British pubs are closing at a rate of 31 a week, according to figures released by the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) in August, but a new type of drinking establishment is emerging: the micropub. In January 2013, there were just 15 micropubs, almost all of them in Kent. A year later, there were more than 40, spread across the country.
The Just Reproach in Deal, Kent, was Britain’s eighth micropub. Its walls are decorated with dried hops, pub signs and other paraphernalia – including several mobile phones, nailed up as a stern warning to anyone considering using one in the room. The six chunky wooden tables have kegs of beer stored underneath and can seat some 18 people. I’m one of ten customers.
I order a locally brewed £3 pint of Spratwaffler and chat to the owner, Bronwen Robson, 23, who opened the pub in December 2011 with her father, Mark. Bronwen had dropped out of her first year of university and Mark wanted a change from teaching. “Neither of us had any experience of running a business or a pub. But we had seen ones that had opened, and that gave us confidence,” she said.
Most micropubs are single-room affairs focusing on providing good cask or hand-pumped beer and real cider. Spirits are seldom on offer, and lagers and other brewery-conditioned fizzy keg beers are usually banned. TVs, jukeboxes, gaming machines and pool tables are absent. By not playing recorded music, not only do the proprietors encourage conversation, but they avoid an expensive music licence, too. To get around the need for environmental health checks and expensive catering facilities, they serve cold snacks only. Their opening times are often erratic: the Wheel Alehouse in Birchington, Kent, opens “Tues-Sat 5.30-9pm (ish)”.
With such low running costs, micropubs can offer competitive prices. They typically buy casks of beer from the brewery for roughly £1.20 a pint and sell it for about £3. Most make a healthy profit.
Micropubs came into existence following a 2005 change in the licensing laws that allowed shops to become public houses. That same year, the Butcher’s Arms opened in a disused butcher’s shop in Herne, Kent. Measuring just 3.7 metres by 4.3 metres, it is generally recognised as Britain’s first micropub. The owner, Martyn Hillier, who also runs the Micropub Association, says it has turned a profit ever since.
“There are loads more micropubs in the pipeline this year,” says Hillier, who sells in the region of 500 pints each week. “You can set up a micropub for less than £10,000 and it’s really straightforward. It brings closed shops back to life and draws communities back together.”
When I visit the Conqueror Alehouse in Ramsgate, there are just five customers, all of them male and middle-aged or older. There are a few tables and no bar. The seats all face each other, and as the pub is so small I start talking to strangers within minutes.
The owner, Colin Aris, opened the micropub with £10,000, which covered three months’ rent and the start-up costs. “I worked in IT most of my life but I was a CAMRA member for years, so the idea of serving good beers in my own pub really appealed,” he says.
The micropub market remains tiny compared to the UK’s old-style pub industry, which turns over roughly £18.5bn annually. But with the rate at which micropubs are opening, there’s bound to be one very near you in the not-too-distant future.