There used to be a time when the word steel was synonymous with Britain: British industry. British manufacturing. British strength. Nowadays, Britain’s lustrous reputation as a centre of stainless steel excellence has been tainted. No longer is the UK synonymous with such doughty, indomitable concepts as 304-grade stainless steel. Instead, Britain is defined by rising crime, mass immigration, anti-social behaviour, ‘Booze Britain’, ‘Broken Britain’ and similar pejoratives that are wheeled out by politicians come election time.
Taken at face value, the UK would appear to be the fattest, meanest, coldest, laziest place on earth. And yet, if you were to venture into any town centre on a weekend and enter the nearest bar, you could be forgiven for thinking you’d entered another world. People – normal, respectable-looking people – can be seen drinking, chatting and laughing; even engaging in civilised, sociable behaviour. There might be the odd rowdy drinker; the occasional group who’ve had a few shots more than a few shots too many. On the whole though, the bacchanalian scenes that politicians decry as symptomatic of Booze Britain are nowhere to be seen. To the untrained eye, Britain’s bars and pubs would appear to be in rude health, and a far cheerier proposition than the Daily Mail columnists of the world would have you believe.
Where have all the binge drinkers gone – are they all getting mad with it in Blackpool, or did they never exist in the first place, aside from a few isolated pockets? Where’s all the anti-social behaviour? Where’s the fighting and the riot vans and the vomit? And more to the point, what has all this got to do with stainless steel?
To understand the role of stainless steel in Britain’s bars, it is first necessary to consider the milieu in which our drinking culture was founded. Britain has some of the oldest, most venerable pubs in the world. Many of Britain’s great literary figures, from Robert Burns to Oscar Wilde, found inspiration amongst the alehouses and taverns that once formed the social hubs where gossip, scandal and tittle-tattle were traded long before social media came into existence. Some of Britain’s pubs are so ancient, they were even considered to be knocking on a bit in Victorian times. All those dark wooden panels; the chandeliers; the ornate mirrors and roaring open fires. Today, those pubs that have survived the intervening world wars, economic depressions and Acts of God are still going strong and remain faithful to their roots. There might now be Sky Sports showing in the corner of the bar, but in most other respects, these historic drinking dens remain unchanged. Robert Burns would barely bat an eyelid were he to venture into such an institution today. Had he been served a Blue WKD, instead of his customary ale in a proper tankard however, he would have had due cause to kick up a fuss.
Britain’s historic pubs might still be fiercely traditional, but they have been largely supplanted, over the last two decades, by a slew of bars, brasseries and gastro pubs. This new breed of boozers eschew the wood panelling and chandeliers of the past altogether, electing instead for stainless steel bar tops and halogen spot lights. Such establishments may have less rustic charm than their forebears, but in every other respect, they are better equipped to serve the needs of 21st century Britain. Back in Oscar Wilde’s day, they didn’t knock back shots of flaming sambuca or demolish Jäger Bombs at the pre-lash followed by tequila slammers. (Though Wilde was partial to a drop of absinthe. And by ‘partial’, read ‘completely addicted’.) With many British drinkers now preferring their alcohol served hot – with the flames still licking the shot glass – the preponderance of stainless steel bar tops in modern establishments can only be a good thing. It had been anticipated that the smoking ban would reduce the prevalence of naked flames in British pubs, but ministers hadn’t bargained on the flaming sambuca, a drink that is approximately 300% worse for your health than a packet of Lambert & Butler. No amount of legislation can protect Britons from themselves. When it does all go wrong however, at least the stainless steel bar should be impervious to the heat – just spit your tonsil-toasting sambuca on it and watch the flames dance. Stainless steel is a great choice in bars: its smooth, non-porous surface makes it the preferred surface for wiping off vomit and Jägermeister.
Steel is also an environmentally friendly option, being completely recyclable. Its gleaming eco-credentials, while of little interest to the average pub-goer, ensure that steel remains very much in vogue when commissioning new bars. These days, all developers pay lip-service to the environmental movement, be it through promising to offset their greenhouse gas emissions, or by fitting low-energy appliances. Steel’s image hasn’t been tarnished over the years: it’s just come to be interpreted differently. When steel first started to be used within the leisure industry, it was deployed on account of its long lifespan and hygienic properties. That steel is ostensibly being promoted today on the basis of what it can offer in the next life – once it has been returned to sender and melted down – should come as no surprise – that’s just modern marketing for you. Steel may once have been synonymous with all things unyielding and impregnable, but it’s had a makeover and been subject to some intensive rebranding. Steel’s as tough as ever, but now it’s perceived as a lean, green eco-credential-boosting machine. Who knows how we’ll assess steel in 20 years’ time – retro? Classic? (Still) futuristic? That part’s not written yet. For now, let’s just enjoy stainless steel in the present for what it is. Whatever that may be.