‘A Micropub is a small freehouse which listens to its customers, mainly serves cask ales, promotes conversation, shuns all forms of electronic entertainment and dabbles in traditional pub snacks’ – Micropub Association
There seems to be a sense of impending doom of late when discussing the state of the pub industry, mostly because so many are closing (reportedly up to 29 a week) However, there has been something of a quiet revolution happening that should be of great encouragement to pub-lovers everywhere – the rise of the micropub.
The trend kicked off back in 2005 when Martyn Hillier decided to convert his off-license in what was formerly a 14ft by 12ft Butcher’s shop in Herne Bay, Kent, into a pub, but a very particular type of pub. He didn’t want to serve lager or have any form of entertainment, just a place where people who appreciate good beer could come for a pint and a chat. The mircopub was born. Since then these pint-sized pit-stops have become the venue of choice for beer lovers who pine for the more traditional British pub experience.
For a start, they have stripped back all the gimmicks meaning no TV screens, no menus, no music – just as Hilliar intended. Good ale and good company are the order of the day. The ‘good company’ part is a real selling point of the micropub, encouraging conversation and integration, which is not difficult when you consider the super confined environments (more on that later).
Micropubs continue to shy away from the entertainment route of sports and fruit machines, instead focusing their attentions on creating a retreat from the everyday demands of our modern day hyper-connected lives. Some even go so far as to outlaw electronics completely, One Inn the Wood in Petts Wood, Greater London, has a charity fine box where people are expected to deposit a donation should they use their mobile phone on the premises. You have been warned.
Of course, the ‘good ale’ part is very important, too. Quality of beer is something that these pubs pride themselves on, and the level of expectation that comes with being a micropub means they very much live or die by their selection and upkeep. Thankfully, from what i have seen and heard, the majority seem to be rising to the challenge. Not being tied to any particular brewery means they can stock whatever they want from whoever they want. Unsurprisingly that usually means local beers from local breweries, therefore supporting the local economy while also maintaining the quality of the product through shorter delivery journeys – everyone’s a winner!
Now, back to those super confined environments. Cleverly taking advantage of the Licensing Act of 2003 with the intention of keeping overheads to a minimum, landlords tend to set up shop in small spaces no bigger than your average high street sweet shop. But as well as saving money on rates, the snug spaces influence the interactions of the clientele. Such close proximity to your table neighbours naturally encourages a convivial atmosphere and generally makes it feel more like a gathering in a friend’s kitchen rather than various separate groups who happen to be in the same building.
And you don’t have to worry about what you’re going to talk about because often the quirky choices of location lead to some rather interesting backstories. I recently visited a newly opened micropub in Southend that used to be the town’s public toilet – lots of chatter stemming from that one. Other notable histories include a former left-luggage room in a North-East metro station, the prison of an 800-year-old priory, and the former stable block of a funeral directors which still sits adjacent. A little bit of quirk is always a good conversation starter.
These qualities are what add to the overall appeal of the micropub, and the good news is, they are succeeding. My local micropub, The Office, was named CAMRA’s North East Pub of the Year 2017. No small feat when you consider the former town toll-house, which can hold around 30 people at capacity, only opened in 2014. And they aren’t alone – micropubs have become a fixture of many of the CAMRA award categories and this month it has been announced that Wigan Central have made it to the final for National Pub of the Year.
They may not be for everyone, but they are undeniably serving a demographic which was otherwise neglected. And with the number currently standing upwards of 300, and an all-time high of applications being submitted, it would seem that this new corner of the market shows no signs of slowing down, which is music to the ears of many – myself included. Long live the micropub!