The dark side of real ale

This is a matter close to my heart.  The slow death of the local pub and the real ale drinking that goes hand-in-hand with this.  In the UK around half of our 60,000 pubs are owned by just 10 operators.  This is not a healthy situation to be in.  39 pubs are closing every week!  The names of Green King and Fullers are becoming household names and yet micro-breweries are reliant on government subsidies to survive.  Meanwhile medium sized breweries such as Harvey’s in Lewes have neither the government support nor the operational capacity to compete with the giants at Green King. 

We can see from the Lewes Arms controversy how Green King is willing to put profit above consumer demand.  It is only after petitions and a strong campaign did the pub revert to stocking the local beer (Harveys).  This example however, also highlights what real grass-roots pressure can do.  If you are sick and tired of being offered the same old generic beers then do something about it!

The British beer culture (different to the drinking culture in general) is something that we should all be very proud of.  We produce some of the best quality beers in the world.  I currently have the pleasure of living in Belgian and people often ask me what I think of the beers here. The simple answer is that they often rely on crass flavours and offer none of the depth and subtlety that some English ale holds.  It is only when you don’t have something do you really miss it!

If you are like me and enjoy spending a considerable period of time (and money) in your local then choose wisely.  Follow my golden rules:

1) Choose a free house.  Green King especially is in danger of creating a monopoly over the pub industry. This has negative repercussions for the diversity of real ale that is being produced (and consumed).  If a pub has a big green sign hanging outside of it stay well away!

2) Choose a pub that stocks its beer from a local micro-brewery.  You might think this is hard to find, but increasingly micro-breweries are popping up left right and centre.  If your local free house is not stocking the local breweries then ask why!

For those of you based in Gloucestershire (my beloved shire) here are a few ideas for you to check out if you haven’t already!

  • The Woolpack in Slad (Stocks Stroud Brewery and Uley)
  • The Blackhorse in Amberley (Stroud Brewery and changing guest ales)
  • The Prince Albert in Stroud (Stroud Brewery)

For more information check out the good beer guide or the CAMRA web-site (


Filed under Beer, Food and Drink

10 responses to “The dark side of real ale

  1. Pingback: Real ale and big business, it’s an economists nightmare! « Hynd's Blog

  2. E10 Rifle

    Sam Smith’s are an excellent institution but alas their draught ale isn’t up to much. Some great bottled beers missing though.

    Not enough mention in the original article of how UTTERLY REVOLTING Greene King IPA is. Seriously, it’s vile. I’m a CAMRA activist but was in a pub the other day where GKIPA was the only ale on draft so I had a bottle of lager…


    • Hi Rory,

      GK IPA is becoming the bane of my drinking life. So many pubs opt for it as their standard because they see it as a drivers ale, something that can be drunk in summer or winter (and also its the ale that GK sell cheapest…often 10 quid a barrel less than Abbots or Speckled). But I could not agree more with you. At best it’s boring at worst it is not very nice (but then as we may have established I have but a little prejudice in me). There are lots of nationally available (low alcohol) IPA’s available…but again it highlights GH’s near monopoly on the market.



  3. Kieran

    The point you made about Weatherspoons on an earlier reply is an important one. How does one resist there riduculously low prices on a night out. I know they are a highly unethical chain of pubs that, due to there size can use economies of scale to charge the prices they do, resulting in other pubs in the local area, struggling to compete and possibly being forced out of the market. However, when funds are low…its difficult to resist. So to bring a seemingly impossible question to the table. How do we create a local ‘freehouse’ pub that serves local beer at a meer £1 a pint like weathspoons can?


    • Hey Kieran,

      This is an easy one….

      Buy a mini keg directly from the brewery! Invite friends round (and ask them to chip in a pound a pint for however many pints they are going to drink) and then head out to town when you have drunk enough ethical real ale that you are not thinking about the ethical repercussions of Weatherspoons!

      Or being slightly more serious…try suggesting to your mates that you start out of town and work your way in (for example go…Blackhorse at amberly, prince Albert and then town! Makes for a different night out! Also, when in town there are a few of the classic places that will still serve local ale (in Stroud for example I think Bar 9 sells Stroud!)

      Happy drinking (in moderation).



  4. Wickwar produce a real cracking beer called IKB named after Isambard Kingdom Brunel. A full rich chocolaty beer. Good for the winter times. For a while the Fostons stocked both BOB and Cotswold way. I have never been to their brewery, I would like to go sometime. The glos ale trail web-site says their are 8 members but only lists 7 (maybe Wickwar are the 8th?!?)


  5. Mike

    Hi Steve, I had the pleasure of goiung round Wickwar brewery the other night! Very enjoyable but a little surpried to find that it is not listed in the Glos Ale Trail on the CAMRA site. Never mind, I did bring some bottles of Cotswold Way home for you for next weekend. Tim and I have started them though!!


  6. B,

    A Free house is a pub that is independent of the brewery that stocks it. This essentially means that it can stock any beer it wishes. This is in contrast to a tied house, which is a pub that is owned by a brewery and thus is limited in which beers it will stock.

    Life is not quite this simple however in our ethical beer maze. Lots of pubs that claim to be free houses are actually still owned by big companies and chain bars. The best known example of this is J.D Weatherspoons (who sell a wide range of beers at incredibly low prices).

    Equally, lots of free houses choose to sign themselves into contracts with big companies to supply their beer exclusively. Green King for example, will supply free houses with Cask Ales and bottled beers at incredibly low. This is very hard for micro-breweries to compete with.

    In a market that is so hard to make profit out of selling beer, these cheaper barrels are very attractive to independently owned pubs. This combined with the advertising that breweries put into their own beers (which means the pub can advertise itself off the beers name) means that customers will often choose a labelled beer over a local beer (that they might not have heard of). A classic example of this is Green King sponsoring the Rugby World Cup.

    Samuel Smith beers have always had a bit of a reputation as being something a bit special that swims against the tide of all that I have described above. I will confess to knowing little for definite about them. What I do know is that Samuel Smith’s father co-owned the brewery that produced John Smiths. Samuel Smith re-opened his father’s brewery next door to John Smiths in competition. The pubs that Samuel Smiths owns have quite a reputation. For example, I heard (not sure if it is true) that they do not stock branded soft drinks. In other-words…I think (although not sure) that Samuel Smith pubs fly in the face of all the general comments I have so far made and should probably be supported. I am sure there will be a Wikipedia page about it!

    I hope this helps!



  7. B

    I KNEW you were going to talk about this matter 🙂

    Thanks for sharing, in my two years in Britain I haven’t had a clue of the difference between a free house and a regular pub.

    I also wanted to ask you what is your opinion about Samuel Smith’s pubs, because I am particularly fond of them (in fact there’s one in front of my house). Are they free houses too?


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