Digital Feature

Small is beautiful – the quiet rise of the micropub

By Jamie Hailstone

- Last updated on GMT

Martyn Hillier of the Butcher's Arms and chair of the Micropub Association
Martyn Hillier of the Butcher's Arms and chair of the Micropub Association
Several years ago micropubs were seen as a growing trend, but is this still the case? The Morning Advertiser reports.

Some revolutions start with a bang - others with a whisper. When Martyn Hillier opened The Butcher’s Arms​ in the quiet village of Herne in 2005, it was the first of its kind in the country.

It was a new kind of boozer – no frills, no food, no music and less than a handful of beers in what was formerly a butcher's shop. The micropub was born.

butcher's-arms-interior
The interior of the Butcher's Arms - the UK's first micropub

More than a decade on and Hillier, who co-founded the UK Micropub Association​, believes there are now at least 350 around the country, with more opening each month.

Growth

While that might sound like a relatively small number, and is not the thousands that Hillier once prophesied,​ the reality is that in percentage terms it is one of the fastest growing trends in the entire industry, more than doubling its numbers since the beginning of last year​.

As many will know, it is relatively easy to open a micropub, thanks to the Licensing Act 2003​. Objections can only be on health and safety grounds, law and order and the protection of children. No longer can local pubcos object based on competition grounds.

Just like with Gordon Brown's 2002 Progressive Beer Duty​ and the rise of small scale breweries, the stage was set for a parallel revolution - the rise of the micropub.

Hillier is almost evangelical about the opportunities that micropubs could offer as traditional pubs continue to struggle and close. 

MartynHillier
Hillier: "In the big pubs, they put people behind the bar with no clue."

“These should be replacing pubs that have closed in villages,” he says. “People can get their pub back for a very small fee.

“This allows the man in the street to have freehold for about £10,000,” he adds. “Then you have someone behind the bar who wants to do it. It’s his business. He can listen to his customers, who can tell him what they want to drink.

"In the big pubs, they put people behind the bar with no clue.”

Registered

He says there are now more than 200 micropubs registered with his national association – double the number from last year – and members have been setting them up with budgets ranging from £3,000 to £30,000.

MicropubsList

Having kickstarted this revolution, Hillier reckons Kent is now home to the largest group of micropubs – around 42 in total. He even goes as far as to claim they sell more real ale than Wetherspoons does in the county.

“About five years ago, I had a customer [in here] who used to be a manager at Wetherspoons. I asked him ‘which one sold the most real ale of the ones he worked in’. He said ‘Dover’. And ‘how many firkins a week? He said ‘about 20’. This [pub] sold 10 firkins at the time. And that Wetherspoons in Dover is 10 times the size of this.”

Brewery tap

Jolly-Porter
Dan Steggles of the Jolly Porter

One of the newest micropubs in the country is The Jolly Porter​, which opened its doors on 1 July in the former taxi office at Diss railway station in Norfolk​.

The pub is particularly interesting as it is an example of another route to market for micro and small scale brewers - acting as a brewery tap - and The Jolly Porter was set up by Dan Steggles, who also runs Hoxne Brewery​.

Steggles says it has taken around a year to set it up. The railway station itself is on the main commuter line between Norwich and London Liverpool Street and he hopes the new pub will appeal to commuters, as well as football fans at weekends and people who live on nearby housing estates, who currently do not have a nearby pub.

“A microbrewery supplying beer to a micropub seemed a good idea,” says Steggles. “The brewery is half a mile from the pub, so it means I can put the majority of my beers through here.

“It appeals to the customer base that is fed up with sitting around in a pub, which has 27 different screens showing 27 different sports, music and bits and pieces,’ he adds. “The overheads are low. You’re not leasing any gaming machines. You’re not paying Sky to show sport. We don’t sell spirits, so our supply levels are cheap as well.”

“The thing about micropubs is that they are all individual. If a company buys a loads of buildings and wants to set up a lot of them up, it’s not individuality. It’s a franchise." ​Dan Steggles

“The thing about micropubs is that they are all individual,” he adds. “If a company buys a loads of buildings and wants to set up a lot of them up, it’s not individuality. It’s a franchise.

“There are so many that are opening. They all have their own individual quirks and that’s what makes them appealing, as opposed to going into a pub, which is like a laboratory.”

Coastal pubs

On the West Sussex coast, there is also a growing number of mini and micropubs, including the Old Star Ale and Cider House in Shoreham-by-Sea​.

The pub’s owner, Richard Hasler, says the key to running such a pub is to keep it local.

“It’s too hard to run a place like this if you can’t walk to work,” says Hasler. “This is as a pub used to be. You’re the host. If you can’t have a beer or two with your customers, it would become a bit of a drudgery.”

And in a town famous for its high concentration of pubs, Hasler adds there is no rivalry between the various establishments.

OldStar
Richard Hasler of the Old Star Ale and Cider House 

“There isn’t actually a bad pub in this town,” he adds. “I have quite a synergy with the Duke of Wellington​. We’re not really competitors. People come into this town, going from pub to pub.”

The future

As far as future growth figures, Hillier is still quite bullish. He sees a strong link between the recent explosion in the number of microbreweries​ and micropubs.

And as the microbrewery scene in the UK continues to go from strength to strength, he may have a point.

The growing appetite for craft beer has proved that big is not necessarily beautiful​, particularly where ale drinkers are concerned.

“When I did the presentation to CAMRA’s annual general meeting in 2009, I said there should be 10 micropubs for every microbrewery,” he explains.

“Back then, there were only 800 microbreweries. Now there are almost 1,700. No one ever thought there would be that number.

"So 17,000 micropubs? There used to be that number of pubs in the past, but they just got bigger and bigger, and then they were swallowed up.

“These are working,” added Hillier. “And normal pubs are closing.”

Join the conversation with @morningad and the micropubs featured on Twitter:

  • Jolly Porter: @jollyporterdiss
  • Old Star: @oldstar1918

Related topics: Freehouse Business Club

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