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!