Could self-serve ‘beer walls’ mean the end for the British Bar tender?

Self-service beverage pumps are being increasingly installed across the UK and Ireland, with the University of Reading being the latest to fit its own ‘beer wall’. Elliot Gardner asks what the impact of the system will be.


The University of Reading in the UK has installed a new ‘beer wall’ from self-serve bar company Drink Command. The university has claimed that the beer wall will allow them to increase their serving capacity and up bar staff efficiency rates, but is self-service set to replace physical bar-staff in the near future? And how safe is it to entrust bar patrons to pour their own pints?

The beer wall at Reading features 16 taps and allows customers to order their drinks through an interactive screen, and pay using contactless or chip-and-pin payment next to the pump. They then go on to pull their pint from the tap, which cuts off after the allotted drink has been poured, in order to prevent consumers from abusing the system and pouring more than they’ve paid for.

The Reading system is not a new concept, looking tame in comparison to other products on offer from beer wall manufacturer Drink Command who can create units housing up to 200 taps for a variety of beverages, and who already provide self-service bar technology to Hilton Hotels, and various other establishments across the UK and Ireland.

Machine over man?

Drink Command has stated that their systems make it easier for bar staff to monitor the consumption levels of users, however if a physical staff member is removed altogether this could quickly lead to complications. Gauging whether or not to sell a particularly drunk customer their next drink is an integral part of the bartender role, and removing that face-to-face contact could lead to potentially dangerous situations, especially as multiple factors contribute to how drunk a person becomes, and how quickly.

With their system, the University of Reading’s head of residential catering and bars Matt Tebbit allayed fevers by explaining that “The beer wall requires a member of staff to authorise the sale for age and fitness to drink. Staff spend more time with our customers rather than less as they aren't preoccupied by making/pouring drinks.”

During particularly busy periods, such as university fresher’s parties, or end-of-year balls, it is easy to see how this might become an issue. While it is surely difficult to effectively judge how drunk someone is in even a traditional bar format, it is far easier to click an approval button allowing someone to pour another pint than to speak to them, make them their drink, and accept their payment. A supervising staff member would have much less customer contact, so dangers are perhaps not so easily alleviated as first thought.

Fears also remain that that self-serve machines could soon begin to put bar staff out of work. As bar-work is a famously attractive profession for students looking for part-time employment, Tebbit was keen to clarify that the university’s position. “Our staffing levels are unchanged and we don't expect any net decrease,” he explains, “the system aids staff, rather than replacing them.”

The University of Reading’s announcement comes at a time when automation and the replacement of workers is a hot topic in the news, with Jeremy Corbyn of the UK’s Labour political party proposing a ‘robot tax’ in response to the rapidly approaching reality that technology will soon render many positions currently carried out by workers, such as bar service, obsolete. Self-serve beer pumps may well be the first step in an increasingly automated hospitality sector, one in which human employees begin to play a far more diminished role.