Freehouses don't embrace freedom

We recently got our grubby hands on a copy of a catalogue from a company which supplies cask beer to freehouses.

The selection on offer did include some excellent beers, but the overwhelming impression was a of a long list of the usual suspects — lots of similar brown bitters, a smattering of golden ales, and very few dark beers at all.

It made us realise that the reason so many freehouses have the same old beers on is that, even they could theoretically buy and sell whatever they like, they choose to use these middle men because it’s convenient and (presumably) cheaper.

But aren’t landlords who use these suppliers severely limiting their options? Aren’t they just acting as if they were in the grip of a pubco?

13 replies on “Freehouses don't embrace freedom”

It might very well not be cheaper. But you get a bunch of beer in one delivery, on one invoice. Also, the (respected) wholesaler is effectively endorsing these beers. And using the wholesalers might enable you to get beers from the other end of the country in quantities smaller than the pallet load you’d have to buy direct.

The wholesalers will, of course, list the beers (and kind of beers) that they’re confident they’ll sell quickly. They will take some chances, but they have to play things fairly safe. It’s (perishable goods) business after all.

Analogy time – you could be forced to buy all your food from one source. You could have it delivered by supermarkets that offer more or less the same thing. Or you can go out and buy from small, local producers which requires greater cost and effort.

My favourite free houses are the ones that use several suppliers for a core offering (Libra etc) supplemented by the licensee’s initiative in sourcing local beers.

Yes, but a genuine freehouse will surely buy the beers that its customers want to buy. You might think them similar brown beers etc but if that’s what the customers want what is wrong with that. Can’t help thinking there’s a bit of middle class sneering elitism creeping in here.

Well round here it’s the big hoppy beers that customers want to buy.

I’m fortunate to have a local which is big on bitters and dark beers and even then it’s quite common to hear punters asking “have you got anything that’s really hoppy?” or “have you got anything that’s a bit like Jaipur?”

John — Middle class sneering elitism!? I’m sure you’ll catch us at it at some point, but not in this post.

At any rate, of course pubs have to stock what will sell, but we think they underestimate their customers sometimes.

Tandleman has pointed out often enough how disappointing it is to go into a pub and find three brown cask ales of similar strength. Personally, we’d like to see just one of each colour, e.g. a dark mild, a brown bitter and a pale and hoppy. St Austell manage something similar in most of their tied houses and they’re doing OK, with a pretty ruthlessly commercial operation.

As it goes, that’s also pretty much what our best local freehouse offers. Just to be clear, it’s a normal pub in a village frequented mostly by people who live in the village, and isn’t remotely middle class, stuck up or posh. It does a good trade seven days a week. The most popular regular beers are a 5% golden ale and a 4% pale and hoppy. There is always a stout, porter or mild on offer too.

Simon — that’s a good analogy and, yes, these wholesalers are the Brake Brothers of the beer world. That works for some businesses working on the basis of volume but no-one’s going to get excited about the grub. As you say, nothing wrong with adding dab of glitter to an off-the-shelf product and — to be fair the wholesalers — there is a big box saying “If there’s a particular beer you want which isn’t listed, let us know”.

Jon — thanks, useful insight. We don’t know all that much about how this all works from the brewery/pub side, my own limited personal experience being nearly thirty years out of date and based on my parents’ experience running a Whitbread pub in the early 80s.

If asking for a more varied choice is branded elitist then I’m still happy to do so. I’m sure there isn’t much danger of all the places which offer nothing more than the choice of either a mainstream lager or a nitro-bitter closing down in the near future.

Bailey, case in point today in (rather unusually) for my experience a Wetherspoons. Three Welton’s “Christmas” beers, all brown and two were absolutely indistinguishable from each other to the extent that I suspect that it’s the same beer, just rebadged. Must do better!

I totally agree and I tried to capture this in a post about Free Houses in my local area all selling Greene King IPA, especially when the Greene King pub 200m away sells it -> My Greene King local is being sold and the village is in the process of setting out to ensue it doesn’t turn into a house. I’m on the steering committee, for the sole purpose of ensuring that it doesn’t fall into this trap. However, at the end of the day, it’s up to the Landlord what beer he sells. As I told the committee earlier today^H^H^H^H^Hyesterday, the beer in the pub can’t compete with the beer in my wardrobe…

Ignore all of this, it’s 02:30 and I’ve had some beer from my wardrobe… :-s

Bob — there’s already a link to your post in ours! (It’s one of those posts that we keep referring to.) Down here, there’s an expectation that almost every pub will have Doom Bar and/or Tribute. Tribute’s a decent beer, so not the end of the world, but a bit odd when there’s a bona fide St Austell pub every 100m or so between Plymouth and Land’s End.

Ah… Somehow I missed that link! Must have been the early hour, or something… 😉 It seems this issue of pubs playing it safe is rife across the whole country then. Which comes as no great surprise, but it’s still a real shame. I can understand it, but as the same time it makes me mad. Shirley you want to differentiate yourself and draw in customers with something they can’t get elsewhere?

Who knows what state the pub industry will be in in five to ten years time, hopefully, it’ll be a bit more adventurous…

I haven’t seen the catalogue of which you speak, but my suspicion is that it would include a fairly wide range of beer styles, and the “three brown beers on the bar” phenomenon is more likely to stem from the conservatism of the licensee than the limitations of the supplier.

Possibly what you are talking about is the difference between a “pretty decent” range of beer and a “cutting edge” one.

And there’s nothing to stop a free house licensee buying all of his kegs, wines, spirits and soft drinks from one wholesaler for convenience, but getting in cask and bottled beers from another supplier who can offer greater choice.

Curmudgeon — no, definitely not demanding ‘cutting edge’ in every pub. Our old local in London used to have (on a typical day) Mighty Oak Oscar Wilde Mild, Harvey’s Sussex Best, Tim Taylor Landlord, Adnams Broadside and usually something like Crouch Vale Brewer’s Gold. That’s a decent range but hardly cutting edge. Brewer’s Gold is probably the most far-out beer on that list.

You’re right, though — a landlord could certainly select a reasonably varied line up from the catalogue with a bit of care, even though brown beers of around the same strength make up the majority of the offer.

I suspect that the unadventurous landlord simply knows the names of the local or national best sellers (Pride, Harveys, Bomabardier, say) and just assumes that this is a combination that will see him pull in a large crowd of fussy ale drinkers.

And, of course, once these fussy ale drinkers know what’s likely to be on the bar, they’ll be going elsewhere, which sees the range & quality steadily reduce.

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