Freehouses and Freedom

Here’s an article I wrote a while back which I’ve updated and posted to help a CAMRA member doing some research. Hope it’s of interest to pub goers everywhere.

‘Surely the beer should be free here!’ is a phase I have heard more than once (admittedly in jest) from customers remarking on the fact we are called a ‘freehouse’. They are usually interested when I explain what it actually means today, so here’s my brief synopsis of what makes a ‘freehouse’ pub and how it is sometimes possible to tell one from the opposite – a ‘tied’ house.

Historically, of course, pubs were primarily beer houses, the advent of wines, lagers and spirits being more recent in this country. The vast majority of pubs were owned by breweries to act as sales shops for the local or regional brewery. In many cases, the name of the brewery can still be seen somewhere around the pub on fittings or exterior signage. Most pubs would have the brewery name or ‘freehouse’ on their hanging pub sign. Given there were so many local breweries there was no need for beers to travel very far – everyone drank local, a trend we seem to be returning to for more up to date reasons.

So, the term ‘Freehouse’ referred to a pub which was ‘free’ to buy ales from any brewery – or indeed sell their own home made brew.

Over the years as the breweries have sold off huge numbers of pubs (which they were forced to do by law) and then groups of pubs change hands in batches – the sign often gets left behind. On the other hand, several chains of pubs are actually owned by the same company. For example, groups of pubs under the ‘Hungry Horse’ and ‘Old English Inns’ brands are all owned by Greene King of Bury St Edmunds along with their own branded pubs.

Recently, as property prices increase, especially in the South East, then the value of the land a pub occupies potentially becomes worth more than the business. This is why many freehouses or individual pubs within groups get sold off for property development. Unless the building is listed or in a conservation area, it will probably be quite easy for the new owner of the property to apply for a ‘change of use’ from the council, and create private housing on the site. Given that most councils are under pressure to provide more homes then it’s an easy decision for them.

Freehold property, typically, were always free of any tie to a brewery, but not necessarily. Given that many freehold pubs are old buildings (many with listed status), the repairs and maintenance can be very expensive. Refurbishments and enhancements like smoking shelters could also cost thousands, which has to be found by the business. In these situations, the choices are for the owner to invest more money, get a bank loan which could be expensive, or get a cheaper loan from a brewer or pub company in exchange for signing a ‘partial tie’ agreement. This last option is becoming more common for several reasons.

In return for agreeing to stock beers (high margin for the brewer or pub company) and sometimes other products from a particular source, the freehouse gets a low rate loan repayable over a period of time. Refurbishments often bring in extra business, so it seems worth the expense. Obviously there won’t be any signage in the pub to announce this kind of deal. It should be fairly easy to spot though; if a freehouse has obviously spent some money on a project (which could be behind-the-scenes), and then the beer range changes to include beers from one particular brewer, then it’s quite possible a deal has been struck. Spotting a beer range from one brewer can be tricky because many brewers who have closed down other breweries often keep the same brand names on the beers. For example, Fullers own the Gales brands, with all the beers being brewed at Fullers brewery in Chiswick. Marstons now own Jennings of Cumbria and also Ringwood in Hampshire and still sell the beers under those names. The closure of Young’s in London means that all Young’s and Charles Wells beers come from the same brewery. Sadly it is often the case that the beer range offered by one brewery will be reduced, as a large factory style brewery cannot economically produce a wide range of different styles of beer. The obvious downside is a possible lack of beer choice in the area and sometimes nationally, the advantage is that without investment the pub could suffer irreparably.

So if you want to help keep the independent genuine freehouses in business, with choice on the bar, then please support them with your business. The big boys are busy looking after themselves!

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Craft Beers (noun plural, orig. American)

Obviously, I would like to spend more time on twitface/blognet (as I call these things) and generally messing around on the web finding interesting news about beer, pubs, breweries, etc. But, I’m a busy girl, so I can only allocate so much time to all this, so it’s only when a really interesting topic crops up that I try to throw my view into the equation.

So here goes – my view of a current, apparently controversial subject.

The Craft Beer Definition

My definition until recently was that ‘craft beer’ was American for ‘real ale’. This has recently been proved incorrect, or just out of date, as they now include keg beers in the craft category too. Therefore perhaps it could be ‘any beer brewed in a brewery as opposed to manufactured in a factory’. I think that’s better, because the main consideration seems to be around the personal (individual?) skill and passion in the production, rather than any particular methodology or the style of beer. It may be controversial (more so here in the UK) to suggest that all beers brewed by a craft brewer are craft beers. Certainly the type of flavours produced are not in question, and quality is often subjective, so that’s tricky!

So here’s my current groupings: (‘beer’ being used generically in the wider sense.)

Real ales – a beer which undergoes secondary fermentation in bottle or cask. Typically ales and sometimes lager.

Keg products – any beer which does not undergo secondary fermentation, and will be served with added gas at point of sale. Typically lagers, smoothflow beers, continental fruit beers, etc.

Craft beers – Originally an American phrase used to describe beers produced by micro-brewers of varying styles. Recently adopted by UK to move away from the rigid ‘real ale’ definition, so as to include quality beers from abroad, including interesting keg beers, fruit beers, etc.

There is some discussion at the moment surrounding the question of whether CAMRA should be supportive of ‘craft beer’ or not. Their chairman has recently been seen and heard on the internet suggesting that craft beers are all keg beers! Big mistake, whichever way you look at it.

Now this could be a CAMRA ploy just to raise awareness, but I suspect it’s just another example of how the organisation is struggling to redefine itself during the current onslaught of beer popularity and modern marketing.

My personal view is that being positive about one thing does not mean you have to be negative about anything else. There are plenty of great micro-brewers out there producing fabulous real ales which would welcome the positive support of CAMRA and it’s members. There are still plenty of pubs who would welcome the positive promotion of it’s ales on their behalf, not to mention CAMRA members actually buying the stuff!

So, why bother knocking other products – it can only cause controversy and alienation.

Therefore, I have come up with some new positive campaigns for real ale:

  • Adopt a pub – CAMRA branch members pick a pub to support for a month. Choose a local pub which has potential to sell more real ale. Visit it at least 2 or 3 times every week for a pint or two. While there, discuss real ales with the staff and other regulars – tasting notes for their regular beers, how to choose reliable beers, local breweries, using their guest policy, how to keep it fresh, etc. Take in CAMRA newsletters, posters, etc and work with the landlord to generate interest.
  • Conversion Tables – pubs or CAMRA members can hold an event/tasting specifically aimed at people who do not know much about real ales just to try them out. CAMRA produce great leaflets to help educate, but word of mouth works better.
  • Tasters – A campaign to encourage pubs to offer free tasters on request for any (guest) real ales. Ideally this would be backed by local brewers offering a free firkin to balance the cost to the pub.
  • Tasting trays – A campaign to encourage pubs serving 3 or more real ales to offer sets of 3 thirds or halves.
  • Clip check – CAMRA members check that there are tasting notes on the back of each pump clip on the bar. This helps reduce the lack of sales due to ignorant bar staff. Some brewers do it themselves – but many don’t. It is now so easy to find the details (GBG or web), that there really is no excuse.

Most of these campaigns only cost the money drinkers would be spending anyway! The best positive promotion for real ale is passion, then it’s easy! Tell someone today – preferably down the pub!

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Beer Festivals

 

As we approach Easter, many pubs will be hosting their own beer festivals over the Bank Holidays. It’s a great opportunity for a pub to get in some beers out of the ordinary, expectantly in the knowledge that they will have sufficient customers to drink it fast enough. So I thought I would update some notes I made a while ago, concerning the differences between drinking beer at larger beer festivals (such as CAMRA fests) as opposed to drinking ale down the pub…

Beer festivals are a love for some and completely ignored by others, probably as the environments do vary so much, but then so do pubs…The real ale enthusiast who doesn’t mind travelling (by train obviously) can find a CAMRA beer fest virtually every weekend of the year in the UK, all organised and staffed by local beer enthusiasts. I have judged beers in CAMRA’s Champion Beer of Britain competition for several years, and have been involved in the Watford Festival for several years, so I have a good idea of what’s involved on both sides of the bar.

Nowadays, we try to hold beer festivals as often as we can.  Mainly because that’s what we want from our local, and from a business point of view there is more interest in real ales from a wide range of pub-goers. It also keeps things interesting for the regulars.

So here are some pointers when considering attending a beer fest outside of a pub.

  • Beer range is obviously much greater than any pub, which makes choosing difficult. Have a read of the programme first, and decide on the style or flavours you like. Ask the staff to help – they will be far more knowledgeable than most bar staff in pubs
  • Clearly with so much beer comes alcohol, so don’t go buying a pint of everything you like – you’ll be drunk before you know it. The GBBF, and some other fests will have lots of half pint glasses and even 1/3rds, so you can try a small amount of many beers. A few pubs have 1/3 glasses, like The Land of Liberty, but they are few and far between.
  • Food is usually available at beer festivals, and usually the type of food which acts as blotting paper – I suggest eating little and often, which helps slow down the rate of alcohol absorption (note only slows!)
  • Busy periods (like Friday evenings) at beer fests will be very busy so if you prefer a quiet pint, go during the day. There probably won’t be much seating either! The larger beer festivals often host tasting events, so if you want some help assessing your tastes, then do ask about training.
  • Most beer festivals are organised on an annual basis, so take a while to come around – suggest your favourite finds to local freehouses so they can source them regularly.
  • Fests often include charity fund-raising, traditional games, live music and other fun events to entice first timers.
  • Discounts or incentives are usually on offer if you join CAMRA at a beer festival too!

Here are my thoughts on pub beer festivals for comparison:

  • Beer range may be limited in numbers – but should still offer a good range across the styles.
  • Some pubs host the festival in a marquee or separate area of the pub – Watch out for temperature variations and flatter beers after a couple of days, as the usual cellar facilities won’t be available at the bottom of the garden! Those run from the cellar should offer  more consistent quality.
  • In a pub known for real ale, the staff will be great at helping you choose – if it’s not a known real ale pub, then you may have to do the research for yourself. They may not have a printed programme, but should be able to offer information on the beers at least.
  • Many pubs will offer a tasting tray of thirds or halves, but you will probably need to order them at the same time, so consider sharing them with friends, so you can taste a batch at a time. The upside is you will get clean glasses instead of having to keep the same one as you do at a large festival. (If it’s busy, you may want to keep a cold glass, as the clean ones may be hot!)
  • Pubs often have a large menu available as well as snacks, but again, I recommend eating little and often.
  • Pubs have smaller beer festivals more often, so you don’t have to travel so far.
  • Pubs will want to impress you to encourage you to become a regular – they all need your support.
  • Pubs typically have events throughout the year – so if the beer festival is the event, there may not be room for other entertainment – but then there is always socialising!

I’m certainly looking forward to testing out all our beers before we offer them for sale! Cheers and Happy Easter.

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Walking & Wading in the Dales

Map picture

The day we drove up to Cumbria was the first decent day’s weather we had had for a long while. Clear blue skies promised so much – crisp fresh air, bright sunshine – a genuine invitation to the outdoors. Holiday weather. Longer daylight hours now the clocks had changed for British Summer Time helped to improve the spirits after a long, cold winter.

So it was that we arrived in this beautiful part of the British isles with so much optimism.

So, now, four days later we are still surprised that the weather has remained so constant. Waking in our rented holiday cottage in Dentdale amazed by more blue sky, contrasting green hills, contrasting bright white lambs, contrasting grey stone walls. So much colour contrasting against so little noise.

Huge, large scale maps interfere in their usual awkward fashion, covering the breakfast plates, hiding the tea, reluctant to lay flat and give up their secrets. Yet we win eventually.

We decide on a riverside walk today, starting out from Sedburgh. Birks Lane leads down to the river Rawthey, past JMP Foodservice depot, (which we decide could stand for Jolly Mass Produced, as there are numerous trucks parked in the yard.) The footpath runs alongside the river through several fields (some containing more sheep, of great interest to Duchess.) Mostly the bank is quite high above the fast-moving river, but we eventually find a small sandy beach under an old railway bridge, where Duchess could cool off with a swim.

Several sections of disused railway line are used in this area for walking and cycling. They make quite an impact on the natural surroundings, having succumbed reluctantly, one assumes, to their new lease of life.

Past the confluence of the Dee with the Rawthey, this is nearly the bottom of Dentdale. The rumble of the water over the stones and rocks holding our attention for some while. Walking on duchess drew the attention of a large gaggle of geese and ducks in a nearby field. They clearly believe in strength in numbers, so the flock waddled towards their fence merrily asking us to pass along, quickly losing interest once we had passed.

A short road walk ensued until we spotted the footpath sign we were expecting to the Ford. It was with some concern I noted it actually read ‘Deep Ford’! As we all had hot feet by this time, the concept wasn’t entirely horrible. Through 2 fields, scattering sheep as we went, we arrived through a gate to find a fast-running Rawthey, about 25 yards wide, but no discernable ‘fording’ ridge. The crystal clear water showed the large stones and pebbles which formed the riverbed, but there was no evidence that this ford is regularly used. Of course, Duchess could see no problem and was quickly standing knee deep at the edge wondering why we were reluctant. A scan of the far shore revealed a muddy beach a few yards upstream from our position, leading to a sloping path up on the bank. Not being terribly intrepid, I would have been quite happy to about turn and retrace our steps. But I was out-numbered by a dog and an adventurer!

ComeOnIn

My usual method for making decisions revolves around lists of pros and cons, so here’s what went through my mind in very short order:

Pros Cons
Nice warm day Really cold water
Loyal team members It’s quite fast moving
Pride if I make it I could easily fall in
I can unzip my trouser legs Squelchy boots

Evens again!

I’ve always been aware of my limitations and quite like my comfort zone, so this was clearly well outside. Discussions ensued about whether barefoot or booted was preferable, but once the boy had literally put his toes in the water, he announced the stones were far too slippery. So boots only. So my newly discovered intrepid self set out clutching my walking socks and trouser legs for dear life, placing one foot then the other very carefully into the water, trying to find flat areas to ensure I remain vertical. Almost immediately, the brand new, completely wrong sensation of cold water pouring into my boot took my breath away.

It seemed such basic rules I was taught as a young child were being questioned ;

Look after your new shoes – Be careful – Don’t follow others into trouble…

Yet, surely I was grown enough to make my own decisions, take a calculated risk…?

Duchess clearly never knew this dilemma, she enjoyed doggie-paddling around in circles waiting for us both to get across. Sometimes I wish I could just act on instinct, rather than have to consciously battle with it. But not often.

Sure enough, I dropped my trouser legs, which had almost made it across dry as a bone. At the deepest points, the water was halfway up my thigh! I nearly fell in a couple of times, mostly off slippery rocks which had been in the shade, but the fact is that we all made it safely across without major disaster. We sat down on the sunny bank, emptied out our boots (something I won’t miss doing again), put dry socks back on and replaced boots. Having had hot feet earlier, this wasn’t as bad a sensation as I had expected. I watched as my chilled, pinky legs gradually thawed back to their usual winter white.

I must admit to a smile on my face as I watched a couple approaching the ford from the other side, and couldn’t help myself calling out to them,

It is quite deep!

We saw them later in town, so clearly they made it across, too!

With my newly discovered intrepid feeling, we marched onward past a touring park, and on through a farm with free range chickens and a most colourful cockerel strutting his stuff. The farmer tried to dissuade us from our course, presumably to keep us off his land, but we managed to find the footpath our of his yard and across a large field towards the disused railway. Over the railway banking, and skirting around the edge of Sedburgh golf course. Watching a group teeing off, given the Masters is taking place, was quite amusing. The first golfer hit a tree branch and his ball dropped about 100 yards ahead. The third golfer hit his shot into the middle of the river to his left, so tried again with better results. One of the holes was just 115yards, but in two parts, either side of the river Dee. A pretty hump-backed bridge allows players to head for the green in search of their ball.

Walking along the side of the fairway gave a lovely view of manicured greens and two-toned fairways, quite a contrast to the rough greens and browns of the farm fields and trees yet to bud.

The footpath then crossed the golf course and took us back onto a riverside walk  for a short way before leading us across a footbridge back to the bottom of Birks Lane.

An interesting walk,  taking in various people, creatures, terrains and landscapes, both natural and man-made. But what will stay with me is the pleasant surprises;

The warm sunshine throughout. And the satisfaction of having achieved something I really wasn’t sure about.

Our boots are still drying out. We put them on the wall back at the cottage.

ApresWalk

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Favourite Jokes

Here’s an idea of what I find funny…

Have you heard about the dislexic, agnostic, insomniac who lay awake at night wondering if there was a dog?

An Englishman, an Irishman and a Scot walk into a pub. The landlord says, ‘What is this, some kind of a joke?’

This could happen if we fell too many trees…

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Hi-Tech v. Old-Trad

Being a Libran I could be accused of being indicisive – but I’m not so sure! One of the numerous balancing acts we try to achieve is that of a traditional pub environment which accomodates the demands of today’s lifestyles.

The two key issues are mobiles and Wi-Fi.

Mobile phones were easy to ‘ban’ for three reasons:

  1. Fines will help boost charity funds.
  2. The noises and loud voices would be out of place in our small bar. (For everyone’s privacy, etc.)
  3. Often they encourage behaviour which many would consider ‘rude’.

So, we ask people to manage their mobiles, rather than allowing the phone to manage them. Reasonable compromise, I believe, and now well supported by the regulars.

Wi-Fi rasies the next question. With the help of regulars (to whom I am very grateful) we now have the facility to offer. But does that contradict the mobile phone restrictions? Certainly we want to help our regulars where we can, but do we want them tapping away at computers on the bar? Probably not. One of life’s little mysteries and time for a sensible balance to be found.

If the mobiles are still being managed – that’s fine. I think using laptops etc, during the day for mini business meetings is OK, as that hardly causes any inconvenience or excess noise for others. Running loud presentations would be out of place, though.

In more traditional times, the office or workplace was where we did our computing and business communicating, then went down the pub when off- duty. Now, clearly, those lines are distinctly blurred. Regulars ‘work’ from the bar (not necessarily drinking alcohol of course), remain ‘on-call’ for business or family, and their physical location is less important than it used to be, as long as they are contactable.

Is this a key element of ‘work-life balance’? Certainly, since buying into the pub lifestlye, I have a much better understanding of the issue, as events and activities fall into a grey area – oh, that’s my life! I’m writing this on my ‘evening off’ – am I working, or enjoying my hobby of computing and communicating…?

I can’t decide. But I’m happy with that.

Mobiles and portable computers, etc, have given us the freedom to work anywhere – or is that everywhere? Maybe it’s the management bit that’s key.

 

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Beery Blog Starts Here

There are times when the old-fashioned way is best. Like airing your views down the pub, seeking reassurance, getting things off your chest, just chatting, putting the world to rights…

Then maybe there is something more. Something new which offers a new opportunity to benefit. Maybe it’s not better, just different.

I think it could be interesting and useful, so here’s my blog.

If I get boring, do tell me. My aim is to offer my view on beers, pubs, being a landlady and other interesting subjects which crop up in my everyday life.

That leaves it pretty open then!

Cheers!

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