ALE November 1998 No. 292

Back to Basics - The Pub, part 1

By Paul Ainsworth

The institution we all know and love as the Public House is unique to Britain. Other countries have bars, hotels and other licenced premises but though some come close (Belgium,the Czech Republic), none have anything which matches the traditional British local.

Britain has over 80,000 pubs and other premises with a full on-licence i.e. places anyone can go just for a drink. Given all the publicity about rural pub closures you may be surprised to know that the number of full on-licences has increased substantially in recent years. This can be ascribed entirely to the growth in town and city centre drinking establishments, many of which are cafe-bars rather than pubs. In Cambridge a stroll down Regent St./St Andrew's St. or along Quayside will bear this out. [See On The Circuit.] Pubs in the countryside and suburbs, especially the smaller ones, are definitely on the decline and these are generally the type of place that the connoisseur of pubs most cherishes.

We'll come back to the reasons for these changes in the next article.


Firstly, the basics. In terms of ownership, pubs fall into three categories. There are those owned by a brewery or pub company who then employ a manager to run them - Managed Pubs. Then there are Tenanted Pubs, where the licensees rent (lease) the buildings and fixtures from the brewery or pub company but own the "business". Finally we have Free Houses where the licensee owns both the building and the business.


Managed Pubs have had something of a bad press in the past. The argument goes that because the folk running the place are mere employees, they have less committment to ensuring quality than someone who has a direct stake in the business. In fact there are a lot of excellent managers around and now that many companies have improved training and career structures, standards have generally improved. Managed pubs are typically larger and more urban than average. Pubs like the Hogsheads, Firkins and Wetherspoons will all be managed. The big breweries have moved increasingly towards managed pubs where they can exercise more direct control over what goes on. This inevitably means a degree of standardisation in such outlets - if you've been in one All Bar One, you've been in them all. There's also a lot of staff movement, with managers regularly changing from one pub to another; consequently many managed pubs fail to achieve the character and individuality of pubs with long-standing licensees.

Tenancy (leased)

The tenancy is the traditional form of ownership in British pubs. A new tenant will typically pay a lump sum (the "ingoing") for stock, some fixtures & fittings plus the "goodwill". He or she will then pay rent to the brewery or pub company, that rent being reviewed at fixed intervals. These days it's more common for licensees to sign up for a fixed-term lease rather than the old-style tenancies but the net effect is largely the same. The licensee will usually be tied to whatever products the owner allow them access to, at least as regards beer. The guest beer rule which came in with the Beer Orders a decade ago enabled tenants of the big breweries (there were no big pub chains then) to sell one real ale of their own choice. However the big boys have now flogged off nearly all their tenancies to pub companies to whom the guest beer rights don't apply. Happily an increasing number of breweries and pubcos are introducing their own guest beer schemes thus enabling tenants to offer their customers more choice. Smaller breweries' products get a look in as well as the national blands. Greene King are a recent convert, albeit restricting guest beers to licensees who sign a particular style of agreement.

Free House

The Free House ought to be the ideal from the drinkers' point of view. The owners can, in theory, buy from whoever they like thus maximising choice and variety. In practice many so-called Free Houses are anything but. Owners will often voluntarily tie themselves to a particular brewery in exchange for loans which enable them to upgrade facilities. Ironically therefore many Free Houses will offer less choice than Managed Houses, particularly "exhibition" pubs like the Hogsheads and Allied's Festival Ale Houses. Other Free Houses display a sad lack of imagination in their choice of beers.

Cambridge itself is very short of genuine Free Houses: there's the Cow & Calf, the St Radegund, the Live & Let Live and that's about it. In the villages they become much more common. Good examples include the Red Lion, Histon, the Waggon & Horses, Milton, the Fountain, Ely, and the Green Man, Six Mile Bottom.

We'll leave the last word (for now) on the pub to Hilaire Belloc: "when you have lost your Inns, drown your empty selves, for you will have lost the last of England".

Next in the Back to Basics series...

ALE November 1998 No. 292 : Next section
Cambridge & District CAMRA