The best place to spend your Bitcoin is at a London pub - if the QR scanner′s working | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 16.09.2013
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The best place to spend your Bitcoin is at a London pub - if the QR scanner's working

The virtual currency has got tech evangelists, economists and digital anthropologists either excited, or bewildered by all the people who just "don't get it." But where can you actually spend it?

So Bitcoin's made news as this new virtual currency…a type of money that you can trade for things online. Say, though, that you're out and about with less than a pound sterling or a euro in your pocket, but you have a whole Bitcoin in your Bitcoin wallet? Can you still have a decent time?

In London? Yes. In Berlin? Yes.

Due diligence required

In fact for most major cities in Europe, the answer is yes, but it will require a bit of diligence to find the retail shops, restaurants or pubs that take Bitcoins.

They're still working out the kinks, but for the most part, Bitcoin works in eateries and drinkeries.

For example, there's the Pembury Tavern, the first pub in London to take your Bitcoin payments and give you a pint of ale in return.

On a recent Monday night as about 60 people gathered for a Bitcoin meetup, a three-sentence note adorned many of the wooden tables. It said that those who want to use their iPhone Bitcoin apps… well, they can't right now. The app's not getting along with the cash till system.

Note found on tables at the Pembury Tavern, saying the Bitcoin iPhone app doesn't work here. (Photo: Anja Kueppers)

We accept Bitcoin... but not via iPhone...

Fortunately many in attendance, probably most, had experience with technology workarounds, so iPhone users asked Android, Blackberry and other users to buy them a beer in Bitcoins, and they then promptly transferred the price of a pint into the buyer's Bitcoin virtual wallet.

The workaround was no big deal on Bitcoin meetup night, where there was more than a virtual buzz in the air and where just about everyone had Bitcoins burning holes through their virtual pockets.

"You're buying into either the ideology or the novelty of it," says Lui Smyth, a digital anthropologist immersing himself in the world of Bitcoin. "People come here because they're excited about it and they like meeting other people who are also excited about it."

Bitcoin QR code is shown on a till as a customer uses a scanner app to pay in Bitcoins (Photo: Anja Kueppers)

The distance between you and your pint...

Future currency?

Meetup founder Iain Cresswell says he had about six people joining this meetup on a regular basis when he first launched it. But this spring, the numbers jumped, then jumped again. He's got about 400 in the group now.

Many are from the tech world - some from the bank-infested square mile known as the City of London. And still others are working out how to make a killing in trading Bitcoins as the value of the digital currency fluctuates.

"A lot of them, I think, share an ethos…," says Cresswell, whose day job is as an IT salesman, "and I think what happened in general with the banks since 2008 diverted them toward Bitcoin."

Catherine Dzierwuk (right) and daughter Dominique (left), London, Pembury Tavern (Photo: Anja Kueppers)

Catherine Dzierwuk (right) and daughter Dominique (left): newbies at the Bitcoin meetup

Catherine Dzierwuk timed her trip from Paris to see her daughter so that she could make it to the meetup too. A Paris friend told her this was the place to learn the ins and outs of Bitcoin. "It's complicated…I have not yet purchased a Bitcoin," Dzierwuk says.

"It is very technical, yes," admits Cresswell. "The problem with Bitcoin is that it's very similar to what petroleum was back in the early 90s, and what the Internet was like in the 1980s: only a kind of select bandwidth of people are going to get it for the time being. But as more services are built from it, the services will make it easier for everyone to understand…it will start to become easier for people to understand how it works."

Pembury Tavern director Stephen Early, whose four other British pubs now also take Bitcoin, quietly hopes the learning curve will be a small one.

"It's a bit of an experiment and a way for me to do something I wanted to do with debit and credit cards but wasn't able to do: which is have the payment integrated into the till," says Early, a former computer scientist from the University of Cambridge.

Early isn't a Bitcoin evangelist. He just wanted something that worked better than the credit and debit card system that he (still) has in place for customers.

Stephen Early, founder and director, Individual Pubs, Ltd. which owns the Pembury Tavern (Photo: Anja Kueppers)

The Pembury Tavern landlord: "Bitcoin can even be faster than cash."

Early says his appreciation for Bitcoin is in its simplicity for customers, for bartenders and for him.

A customer presses the scan code on his or her smartphone and points it at the till displaying a QR code. It then displays the price of the drink or food in fractions of a Bitcoin (one Bitcoin is currently worth about 100 Euros). The send button is pressed and the transaction is sent out into the Bitcoin network, and then back in a few seconds - if all is working well, and the Pembury has its payment.

An initial drawback at the Pembury is the distance from the customer at the bar to the till and the QR code that needs to be scanned to start the process. (Just ask the barman or barwoman for an easier-to-scan print-out if you need it.)

Alternative needed to fiat currency

"The opportunity to use cryptocurrency to radically restrict the costs" is a big deal to Dave Birch, whose focus is digital money as a director of Consult Hyperion in the UK.

Pembury Tavern London exterior (Photo: Anja Kueppers)

Europe's financial capital of London is on the road to a Bitcoin future... Berlin's close behind

"There's lots of things to learn from Bitcoin, particularly the use of cryptography," he says. "I think the individual strands hold up. And we need to find alternatives to fiat currencies, it's probably true."

Birch agrees with most at the Bitcoin meetup that the crypto-currency's creation by Satoshi Nakamoto - no one knows if that name represents a single programmer or a group - was brilliant.

But Birch sees Bitcoin as the thing that will lead to the next thing that may lead to the true revolution in the way we pay for things and interact financially.

"Actually, I'm slightly Bitcoin negative," says Birch. "That doesn't mean it isn't interesting - it should be studied and more conventional players can learn a lot from it."

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