team found their socialising was no longer being centred around alcohol. “That’s where our desire to open an alcohol-free bar came from,” he says. “We’ve been wanting to do a games bar for a while, the two just went hand-in-hand.”

Raymond adds they had noticed the growth in the non-alcoholic drinks category in their other pubs (which include Pot Duggans, in Ennistymon, County Clare; The Lighthouse in Dún Laoghaire, County Dublin; and The Bernard Shaw in Dublin 9) and the variety they can serve, with non-alcoholic wines and spirits, draft Guinness 0.0 and Heineken 0.0, plus kombucha on tap.

“We’re pretty happy so far,” he says. “January was crazy. We probably could have filled the place four times over on some night.”

People enjoying afternoon drinks outside a pub in Dublin center.
On Monday, 21 June 2021, in Dublin, Ireland. (Photo by Artur Widak/NurPhoto) (Photo by Artur Widak / NurPhoto / NurPhoto via AFP)

Raymond adds people are going out less, but many are willing to splurge when they do – though not necessarily on alcohol.

“They’re willing to spend more on experiences. You have to evolve the offering. Everyone is adopting this – putting on events, having food and drink packages that include after-dinner entertainment, or bars putting in karaoke rooms.”

Hospitality consultant Barry Cassidy, from Independent Insight, mentions the trend of “social competitive play”, which is popular in the UK, with experiences like ping-pong bars, or Puttshack, an indoor mini-golf game. He says people are still gathering in pubs, but are drinking differently – including being “sober curious” and focusing their experiences on wellness.

“While people want a social experience, they probably want other factors than stand-alone alcohol, whether it be food or entertainment,” says Cassidy.

“The way consumers are behaving with alcohol now is evolving, it’s about more food, experience and entertainment occasions. There will be a merging with wellness and hospitality. I think pubs will be central to that, because they are social environments, they just might be lighter on the ‘social lubricant’.”

And even pubs that are alcohol-focused are updating their offerings and approaches, especially, amid the whiskey renaissance in Ireland, says Cassidy. At The Swan Bar, which dates back to 1897, one of the biggest sellers is still draft Guinness, but they have also increased the spirits offering, especially its range of specialist Irish whiskey.

“It’s a bolt-on [to existing offerings],” says owner Lynch. “They are going to have a pint and they have a whiskey as well.”

The pub has created whiskey menus to give people more information.

“It’s easier access. A lot of people would be a bit afraid of trying whiskies, but here you receive a detailed menu with the flavour profiles. You don’t have to buy a bottle of whiskey for €200; you can come in here and try a shot of it, and then decide.”

Republic of Ireland, County Dublin, Dublin, Temple Bar district (Photo by GERAULT Gregory / / / Hemis via AFP)

‘Charm and uniqueness’

In today’s changing landscape, “you’re always looking at other ways to give another string to your bow”, says Lynch. “When you get people in, give them another reason to stay. As I call the pub, it’s the ‘people’s church’. Everybody can come from all walks of life.”

At the same time, however, consultant Cassidy thinks that although survival for many pubs is about new offerings, not every venue needs a full reinvention. For some, success may simply lie in doubling down on the charm and uniqueness that has always made them a special part of Irish culture.

“They are just timeless,” he says. “I think they retain a space for people who might not engage with it as often as an older generation might, but it will still be a place where they will go for an occasion, and also for tourists to experience the authenticity of Ireland.”

This story was first published by theBBC.

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