The British pub may have undergone a number of radical changes over the last few decades, becoming more family-friendly and increasingly offering a wide variety of food dishes alongside the more traditional beers, wines and spirits.
But with liberalisation of pub opening hours just around the corner - a move which is likely to have a major impact on pubs across the country - a new report from market analysts Datamonitor shows that these changes have largely been taken in their stride by British drinkers, who still top the European list of on-trade consumers.
Datamonitor's report, called Trends and Behaviours in the On-Trade looks at attitudes in seven European countries (France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden and the UK) towards drinking in pubs, clubs, bars and restaurants, and shows quite clearly that the UK on-trade is still alive and kicking, with total spending on drinks by British consumers reaching €47 billion.
Only France comes close to matching this figure, with sales of €45 billion, while Germany is in a distant third place with €31 billion. Furthermore, there are no signs of any likely slowdown for on-trade spending: average per capita outlay is set to reach €915 in 2007 in the UK and €763 in France by 2007. The biggest increase, however, is expected to be in Spain, where per capita spending should rise by almost 60 per cent to €741 in 2007, Datamonitor said.
While on-trade consumption of alcohol has been part of European life for centuries, a number of factors mean that growth at the present time is greater than ever.
A rising number of female drinkers, a bigger senior population as people live longer and enjoy active lifestyles well into their retirement and the growing ranks of affluent mid-life singles have all contributed to the acceleration of growth rates in on-trade drinking, according to Datamonitor. Changes in people's lifestyles, as well as the search for novelty, have also created new trends and behaviours in on-trade customers.
"While young adults will always be an important target group, investment in attracting female and older consumers will create new drinking occasions and new opportunities. Both old and young consumers are becoming more demanding - novelty, sophistication and female-friendly settings are now highly in demand," said Andrew Russell, consumer analyst at Datamonitor and author of the report.
"The European on-trade is facing a revolution and understanding these new trends will allow the drinks industry to develop better offerings for consumers, from adapting both the flavour and format of new and existing drinks to enhancing new occasions and upgrading the appeal of on-trade venues."
Getting the female vote
One of the most significant changes in European drinking patterns in recent years has been the increase in women's drinking, the report suggests. Young British women aged between 18 and 24 are by far the largest female consumers of alcoholic drinks in Europe, with annual per capita consumption of 203 litres in 2002 in the UK, compared to only 59 litres amongst young Italian women.
Despite France's high spend on on-trade drinking, most of this cash clearly comes from men, with per capita consumption among young adult women just 70 litres a year, well below the European average of 104 litres. In fact, France is second only to Italy in the preponderance of male drinkers.
Young Dutch women consume around 107 litres of alcohol per year, while their Swedish counterparts drink 82 litres. German women are second only to the Brits, with annual per capita consumption of 189 litres. The average in the rest of Europe is 93 litres.
All these consumption levels are set to rise, however, with young British women expected to increase their input to 242 litres by 2007, Datamonitor predicts. Once again, however, Spain is likely to show the biggest increase, with consumption of alcoholic drinks increasing by almost 60 per cent between 2002 and 2007 to an annual 115 litres per young adult woman.
"This is partly because Spain is a less mature market and capable of rapid growth as young adult women become economically independent and societal attitudes to women drinking become less censorious," Russell explained.
Other, more modest, rises are likely to come across the seven countries examined by the report, with German consumption among young women rising to 209 litres and Dutch input reaching 114 litres.
Sweden, France and Italy will still show a marked tendency towards male drinking, with young female consumption increasing to just 95, 78 and 75 litres respectively.
That the on-trade has adapted quickly to the growing number of young female drinkers is clear from the fact that the traditional beer-focused pubs in countries such as the UK and Germany have already given way to bars such as All Bar One or Mediterranean style cafes which offer a more comfortable, open, well-lit, friendly environment.
"One of the key design features of the All Bar One chain is that the bar's frontage should be mainly glass, allowing prospective female customers to check the venue out before entering. This offers security and comfort, and also helps to develop trust," commented Russell.
Women's demand for more access to the on-trade has also given rise to new drinks, and changed the shape of the market. The obvious example is the rise in FABs, which having initially been aimed at young consumers were quickly refined to appeal to women particularly. Wine, in particular, is popular with young women as it is perceived as being low in calories and sophisticated - and the two trends are increasingly being combined, with Diageo just this month launching a wine-based FAB under the Archers brand designed clearly with female drinkers in mind.
A lasting heritage
But women's effect on the on-trade will not merely be a passing fad, Datamonitor suggests. "Men tend to follow women, and this is particularly true for young men," said Russell. "While men made up the majority of drinkers, the drinking environment reflected their preferences. Now, however, men are learning to appreciate the changes in on-trade venues, learning about wine, enjoying smoke-free environments and appreciating better service," he added.
Women have also led the rise of food occasions. Most noticeable is the growth of gastro-pubs, cafés and other food venues in Germany, the UK and the Netherlands, which is partly due to the women's desire to avoid getting drunk too quickly. While binge drinking is common among younger women as a way of proving their equality with men, older women have grown out of this behaviour and many will use food consumption as a way of slowing down both the pace of drinking and the effects of alcohol.
The waves of new trends and behaviours which have been given impulse by the growth of women's drinking have changed the European drinking environment, the report concludes. "The expansion of available products types of on-trade venue and the growing number of occasions which have been introduced over recent years have all combined to make consumers more demanding than ever before," said Russell.
"The need for novelty, the search for sophistication and the enhancement of meal occasions through high-quality drinks consumption all reflect a base demand for consumers to make an occasion special. This represents a significant opportunity for industry players. The need for added value will be reflected in consumers' willingness to pay - provided they are getting what they want. The converse of this need for added value is that consumers may reduce the quantity of their drinking," he concluded.