Buying Booze With Bitcoins: Yes, I Took One For the Team

By Stuart Houghton on at

Bitcoin seems like a great idea, if you want to slip through the cracks of the web and into the Dark Net so you can buy drugs, guns and probably black market killer whales or alien technology from sites like Silk Road. But if you just fancied a wee cheeky pint with your friends, you were shit out of luck. UNTIL NOW.

Computer scientist-turned-publican Stephen Early has rigged his homebrewed cash register software to accept bitcoins as well as cash and card payments. You read correctly -- you can now go boozing with bitcoins. So I did. Because journalism. (Innit.)

The Pembury Tavern in Hackney is the only one of Early's chain of five pubs located in the capital and, not coincidentally, it gets the lion's share of Bitcoin action. It's a nice, airy East End pub with a good selection of speciality ales and lagers and friendly staff.

On my visit (in the name of journalism, don't forget) I bought a round for me and barman Luke, who had just knocked off his shift. He took me through the basics while his colleague pulled our pints and did the bitcoin magic at the till.

"Its so simple," says Luke. "It's a matter of two buttons to bring up the QR code. You can then just do it on your phone on screen or we can print you off a receipt with the QR code on and how much it costs in Bitcoins and pounds." Early has set his server up to calculate the exchange rate (plus a couple of per cent vigorish) twice a day based on an average of the previous few hours, so there should be no danger of the price of a pint hyper-inflating while you are on a night out.

So, it turns out buying electronic cyberbeer is practically indistinguishable from everyday pint purchasing. The only difference was that instead of handing over a tenner or your VISA card, you have to stop sexting or Instagramming the crisps or whatever, and scan a QR code using the Bitcoin wallet app on your smartphone.

Yup, not only has Early found a good use for Bitcoin, he has also managed to do the same for QR codes -- formerly a technology with literally no practical applications whatsoever. I can't be bothered googling who is in charge of the UK's digital infrastructure but whoever it is, they need to snap this guy up and give him the keys.

I'm not going to lie to you: It wasn't quite as simple as Luke made it sound. The preferred way to pay is as follows: The staff tap in your order using Early's custom till software; press the two magic buttons, and then a flatscreen monitor above the till displays the QR code. You then point your phone's camera at the screen from across the bar and Bob's your uncle.

Didn't work.

My Bitcoin wallet started the camera and I pointed it at the QR code. Nothing. I leaned closer...nowt. I leaned closer still, stretching my arm over the bar while trying not to be the fat bloke doing a Grace-Jones-style arabesque in a pub in Hackney. I could see the app trying to lock onto the corners of the QR code, but it just couldn't get a fix. Bob was not my uncle that day.

Undeterred, Luke suggested they print off the QR code so I could scan that. Nada. Same thing with the corners. Meanwhile, my beer was getting warm. Eventually, one of the bar staff took my phone and held it about two feet from the screen and it managed to read the QR code from there. Not ideal.

I tried again with another pint but had similar problems. Eventually, Stephen Early himself arrived, having been in the pub on other business. He ordered a pint of lager and paid for it with a quick flourish of his Galaxy Nexus. We decided it was probably just the slightly-scuffed lens on my knackered old Samsung GALAXY SII that was at fault.

Still, this wasn't the first problem the Pembury Tavern staff had had with Bitcoin transactions; the usual culprit being the lousy iPhone wallet, blockchain.info.

"When you send money through it, sometimes the transaction never makes it out onto the Bitcoin network," says Early. "I've no idea what they are doing. It affects around 30 per cent of transactions but, unfortunately, there are no other Bitcoin apps for iPhone as Apple keep rejecting them."

Marketing departments of Samsung and HTC, take note. Android is statistically more likely to be able to get you pissed than iOS. You can have that one for free.

Early bought a virtual handful of Bitcoins a few years ago and was surprised to see them rocket in value during one of the many market bubbles. This piqued his interest in the alt currency enough to hack a Bitcoin module onto his till software, reasoning that there would probably be a good few people in the same position who would have spare Bitcoins they needed to spend.

Although not exactly doing a roaring trade, the Pembury has seen a steady level of trade. "We've done about £1,800 so far, over about five weeks." Not something to retire on, but not to be sniffed at, and the Bitcoin-savvy clientele seems to be growing. A Bitcoin enthusiasts group has, quite sensibly, picked the Pembury as the venue for its regular meetings and Luke says he has seen upwards of fifty Bitcoin boozers in the pub at once.

Actually converting your readies to Bitcoin is a bit of a faff in the UK, but should you find yourself with a few in your digital wallet -- perhaps as a result of some lucrative cybercrime or light gun-running -- and fancy a swift half, head to Hackney and get your drink on.

You can keep your jetpacks. I've seen the future and it has beer and pork scratchings.