I know that there will be plenty of you will disagree with me on this one. I will of course make broad sweeping statements here that will have many, many exceptions. I think though, it is an interesting question worthy of airing.
I would say, without doubt, the best pubs are freehouses. This is a non negotiable point in my view. It is just not possible for a tied house to do everything that I want from a pub. There will be an element of predictability in the beer range and rarely anything at all from a good microbrewery. Generally there will be ties in other areas of the business such as bottled beers, wines and spirits which will limit customer choice. There will be a product range which generally leaves me feeling cold. I like to see things that I have never seen before when I visit a pub, not the predictable range of mass marketed products I can get down the supermarket for a fraction of the price.
Now I know Tandleman and Tyson will jump in and tell me how good the tied houses are around their neck of the woods. I will certainly be disappointed if they don't comment. But while tied houses can be good, the best of them are never as good as the very best free houses. Tied houses are a reality though, despite some of us, me included, wanting to put an end to it, I rather think it's a futile struggle.
It is possible to make a tied house very good, not the best but putting on a good show. The best example in my view, that I have visited recently, is Jeff Bells pub of Stonch's blog which gets a mention here. I hope Jeff doesn't mind me using his pub as an example, but having visited and talked to him he clearly is working the ties he has to his advantage. When I was in there I had two good beers. He had Timothy Taylors on, which I can get easily anywhere, but two others of a reasonably interesting rarity for me. I believe he chooses carefully off his list to give good variation for his customers. My only complaint was the lack of use of a sparkler on northern beers.
The key though to a great pub is the right ambiance. This is affected by so many things. Lighting, furniture, temperature, decor, music and hosts welcome; a thing that Jeff Bell clearly works very hard at. The ambiance is also affected by the customers themselves. This can be a difficult ingredient for the publican to get right. What I find is that for me, the more pleasant clientele are generally to be found in the freehouse. The tied system normally encourages a volume style of trade. The landlord, be it pubco or regional brewery are looking to maximise barrelage and so marketing and promotions are on a sell more save more basis. These pubs tend to push the higher profile, mass produced and mass marketed products such as "cooking lager" and "Alcopops" that are associated with, in my view, less savoury clientele and "binge drinking".
In discussions with a friend of mine who runs a highly regarded pub we shared our experiences of "regulars" affecting the ambiance in the pub. In my friends case the existing customer base sat right in front of the handpulls in a way that was intimidating to new customers. Effectively staking their right to be sat exactly where they were. Eventually this group had to be banned for the pub to progress. This is one of several pubs I hold in high regard, where they are completely and proudly free of tie. The lack of any mass produced products make this type of pub very special. Lager HAS to be properly lagered rather than some fast fermented thing that is effectively a light mild just gassed up and chilled to death.
Another great freehouse closer to me has the most wonderful ambiance due to it's refusal to serve any mass marketed products. Keeping out the "cooking" lager reduces the mass brand conscious types that are, in my view, the source of the social problems facing the pub industry. The sense of belonging to the establishment is so much appreciated by the regulars that they positively welcome all comers to peruse the array of handpulls, and if Continental fizzy is your thing then you are directed to the discreet gassy stuff that might contain many true pilsners or lambic fruit beers.
Clearly some of the smaller tied houses are suffering. Looking at the reports from the Pubco inquiry that is currently getting going there seems to be some worthy grilling being given to the pubco's. Jeff Picthall has provided some links. It is my belief that the tie is not good. It may help some regional breweries to survive, but this is at the expense of small community pubs being able to be flexible. I have tried to take a balanced view here but I believe that the disadvantages of the tie far outweigh the advantages.
For me the tie restricts the abilities of smaller community pubs to be flexible and limits the customer base to a bland, one size fits all, mass produced, mass marketed and go large style product range. It encourages volume consumption by the methods of promotion brought down from the pubcos and breweries.
Yes, phasing out the tie may well result in some regional breweries failing. But why is that a problem? We have more new microbreweries springing up all the time. Loosing Tetley's for instance is no bad thing. There are so many newer beers around and many more to come, I expect. If that is the price to pay for better pubs then I'm all for it.
I have found myself damning the tied system here more than I intended to. My intention was to support the freehouse. I maintain that the best pubs will always be freehouses. So why then is it that the industry is stating that it is the freehouses that are more likely to close? I think the main reason is because when they could, the pubcos bought up the more viable properties leaving the rubbish to the free market. Although I have no firm data to hand, the number of free houses as a proportion of the overall number of pubs has been falling for many years. This has to be a concern for the beer drinker.
The pubcos and the regional breweries alike are only interested in money. Yes sure, I am too as a pub owner. But I also care about what I'm selling. Pubcos and big breweries alike only really care about money for the shareholders. They may own the precious rights to the brand of beer that you grew up with, but they can't all live forever.
We must remember one thing, and if the rest of what I have said does not ring true, then I hope these final words you can agree with. We need to do something fast about our pubs. With so many closing we need to rethink what we are doing, and rethink fast. This is happening with the pubco inquiry, but as Nick Bish has pointed out “evolution” and not “revolution” is required and that any dumping of the tie overnight would be "cataclysmic".
I just hope it is not too late for many pubs.