Micropubs go macro

By Roger Protz

- Last updated on GMT

Micropubs go macro

Related tags: Cask ale

Many traditional pubs have faced tough times in recent years, but Roger Protz has found a new type of pub bucking the trend.

New pubs are popping up all over the country. No, I haven’t been taking illegal substances and hallucinating. While traditional pubs are closing at an alarming pace, new types of outlets are opening at a rate of knots.

They’re known as pop-up pubs because they occupy existing premises originally used for other purposes. They’ve proved so popular that the people running them have formed their own organisation, the Micropub Association, and they say they have carved out a new relationship between drinkers, publicans and breweries.

The first pop-up pub was the Butcher’s Arms in Herne, Kent. It’s based — as the name suggests — in an old butcher’s shop and it’s been going for 10 years now.

Martyn Hillier, who launched the Butcher’s Arms, was named Campaigner of the Year in April by CAMRA (the Campaign for Real Ale) for his inspirational work in encouraging publicans to open small pubs in empty premises.

Hillier expects there will be some 200 micropubs by 2016. Since opening the Butcher’s Arms, he has toured the country and spent hours on email and phone giving help and advice to others keen on starting them and, as a result, has created this new sector’s own organisation, the Micropub Association.

In April 2015, the association’s Pub of the Month was typical of the new breed. The Gas Lamp Lounge in Louth, Lincolnshire, is based in the Victorian offices of a former gas and light company and it offers six cask beers on handpump.

Martyn Hillier was inspired to open his pop-up pub by the changes to the licensing laws introduced by the Labour government in 2003. This allowed for more flexible pub opening hours and Hillier, who had run a beer shop in Canterbury, took the opportunity in 2005 to move into the butcher’s shop in Herne that had closed in 1995.

Just three years later, the Butcher’s Arms was named Kent Pub of the Year by CAMRA and the success of the venture quickly spawned more micropubs in the county. Herne Bay, a seaside resort a few miles away, now has two while Margate has three and Dover four. A former funeral parlour in St Peter’s near Broadstairs lives up to its roots by specialising in holding wakes.

“They shouldn’t work but they do,” Hillier says. ‘Their success is due to low overheads — I don’t pay business rates or VAT. Only one has failed — and that’s because the licensee was murdered!”

Hillier got a licence for the pub without difficulty, even though there’s a large, traditional Shepherd Neame pub with several bars, the Smugglers Inn, across the road. The Butcher’s has room for 10 people sitting and 20 standing.

The record number of customers has been 37 — “and that was like being on a London Tube train,” Hillier laughs as he sits behind a high bar counter that used to serve meat, with a backdrop of beer mats, labels and memorabilia of the brewing industry.

The beer casks are mounted in the former butcher’s freezer room. There’s space for eight casks and Hillier’s major investment has been air conditioning to keep the beer fresh and cool. His total investment in the pub amounts to no more than £5,000.

He says brewers “fall over backwards” to supply the Butcher’s Arms. “I only sell beer and there are no middlemen. Micropubs are a great boon for microbreweries.”

And it’s not just micros that supply these pubs. Adnams Broadside, for example, is a regular beer at the Butcher’s and the Suffolk brewer supplies it direct from its London depot.

It’s the customers who choose the beer, Hillier stresses. “People who have stopped going to pubs enjoy the atmosphere of a micropub.

“I’m in constant touch with breweries and I tell them what my customers think of their beers.”

The pubs can offer keen prices as a result of beer being delivered direct. In the Butcher’s Arms for example, a pint of Dark Star Hophead is £3 and most of the other beers — such as Old Dairy Copper Top — carry a similar price tag. Across the road, Shepherd Neame’s Master Brew Bitter costs £3.40. Hillier even sells Fuller’s legendary ESB (5.5%) at £3.75.

The customers call the tune where both beer choice and opening hours are concerned. For example, the Butcher’s is busy on Sundays but closed on Mondays. Sessions are short: 12 noon-1.30pm and 6-9pm, and 12noon-2pm on Sundays.

Micropubs are appearing like mushrooms at dawn and offering beer lovers choice, keen prices and convivial meeting places. They now exist as far north as Northumbria, across into Lancashire, in Wales and the West Country.

There are two in the bastion of beer-making, Burton-on-Trent, which is not short of traditional pubs as well.
What did Shepherd Neame think of the Butcher’s Arms standing cheek by jowl with one of its pubs and serving beer about 50p a pint less? “Well, they don’t send me a Christmas card!” Martyn Hillier laughs.

For further details, log on to www.micropubassociation.co.uk.

Related topics: Beer

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