The Death of the English Brewpub

David Bruce's Firkin Brewery advert c.1980.

It’s an early start for us this morning as we’re heading off to interview David Bruce who founded the Firkin chain of brewpubs in 1979.

On the one hand, he’s a very influential figure: there were four pubs brewing on the premises in 1973, but, after Firkin and its imitators came along, that number swelled to reach a peak (we think) of almost a hundred by 1996. Many breweries are currently running on old Firkin kit, and/or with Firkin-trained brewers.

And yet… where did all the brewpubs go? Was it really a dead end? And if so, why?

Now, we happen to live in a part of the world where there are several brewpubs, from the Star Inn just outside Crowlas, where brewing commenced in 2008, to the Blue Anchor at Helston — one of the four survivors that was hanging on back in 1973.

But something interesting is happening right now, up and down the country: a blurring of the lines between brewing, wholesale and hospitality. Distributors are opening bars and breweries; breweries are installing ‘tap rooms’; and pubs are setting up microbreweries. For various reasons, ‘Brewed on the premises’ might be on the return.

24 thoughts on “The Death of the English Brewpub”

  1. Best of luck. I personally love the idea of a BrewPub, and the ‘brewed on premises’ sign is a really romantic one for me. Why don’t they normally work? I think it’s something to do with expertise. There’s two very different businessess at work here, and you do need that expertise. Sending a barman on a short brewing course and then taking him off from behind the bar once a week ain’t going to cut it. You need a brewer, which is what the Firkin did.
    We have two in Leeds: The Fox & Newt – which brews intermittently and when it does the produce ranges from good to indifferent – and one at Leeds’ Brewery Tap, which brews for that pub alone and uses brewers from the ‘main’ brewery. Actually, I saw a nice thing in there the other day – a sign advertising ‘Next Live Brew’ and a date. I thought that was good.
    Also, there’s the impressive new kit at The Sheffield Tap – again, the beers coming out of it have been ‘ok’ but am looking forward to the new one in Leeds.
    Totally agree that in this crowded ‘craft’ marketplace, having beer ‘brewed on premises’ is one way to stand out from the crowd.

  2. Of course not all the Firkins actually brewed in-house. I seem to recall that in Manchester, it was the Flea & Footage that supplied the other lcoal Firkins. According to the 1997 GBG, out of a total of 60 pubs, only 38 were brewing.

    1. Flea & Footage

      I think it opened as the Flea & Firkin, changed to the Footage & Firkin and stuck with Footage when the chain collapsed. There’s still a pub called ‘the Footage’ in that building (an old cinema, if anyone’s wondering), but it’s not on any ale trails. (On the other hand, it’s the only pub where I’ve seen a ‘shag tag’ night advertised using that phrase – so if you’re looking for casual sex and could pass for 21 in a bad light, get on down.)

  3. On the OP, I think Leigh has it – quality and consistency are crucial, and a lot of brewpubs didn’t have the expertise to manage it. Lots of us would beat a path to a new brewpub to try the House Ale – or work your way through the House Ales plural. But if you went back and got a pint of sour malt soup – or just found that House Ale was off – you’d probably never go back again. There’s not much room for error in a brewpub – get the House Ale wrong and you’ll lose a lot more custom than you would by messing up one beer in an ordinary pub.

    On the other hand, consistent quality was something which the Firkin chain pretty much cracked – I’d be interested to hear if David Bruce talks about this specifically.

  4. A big problem was that a lot of brewpubs brewed beer that tasted like, well, home-brew, and so they lost custom once the novelty had worn off. One of the most memorably thick, malty, gloopy pints I’ve ever had in my life was brewed by the Hermitage Brewery at the Sussex Brewery pub in Emsworth.

    We now have a recently-opened brewpub in Stockport, the Hope, which so far seems to be doing very well both in brewing distinctive, quality beers and providing a good pub atmosphere. It also has the widest selection of craft keg in the town 😉

  5. Pubs making beer on the premises? You’ll be suggesting they make there own food, next, rather than microwave what comes in a brakes bros lorry. Pubs are businesses. Buying the cheapest crap they can and selling it for the highest markup will keep pubs alive!

  6. Oops, mixing up my Fleas there. I remember going in the Flea shortly after it opened. It’s a massive place and continued to sell real ale long after it became the Footage, but sadly no more. We also had the Forger & Firkin which is now the Bank pub now.

    Cookie, come on. What can be cheaper than brewing it yourself!

  7. Bruce was influential in other ways: seeing the potential of old high street buildings (banks, cinemas, churches etc) to be converted into pubs, and pioneering that “anti-corporate” branding (signs saying “To the Firkin Loos” etc), which many people found rather tedious (sounds familiar?). TBH, the guest ales at Firkins were more of a draw than the home-brewed stuff for me, and I went off the chain when they started taking over and ruining perfectly good pubs, such as the Hope on Wandsworth Common, but this was prob. after Bruce had sold up and left.

  8. No one has mentioned something I am pretty sure was the case for the Firkin pubs in London at least when visited numerous times in the 1980’s and 90’s: malt extract. The beers, to my best recollection, were extract brews and they never had the full rich taste of a standard commercial ale. Everything else was right, the bare boards and plain wooden tables, the stripped-down look in general: it gave a note of honest enterprise and old-fashioned values. Dogbolter was the best beer but even that one was lacking in my opinion by traditional beer standards. Clearly as a business concept the group was successful for a long time and fair enough, but I always felt that if the beers had been better it would still be going and bigger than ever. Maybe the answer for modern emulators is to build or buy a brewery working in a traditional way and send the beer in to the pubs but then that gets back to the traditional model of a brewery and its tied group. Maybe that is really the best solution although dedicated entrepreneurs who are interested to brew at a high level can always make a good go of it at a single outlet.


  9. One other thing I recall from my visits to London-area Firkins in the 80’s and 90’s – unless memory fails to serve again – is that you could bring your own food there. This was a cool concept and if handled in the right way could be made to work again for a modern brewpub chain.


  10. I believe the Goose was always a malt extract brewery (due to space IIRC) many others such as the Fox in Lewisham were not and yes you could taste the difference!!!
    I also remember the Greyhound (Streatham, full mash except for extra strong Xmas ale) and the Yorkshire Grey, Theobalds Road as non-Firkin brew-pubs.
    Fortunately I live near The Florence, so have easy access to one.

  11. did David Bruce mention he’s also co-founder of Convivial pubs, and Convivial pubs in London currently run places like the Lamb brewery and the Botanist brewery, which are modern day equivalent Firkin brew pubs to my mind anyway,minus the weight or baggage of 100+ chain pubs that went with the brand, and both are very individual and unique in character

    actually the most annoying thing I remember about my local Firkin was it didnt actually brew its own beer anyway, it was all brought in from another local Firkin, and frankly did always taste less good than the Firkins who made it on site did, and in the end its biggest selling point was it had the biggest screen projector in town with Sky sports, which never struck me as the point of having a brewpub, it in the end just became a chain pub.

    so I think brewpubs have always survived in pockets in isolation, its when you begin to franchise the chain, start brewing for other pubs, you lose alot of the identity and uniquess about what the brewpub is doing.

    1. He’s behind “The City Pub Company East” too – which has revived two pubs in Cambridge – with positive results. The Mill & The Cambridge Brewhouse – both places with their own character, you wouldn’t pick that they’re the same “pubco”.

      As indicated in the name the Cambridge Brewhouse has a microbrewery on-site. They’re brewing some OK beers, all very normal – but that’s the sensible thing to do I suppose.

      City Pub Comp An Yeast? That’s how I read that URL… the “yeast” stands out. Hah.

  12. Graham — he was fun to talk to, but (at 65) made us feel as if we were lacking in energy and enthusiasm. Force of nature is the phrase that springs to mind.

    Leigh — DB’s theory is that, having learned to brew as a trainee at Courage, and then worked in pub and club management for several years, he had the perfect combination of skills.

    Phil — the quality thing is fairly easily explained: he visited every pub during peak service at least once a fortnight and drank the beer, watched the staff in action, assessed the atmosphere. Slightly mad behaviour — meant he hardly saw his family — but highly effective.

    BT — the Brewdog parallels are pretty clear, we think. He even got very close to doing an ‘Equity for Punks’…

    Gary — not sure about post-David Bruce, but up to 1988, most of them were full mash breweries. The first did use extract but, having seen the space where the brewery was housed, it’s easy to see why: basically a cupboard.

    Curmudgeon and Neil — thanks for those example of newer brewpubs.

    StonoJr — he didn’t mention Convivial but it’s on the potted ‘brewing bio’ he gave us. We did talk mostly about Firkin, but he’s been involved in setting up/running so many ventures, it’d fill a book in its own right.

  13. Just remembered – we once saw a play at the Edinburgh Fringe sponsored by Bruce. We went for a few years in a row in the early 90s, and I think we’d seen this same production – or at least the same company – the previous year; we were slightly surprised to see the cast wearing Firkin t-shirts and every reference to beer replaced by “Bruce’s beer”! Fairly crude product placement – but if it was distracting some of the time, some of the time it added to the play, so pretty neutral overall. And then, presumably Bruce’s money was helping keep the show on the road (nobody makes money at Edinburgh).

    As for the play, it was a two-man adaptation of Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel, and it was hilarious (honest). (There’s a review of what looks like the same thing here.) Saw it twice, and I’d see it again now if I could. As investment decisions go, it’s fairly out there.

  14. If you’re after a list of brewpubs, you can add The Lord Raglan in Nangreaves, Bury which is just up the road from me.

  15. i hope there on the rise, we have one brewpub in Liverpool and its the most unique pint in Liverpool, not to mention that it more environmentally friendly.

  16. Lymm Brewery will be opening next week ,brewing beers on site which is an offshoot of Dunham Massey Brewery…..eager to see what the new beers taste like.

  17. Allied’s rapid expansion of the Firkin ‘brand’ was a very unfortunate example of killing (butchering) a golden goose. Something that originally had a cachet and some scarcity value got diluted so to speak by taking the concept into some pretty inappropriate places. Initially the roll out was sensibly taken just to student towns (in the days when developing “student pubs” was in vogue), but then it got taken to Rugby and the rest. (with apologies to the people of Rugby) Ubiquity corroded the initial idea.
    And thereby hangs a tale that many a funky new brewery may yet learn all over again. It takes a lot of restraint and principle not to press the commercial button, but in doing so…..

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