Big interview

When is a micropub not a micropub?

By Phil Mellows

- Last updated on GMT

Driving force: BeerHeadZ chiefs Martin Johnson (left) and Phil Ayling
Driving force: BeerHeadZ chiefs Martin Johnson (left) and Phil Ayling
Small pub operator BeerHeadZ offers something different to the norm. Phil Ayling and Martin Johnson explain the ethos behind their tiny chain.

Key dates

2010 – Phil Ayling opens his first micropub – Just Beer – in Newark, Nottinghamshire.

2014 – BeerHeadz brand launched in Retford, Nottinghamshire.

2015 – BeerHeadz logo copyrighted.

2016 – Becomes a limited company. Martin Johnson joins as a director. Second BeerHeadz opens in Grantham, Lincolnshire.

2017 – A Grade-II listed cabman’s shelter in Nottingham train station becomes BeerHeadz number three.

2018 – Openings in Lincoln and Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire

If Charles Darwin were alive today, and took an interest in pubs rather than nature, he might well have written a great treatise on the micropub.

Since Martyn Hillier came up with the idea in 2005, micropubs have evolved at a terrific rate, adapting to their local environments by mutating the DNA set down by Martyn Hillier at the origin of the species, the Butchers Arms in Herne, Kent.

Alongside cask beers, they have introduced craft keg, wines and spirits. They have gin and tonic menus and serve Champagne. Far from shunning electronic entertainment, they play background music and screen sport.

And some casually flout the ringing commandment etched on the window of the Butchers Arms – NFL, or No F*****g Lager.

There’s even a chain of branded micropubs.

Feels like a mircropub

The Lincoln branch of BeerHeadZ occupies a former estate agent office in the old part of the city centre, opposite the White Hart Hotel.

It’s unusual to find a micropub in the heart of a tourist destination, and it’s unusual to hear music when you open the door.

It’s also on the large side for a micro. A well-stocked bar, hand-pumps flanked by keg taps and more beer and cider in fridges behind, stretches across the back of the room.

Furnishings and décor are minimalist, all hard surfaces and brightly coloured. It still feels like a micropub, or at least, not like a regular pub.

Phil Ayling, the guiding spirit of BeerHeadZ, is easy to spot thanks to the Gothic architecture of his hair, and opposite him sits the more conservative- looking figure of fellow director Martin Johnson.

Their modest pub empire consists of five BeerHeadZ scattered across the East Midlands plus Ayling’s original micropub Just Beer, which he opened in his home town of Newark, Nottinghamshire, back in 2010.

BeerHeadz (4)

First pub founded

Employed as a draughtsman for 34 years, Ayling was made redundant and had been out of work for three years when he heard Hillier speak about the micropub concept at a Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) AGM in Eastbourne, East Sussex.

“It was jaw-dropping,” he says. “It was such a simple idea.

“I’d organised the CAMRA Beer Festival in Newark for 17 years and people were already saying to me, why don’t you start your own pub?”

So he did. And Just Beer was soon picking up awards, including CAMRA’s East Midlands Pub of the Year in 2012.

The first BeerHeadZ followed in Retford, Nottinghamshire, two years later, by which time, Ayling had stopped using the term ‘micropub’, preferring to call his businesses ‘independent pubs’.

“I realised everyone was jumping on a bandwagon. People were calling them micropubs when they weren’t. The concept had been lost in a very short time.

“If Martyn Hillier had gone for a Kitemark, it might have been different. But things move on and we’d got involved in the craft side. We’ve got to embrace a new generation.”

He felt he had the potential to roll out a brand and designed the BeerHeadZ logo, a figure balancing a pint on its head that looks a bit like a pagan symbol at first glance, alongside the word BeerHeadZ – and he’s most insistent about those capital letters.

Expansion strategy

Now a limited company, the operation stepped up a level in 2016 when Johnson came on board. After 30 years in logistics he was looking to retire but felt he still had “a bit more to give”.

“I lived near Just Beer in Newark and when I first saw it I thought ‘that won’t work’.”

Proved wrong, he met Ayling and between them they were soon discussing an expansion strategy with most of the money coming from a third director, Phil Dale.

“We wanted the pubs to be within a reasonable driving distance of Newark, so we just drew a circle on a map and then looked at towns in more detail.”

In the micropub way, none of BeerHeadZ sites were already pubs, but they vary a great deal. Lincoln is larger because the business is geared to tourism and has a big Saturday trade, while Nottingham is, in Ayling’s words, “no more than a shed”.

“It’s a real station pub where people nip in for a quick pint while they’re waiting for their train. They don’t have a session as they might here. All our pubs have a different character, though the colour schemes are similar.”

BeerHeadz (1)

Variety on offer

Not everyone has always embraced the BeerHeadZ concept. Although the council gave its support to the project in Lincoln, it took nine months to obtain a licence after objections from neighbouring businesses had been thrown out by a district court judge.

“Sometimes they think every pub is the same and that’s stuck in their heads,” says Ayling. “But we have a different type of customer. They don’t come to get ‘spannered’ and we don’t sell the massmarket lager that supports that.”

What BeerHeadZ does crucially give customers, he believes, is variety.

“We have a diverse selection. We rotate the beers, including a lager from an independent craft brewery – we don’t take beers from multinationals. Our USP is that we never have the same beer twice. It’s like a beer festival every day.”

To that end, BeerHeadZ managers, armed with a manual on keeping good beer and running a pub, have autonomy over what beers they buy in, working from a price reckoner to make sure they maintain margins “with a bit of leeway”, explains Johnson.

“They stand or fall by their decisions, and they can get quite creative when it comes to marketing.

“Between Friday and Sunday, every beer on the bar can change. That blows people’s minds sometimes. There’s a big demand for vegan beers at the moment and a couple of weeks ago all our craft beers here were vegan.

“We also sell cider, wine, non-alcoholic drinks and vodka and whisky in some pubs. We might expand the spirits further. It’s something we’re working on. But if we do, they will come from artisan distilleries.”

Not the expected clientele

The formula has attracted customers well beyond the CAMRA-type associated with what you might call the ‘classic’ micropub.

“In here, 80% of customers are aged under 35 – equally split between male and female. Five young women came into Melton Mowbray last week, I think on a hen do. The manager suggested a gooseberry sour beer and they ordered five pints of it.

“It’s what we want, a diverse customer base. We appeal to a wide range of people, but we won’t have kids because customers have said they don’t want them. We allow dogs, though.”

Background music is played because a pub can feel dead at quiet times – unlike most micropubs, BeerHeadZ is open all day, every day.

Serving food, beyond selected bar snacks, may be going too far, though.

“You can never say never but I don’t think we would get into food,” says Ayling. “I don’t want to get involved in the costs or the overheads.

“But customers can bring in takeaways and we don’t mind washing up their plates if they’ve bought a couple of beers.

“At Melton Mowbray, a local firm has set up a pizza shed outside and they’ve even done beer matching. It’s great when businesses work together like that.”

BeerHeadz (2)

A passion for work

With five branches of BeerHeadZ, Ayling and Johnson are taking a step back to consolidate the business and carry out a customer survey to get some insight on where they take it next – and take a well-earned breather.

“We opened three in 13 months and it consumes your entire life,” says Ayling. “We’re both very hands-on. I still work at the Newark pub. It’s important to understand our customers.”

He continues to think of himself primarily as “a beer enthusiast” and appreciates he’s achieved what many aspire to – making a living from his passion.

“When I started I had no idea I’d be here. We’ve done this without any bank money and I’m very proud of that. My hobby became my business, and we make an effort with it. You’ve got to work at it all the time. You’ve got to advertise. We’re on Facebook constantly.”

Business attitude needed

It’s that effort, the professional marketing of a concept and a brand, the hard-nosed understanding that you’re a proper business battling it out in a tough environment that sets BeerHeadZ apart from most micropub operators, as Johnson points out.

“A lot of micropubs are based on the enthusiasm of one individual and a few of them have come and gone because they run out of energy.

“You’ve got to understand you’re a labour cost too and you’ve got to pay yourself and reward yourself or you feel that you haven’t achieved anything. You’ve got to run it as a business.”

A community facility

Yet the BeerHeadZ ethos extends beyond the pursuit of mere profit. Ayling and Johnson are on a mission to turn back the tide of pub closures.

“Beer is a unifying factor. You can go into any pub and sit down next to someone you’ve never seen before and, within 10 minutes, you’re best buddies. We’re losing that, and it’s a real shame.

“But well-run pubs in the right location, personally run and with a relationship with the customer have a big future.”

“It’s a shot in the arm when you can hear the babble of conversation in one of our pubs before you’ve opened the door,” adds Johnson. “It’s important what we’re doing – a community facility. It’s healthier for people than sitting at home.

“We’re facilitating people to be with other people. You’ve got to have somewhere to do that.”

Whatever they call themselves, only when micropubs lose sight of that social purpose might we say their evolution has perhaps gone too far.

The paragraph below was in the original version of this article but was inaccurate and has since been removed:

Local authorities haven’t always embraced the BeerHeadZ concept. It took nine months to get a licence for Lincoln, only after the council’s objections had been thrown out by a district court judge.

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