What is a Free House?
A free house is an establishment which serves alcohol and is run independently of the brewery or breweries which supply it. A free house serves alcohol, with a focus on beer, on the premises, and may also offer some limited pub food such as burgers and fries. The term “free house” is often associated specifically with England, although free houses are actually found all over the world, and many such establishments maintain a British theme to reference their roots.
As customers learn when they place their orders, the food and drink at a free house are not free, despite what the name might lead one to believe. The name is actually a reference to the business arrangement under which the facility operates. When a brewery owns and operates a pub, it is a “tied house,” meaning that it is tied to the parent brewery. When a pub is run independently, it is a “free house” because it is free of ties to a particular brewery, and as a result it may serve beers from a range of breweries. In a hybrid, a pub with loan ties is not owned by a brewery, but the terms of its supplier agreement force it to carry only one brewery's products, or to focus on providing products from a particular brewery.
Free houses are not necessarily independently owned and operated, even though they are not under brewery control. They can be part of chains which may include numerous pubs and other restaurants, and may even include international businesses as well. A free house often focuses on beers native to Britain and traditional British brewing and beer handling styles. Outside of Britain, it may have British décor to make people feel as though they are stepping into a traditional British pub.
The advantage of visiting a free house is that it gives people an array of options. People who like to try an assortment of beers appreciate the opportunity to try a selection, and people looking for a “local,” a pub they frequent on a regular basis, may enjoy being able to vary their selection on occasion. Many free houses maintain a rotating beer list, with a few standards on tap at all time, and others brought in seasonally or as they come out to keep the offerings lively.
For those who do not drink alcohol, a free house usually has a few nonalcoholic options on tap, so that abstainers can socialize in a pub environment with friends or coworkers who wish to drink. Some free houses may offer free non-alcoholic drinks to people who are serving as designated drivers, as an incentive to groups to make arrangements for a safe ride home.
@Fa5t3r - I've been surprised to find out that even quite quirky places might not be a free house. One of my favorite bars in town which has all these weird second hand lampshades and chairs everywhere but they only carry the beers of a particular company and I assume its because they are directly associated with them, even if they don't outright say it.
@pastanaga - Not necessarily. Many brewery companies are so large now that you might not realize how many brands they offer. And they won't necessarily advertise a bar as being associated directly with them unless they think it will be an advantage. If it's in a place where people get attached to a particular brand they won't want to admit to being owned by someone else, for example.
Being a tied house these days is probably a lot more common than it looks on the surface. Unfortunately, that's not because there are a lot of places out there producing their own house beers so much as that there are a few huge corporations that want to control the product from its origin to where it gets sold to customers.
I'd say in most places that free houses are actually more common than tied houses, just because there aren't all that many bars or pubs that make their own beer or have direct ties to a brewery these days. Most of them are going to want to be able to provide a wide variety of different kinds of drinks to patrons and it seems very limiting to be stuck with only one kind.
Although I have been to a few places in Europe where they made their own beer on the premises and it tends to be very tasty.
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