Down at the new Bull and Bush

The big brewers have decided on the latest hot bar theme - the authentic fake English pub
What makes a good pub? Plenty of people think they know. Whitbread and Punch Taverns are both prepared to pay upwards of pounds 2.7bn for a bundle of 3,500 pubs that Allied Domecq, the leisure conglomerate, couldn't make work. But the pub business is anything but easy.

The Punch bid, backed by Bass, is largely financed by American investors. It is in places such as Seattle and San Diego, not to mention Stockholm and Seville, that the British pub retains its appeal: a pleasantly dingy, horse-brassed haunt where the beer and staff both have reassuring names.

For export, our pubs are still popular, albeit with a pseudo-Hibernian slant. Contract Furnishings of Weeley, Essex, will sell you a complete "Molly TM" Irish pub or a "Highlander TM" Scots pub, ready to slot into your Osaka shopping mall or redundant Reykjavik fish-gutting plant. Consult its comprehensive internet catalogue while listening to "In An English Country Garden" on synthesised harpsichord.

We British have a deep love for our heritage and our traditions. Or so we are always being told. So why did we barely murmur when pubs that had not changed in 150 years suddenly started to adopt new identities? In many cases, their personalities were destroyed. Some became branches of McDonald's.

The Campaign for Real Ale (Camra) might have halted this, but somehow it was side-stepped as the Old Labour of the drinking world, jeering at "progress" from its place at the bar. But it carries on. Since 1992, Camra has surveyed Britain's 62,000 pubs to discover how many "traditional" examples remain. The pubs had to have approximately the same interiors as they had 50 years ago. How many have survived? Precisely 212.

Traditional tenants trade under the banner of the country's regional breweries. Every month the big brewers close another one. The Vaux Brewery in Sunderland, and its sister brewery Wards in Sheffield, closed on Friday with the loss of more than 700 jobs, after being axed by their parent company, the Swallow Group. Courage's ancient Bristol brewery is to go soon. But the brewers remain avid collectors of beer labels, using them according to the "style" of the bars. The latest theme, after years of trying the American bar, Australian bar, Irish pub and Scottish saloon is ... the English pub.

Allied Domecq makes its style choice - decor, beers, menus, ethnic allegiances and themes - by pumping statistical data into a computer. Ian Burt of Allied Domecq explained how it works. Allied is selling four chains of outlets: "Firkin"; "Mr Q's"; "Big Steak Pub with Wacky Warehouse"; and "Scruffy Murphy's". Oh, yes, and 1,400 brewery-tied "locals".

Firkin is for 18- to 25-year-old students. Mr Q's is for what Mr Burt defines as "the younger legal-age drinker", 18-25, but not students. It's a class thing. "We don't use that," says Mr Burt, who prefers "demographics".

All the conglomerates are crazy for "brands" as a way of automating the separation of drinker and money. But it gets harder. Beer sales are down from 43 million barrels in 1979 to 34 million last year, and falling.

The modern pub has to appeal to women as much as to men, to smokers and anti-smokers. It has to offer more than two types of crisp and the occasional guest appearance of paper in the loo. The "brands" promise identical quaffing and scoffing across the country, from plastic menus to spicy chicken wings.

Authenticity, though, is a better ploy. Once you can fake that you've got it made. The ideal of the pub has a stronger hold on us than the grubby reality. The hottest brands are the most "authentic". Irish pubs that exist nowhere on the Ould Sod itself. Stand-up English pubs modelled on the Chas 'n' Dave commercials for Courage Best rather than on anything that ever existed.

In 1873, King Street in Bristol had nine pubs. A hundred years later, four of the original pubs survived: the Llandogger Trow, the Naval Volunteer, the Old Duke and the Bunch of Grapes. Today, The Naval Volunteer is The Royal Navy Volunteer; the King William Ale House and something called The Steam Rock: Bristols [sic] Number One Fun Club, have appeared too.

The Bunch of Grapes, a pub since the mid-19th century, became Dr Thirsty's Surgery in the 1980s; three years ago it turned into Mulligan's. Dave Tobin, an authentic Cork man, is the licensee with the local Mulligans franchise. "They were all mad on the Irish theme for years," he says: "But it's dying out now. I thought Australian would be the next thing, but it didn't seem to take off."

In the mid-19th century, King Street was awash with thirsty sailors from early in the morning until early the next morning. That role has been adopted by local students. But they drink in Corn Street, where the former banking halls are now drinking halls. In St Nicholas' Market is the Freetrader & Firkin - formerly, for hundreds of years, The Crown. In looks and atmosphere it does at least resemble an English pub, rather than an exhibition of bar furniture.

The Firkin pubs were a Thatcherite business venture. Each had its own brewery, sawdust on the floor and a vein of rough-and-ready humour. But David Bruce, their creator, sold out to Ansells, who sold to Allied Domecq, who took his idiom, vulgarised it and made it compulsory. Each Firkin pub now has the same garish decor and the same leaden jokes.

Allied Domecq is dumping its pubs, and its licensed trade staff, because the division's profits slumped 13 per cent last year. Days before the sale it declared that the Firkin concept was over. "Some of the humour on the walls to do with the overt use of the Firkin name was too laddish," said chief executive Tony Hales.

Unlike some rivals, though, the Firkins don't shoo people away from the bar or stop staff from chatting to customers. Firkin landlord Tony Winters knows his regulars, who wants to talk and who wants to be left alone. You can talk to strangers: even someone outside your "demographic" niche.

"The whole thing about working for a multinational company is that they have marketing men who say: `This is how it should be'," says Mr Winters. "But we say, the bottom line is you employ us to manage your houses for you, to make your profits. Let us do our jobs."

Meanwhile, if your local Anchor or Ship is renamed "Frigging In The Rigging", give Camra a ring. Be warned, their brand of humour is dry, with a slightly bitter aftertaste. As one official put it: "This is a throwaway society. And those are throwaway pubs."