Firkin pubs serve beer brewed either on the premises, or imported from another pub in the chain. All of these “Firkin Beers” are unpasteurised and unfiltered. Those served from casks qualify for CAMRA’s definition of ‘Real Ale,’ but those served from cellar tanks do not (due to the use of blanket pressure). Other ales and lagers are also available. Most pubs also serve Weston’s ‘Old Rosie’ (7.3%), a traditional cider, but some of the newer ones serve keg cider from a fake handpump.
The Firkin Beers
You should see the following ales on sale at all Firkin pubs:
Full Mash Mild (3.4%) is a dark, malty beer and is only lightly hopped. Mild beers were originally designed to be drunk in quantity after a hard day’s manual work, but they have suffered an image problem in recent years. CAMRA’s ‘Make Mine Mild’ campaign was an attempt to boost their popularity.
Firkin Bitter (3.5%) is sold under different names in each pub. It is the least malty of the staple beers, but has an upfront hoppy character.
Firkin Best Bitter (4.3%) also has a number of house names. It’s more malty than the Firkin bitter and has a strong, balanced hop taste. This is my favourite Firkin beer. Usually promoted as “the brewer’s choice.”
Firkin Strong Bitter (5.0%) is a more recent addition, first seen in 1995. It’s light in colour, with more alcohol than malt in the taste. Possibly derived from Golden Glory.
Dogbolter (5.6%) is a dark, strong ale with a full malty flavour. It’s a formidable pint which should be consumed in moderation, but this isn’t always the case!
Most pubs serve Golden Glory (5.1%) from time to time, a drier summer beer. Christmas ale is seasonally brewed, and is usually available from the start of December.
The house ales have a distinctive taste, mainly due to the use of Fuggles hops. These are used in many other English beers, traditionally in combination with Goldings hops, but the taste seldom comes through as clearly. If you can, compare them with Whitbread Fuggles Imperial (available at many pubs in the ‘Hogshead Ale House’ chain and bottled from off-licenses) and Goddard’s ‘Fuggle-de-dum.’
Current pint prices for the South of England start at £1.65 for the Bitter, £1.90 for the Best Bitter, and £2 for Dogbolter. (Firkin Bitter has been seen at around £1.25 in both the Flounder and the Pheasant.) Mistlet’Ale has stayed at £2 with its reduction in strength from 8% to 6.5% ABV. The house ale prices vary with the location of the pub (as with most pub chains).
Seven-tenths of firkin pubs now brew. A number of pubs that started their life without breweries have been upgraded to brew their own, but the increase beyond 50% is mostly due to new brewpubs. In London, the proportion of brewing Firkins is lower, those that don’t brew easily supplied over short distances. The Goose & Firkin (the first in the chain) no longer has a brewery.
What is a Firkin?
A firkin is a small beer cask, holding nine Imperial gallons (72 pints). The name is derived from Dutch (vierde meaning four). Two firkins make a kilderkin, two kilderkins make a barrel and one-and-a-half barrels make a hogshead of 48 gallons (384 pints). Aluminium kegs start at nine gallons.
The Firkin Chain History
The first pub in the chain (the Goose & Firkin) was opened by David Bruce, in 1979. It was converted from a shut-down Truman house, and brewed full-mash beers. Many other pubs were added, until 1988, when the chain was sold to Midsummer Leisure, now known as European Leisure. They were sold again in 1990 to Stakis Leisure. The Firkin Pubs are currently owned by Taylor Walker, which is a division of the brewing giant Carlsberg-Tetley. The Firkin chain is proving to be very profitable, and many new pubs are to be expected in the future.
The Firkin Brewing Process
“Firkin beers are made from the finest malted barley (mainly from East Anglia), the choicest Kentish hops (called Fuggles and Goldings) and water. Local water is used but is treated with crystals to neutralise some of the acids in a process called Burtonisation (after the famous brewing waters at Burton-on-Trent). The treated water is now known as liquor. It is stored in the hot liquor back until its temperature reaches 80 degrees Celsius, and then it is pumped along to the mash tun.
The hot liquor is mixed with the crushed malted barley and fills the bottom half of the mash tun. This mixture is called ‘the goods.’ It is left for one and a half hours, during which time the starch in the malt is converted to sugar.
At the end of this time, the sweet wort is pumped into the copper. Once it has drained, sparging begins, which is simply spraying hot liquor over the grains. The liquor percolates down taking the malt extract and sugars through the perforated base of the mash tun. This is the ‘wort.’ When all the goodness has been extracted from the mash, the spent grains are then dug out and used as cattle fodder.
The wort is brought to the boil in a large copper vessel, where hops are added, which act as both flavouring and preservative. The wort is boiled with the hops for one and a half hours, after which the heat to the copper is switched off, allowing the hops to sink and form a natural filter bed. The hopped wort is then pumped through a heat exchanger, which reduces its temperature to 18 degrees, prior to filling the fermenting vessel. The spent hops are dug out and may be used as garden fertiliser.
The yeast is added to the wort in the fermenting vessel, and the sugars in the wort are converted by the yeast to alcohol and carbon dioxide. The more sugar produced from the malt in the mash tun, the more the yeast can convert into alcohol to produce a stronger beer.
The fermentation process lasts from four to five days, at the end of which the beer is racked (put into casks). At this stage, finings (obtained from the bladders of sturgeon fish) are added which clarify the beer by coagulating the yeast and protein particles, which would otherwise cloud the finished product.
The beer is stored for at least two days to mature and condition prior to serving. Every Firkin brewpub can produce 1500 pints of Firkin beer each time it brews.”
The above is possibly dated information. According to recent promotional material, Yakima Valley Mount Hood and Hertfordshire Fuggles hops are used, along with English Maris Otter malt.
Most brewing Firkins are five-barrel plants, capable of producing up to 1440 pints with each brew. The Falcon (also possibly the Footage) can brew ten barrels at one time. The Flag in Watford may be capable of fifteen.
Most of the Firkin pubs use metal casks (without breathers) to store and serve their beer from. Some of the brewpubs still use cellar tanks, storing the beer under a blanket of Nitrogen, or a mixture with Carbon Dioxide. The gas used in these tanks may affect the taste of some beers. This may lead to you getting a better pint in one of the non-brewing pubs than from a pub that brews its own! The quality of the beer as served also depends on the care the staff take in handling it.
A series of visits to Firkin pubs in the London area have made me think that some of the older brewpubs have problems preventing oxidation of slow-moving tanked beer. Well-kept cask beer doesn’t suffer from this problem.
Dogbolter seems to suffer the most in pubs that don’t use casks. This is a result of its centralised brewing and distribution, especially in London. House ales tend to be brewed as close as possible to the pubs that serve them. Improvements in the quality of Dogbolter, and more recently the house ales, can probably be attributed to more efficient distribution methods.
The tank system may be phased out completely in the near future, eliminating one cause of poor beer quality.
Some of the newer Firkins use sparklers (small black plastic devices at the end of the swan necks). These generate a tight head, allow the pub to sell you less beer for the same price, and reduce hop character. Bar staff should remove it before pulling the beer if you ask them to. Most of the Firkins now have a standard notice above the bar stating that they will top up your pint if you think the head is too large. Whether they’ll do it at 10:25 on a Saturday night is another matter.
It’s usually worth asking about the storage system; you might find out how knowledgeable the staff are about it as well as what kind of system is used.