It was pub group founder Stephen Early, a former computer scientist, who decided to give the currency a go. “I bought some in 2011 but there wasn’t really anything to do with them,” he explains. “So I did the equivalent of putting them in a drawer and forgetting about them.”
The coins were soon worth 20 times what he paid for them but Early still couldn’t find anything to buy. He figured other Bitcoin holders might fancy spending their online cash on a pint. It took him just a couple of evenings to create and install a Bitcoin payment option; the pub was already using his custom-built till software.
The system is quick and effective. The bar staff press two buttons on the till and the screen displays a QR code. The customer opens their digital Bitcoin wallet, takes a snap of the screen and confirms the payment. The staff press one more button and the transaction is complete. Snapping the QR code in a crowded bar could be a challenge but in a quiet pub it is faster than paying by card.
Early registered his pubs with a database of Bitcoin retailers and people started popping in to see for themselves. So far he’s sold around £800 of booze to Bitcoin users. “It’s more than I expected it to be,” he says. “I really didn’t expect that wave of enthusiasm and people coming in to try it out. There is a certain novelty value.”
The Pembury Tavern is the first UK pub to go Bitcoin-friendly but not the first real-world business. In the Kreuzberg district of Berlin, restaurants, bars and a record shop have been using the payment system for months. In Ireland, just outside the small town of Birr, Bitcoin users can now book a night at a farmhouse bed and breakfast.
Small online businesses now accept the currency in exchange for everything from alpaca socks to pet accessories and hemp skincare treatments.
Bitcoin enthusiasts have held a meet-up at the Pembury Tavern, descending on the pub to swap their virtual coins for frothy pints and discuss the future of the currency. Still, Early is hedging his bets. I ask him if he plans to hold on to the Bitcoins coming in. He tells me no. “My plan is gradually to turn them back into pounds.”
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