Tied Houses – Not What They Used To Be

Ask any beer drinker who was of legal drinking age before 1990 what the term “tied house” means to them and they will likely recall the weak flavourless keg bitter or lager that was universally foisted on them at the time. It was certainly Mr Fueled by Beer’s experience in Courage dominated Reading…

Berkshire Brewery at Worton Grange 1979-2010 R.I.P.

Berkshire Brewery at Worton Grange 1979-2010 R.I.P..

This is where keg beers were produced on a massive industrial scale at the nearby Worton Grange plant and distributed to around one in every three pubs all across the country. At its opening in 1979 Worton Grange was Europe’s largest ‘brewery’ yet within only 30 years it was a dinosaur.

This was due in large part to a couple of government initiatives whose effect killed the economic rationale for these megakeg factories, thus hastening their demise. Real ale was thus saved, and balance was restored to the force. In today’s context the tied house deserves fresh consideration. Here’s why:

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…

A thing called the 1989 Beer Orders forcibly separated “The Big Six” national brewers – the evil empire – from their tied estates of pubs. And within a few years over 35,000 pubs; more than half the galactic total at the time, were sold off to new retail Pubcos who would source their beer in the open market.

Watneys Red Barrel - the UnReal Ale

UnReal Ale

This opened the door to the roughly 30 independent regional brewers who were still left standing – the rebel alliance – to begin turning the keg tide back towards cask.

For almost 30 years the rebel alliance had been keeping cask ale alive after the evil empire turned to the dark side and abandoned cask ale in favour of generic keg bitter and lager brands; remember Watney’s Red Barrel?

Ironically, not long after the beer orders went into effect, the evil empire, as they were divested of their pub estates, became targets for an even greater evil: “The Big Four” – the Dark Sith Lords: Darth AB InBev, Darth SABMiller, Darth Heineken and Darth Carlsberg.

Darth Heineken?

Today the Sith Lords between them operate just seven large breweries across the galaxy. All but one are devoted to universal keg lager brands like Fosters, Stella, Carlsberg and Budweiser. The one exception – Darth Heineken’s Caledonian Brewery on Edinburgh – produces Deuchars cask ales.

By 2000 the aims of the Beer Orders had been largely achieved and in 2003 they were revoked. From the rebel alliance three former regional brewers: Marstons, Greene King and Wells & Young’s, all cask ale producers, went national and they, plus the remaining regional brewers, were starting to take some serious market share away from the yellow fizz sales of the Sith Lords. A cask ale renaissance was underway yet the fun was only getting started.

In 2002 the government’s second initiative kicked the real ale Renaissance into overdrive. During the previous decade, while the rebel alliance was exploiting their opportunity versus the Sith Lords, there had been a steadily rising tide of small microbreweries starting up: in 2002 this suddenly turned into a Tsunami. The reason was the government’s introduction of progressive beer duty for small brewers (PBD).

Sith Fizz

Sith Fizz

At the time of the beer orders there were around 120 microbreweries in the galaxy; just before PBD this number grew to around 350; and now, more than 10 years since PBD was introduced, the number of galactic microbreweries has topped 1,000. The ranks of the rebel alliance have thus been swelled to more than 1100 by virtue of all the new microbreweries. This is today’s context for the tied house: a resurgent cask ale scene offering a dizzying array of choice from a multitude of breweries and available through a totally reinvented network of British pubs.

Today, strictly speaking, the tied house refers more to the pub’s beer tie than to its ownership. Put another way, it governs how much freedom the pub’s licensee has to choose which beers they sell. The pub may be brewery-owned (by a new national, a regional, or a micro), it may be leased or tenanted from a Pubco, or it may be a free house with or without a beer tie to a brewery.

Either way, the good news is that pretty much all outlets are now committed to real ale to the extent that in just about every British pub today you will find at least one cask ale. It doesn’t matter who owns the pub or how it is run; more often than not there will be two or three cask ales representing selections from a new national, a regional, or a local microbrewery. And in some cases – at the dedicated real ale pubs – like at Reading CAMRA’s pub of the year: the Nag’s Head, or at any Wetherspoon pub, you will likely find all three.

May the force be with you. 🙂

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