Essential elements of a micropub

Remember all the headlines a few years ago warning us about the scourges of ’24-hour drinking’ in Britain? One thing about the liberalised licencing laws which escaped most people’s attention was how much easier it had become to open a pub.

Previously a matter for the courts (where established pub companies with their legal teams could stall a new licensee with costly court battles), alcohol licensing became a matter for the council. Fill out a form, pay the fee, answer questions from interested parties, be willing to accept conditions requested by them and you too could open a pub within a few weeks.

Opening a new business is risky, especially in an age of austerity, but Martyn Hillier knew that a no-frills approach would be best for his new pub in Herne, Kent. Soon a tiny shop which was once a florist had become Britain’s first micropub, The Butcher’s Arms. There’s no bar, no dart board, no telly, no mass-produced lager, no piped-in music, no hot meals…in a space the size of most people’s living room there’s no room for anything really, other than beer served straight from the barrel.  Yet nothing is missing: all a great pub needs is good beer and good conversation.

Keeping Martyn Hillier’s original business idea in mind, here are five essential elements of a successful micropub:-

  1. Small and simple. This is the key concept that should underpin every business decision. Everything must be kept on a small scale and left uncomplicated in order to keep overheads low and ensure the focus is on providing good beer. Most micropubs will have only a single room, a shared loo and might not even have a bar.
  2. Real ale (often served straight from the cask), plus perhaps cider or perry, all from independent producers. It’s important that micropubs sell drinks that can’t be found in the supermarkets. Because customers might not be familiar with what’s on offer, drinkers should be invited to try before they buy.
  3. A lack of keg lager. Kegs require a potentially dangerous gas delivery system and expensive extra-cold refrigeration units, all because mass-produced lagers are inherently tasteless. This goes against the key requirements that a micropub be small, simple and sell something not available in supermarkets.
  4. Traditional soft drinks. Cloudy lemonade, ginger beer, dandelion & burdock, fruit juice and squash all served at realistic prices (unlike some pubs, where a lemonade can cost almost as much as an alcoholic drink). Some micropubs offer complimentary hot drinks to designated drivers.
  5. No hot food. Customers might be offered crisps and pork scratchings at the most, although some micropubs extend the menu ever so slightly to include pork pies, sausage rolls and cheese. Any food should be sourced locally or homemade, but not involve any cooking on the premises.

A note about wine and spirits. There is a debate among micropub owners as to whether wine and spirits should be served. Some insist that the focus should always be on beer and cider, or point out that spirits are too strong.

Personally, we side with those who argue that as long as spirits are made by an independent manufacturer, then the micropub is the perfect environment for showcasing British specialties like single malt whiskies and small batch gin. Sheltered spots in Wales and England also make surprisingly good wine, in particular refreshing whites and sparkling wines. It’s also a good way to attract female customers, whose favourite tipples are wine and spirits.

Next time, what you should never see in a micropub.

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4 Responses to Essential elements of a micropub

  1. Paul Allen says:

    The question is how do you feel about
    good quality bottled Lager

    • A good question Paul and one that is being hotly debated in the micropub community. In my opinion, not selling lager would be like a coffee shop not selling decaff. It may not be to everyone’s taste and it may not be made the same way, but there’s a dedicated audience for it. Sticking to the key principles of ‘keep it simple’ and ‘keep it local’ then personally I don’t see the problem with selling bottled lager made in the traditional method by small producers using good-quality ingredients. For people who swear by Carling or Boddingtons, it might completely change their drinking habits. Besides, would a micropub refuse to sell a stout that tastes better than Guinness?

  2. David Howell says:

    In our immediate area we have, in the last year or so, acquired what I would call two micropubs. However, at a recent CAMRA meeting it was stated that they did not qualify as they had not started off as retail/commercial premises. Both were once large pubs but suffered closure due mainly to high overheads and low footfall. They were both revived by becoming one room pubs selling real ale and cider only (from the cask) and host a friendly community. In other words they are indistinguishable from all the micropubs I have been to. So do they qualify? If not it would seem to me a massive missed opportunity to develop a model that would enable large non-viable pubs to continue serving the real ale community and maintain a local facitliy. Comments please.

    • One of CAMRA’s main aims is to support struggling pubs. Are the members of the branch unhappy to see two pubs survive, or are they quibbling over whether they are micropubs? Personally I see too much debate over whether a particular establishment qualifies as a micropub (my own premises no longer sits in that category in my own view). The status of whether a bar is a micropub or not does not convey to it any special rights. Surely any independent business that is selling good quality local beer and cider deserves support, especially if it is keeping the shutters up on a commercial property, bringing life to the street and providing an amenity to the community. I opened my bar to keep myself and my customers happy, not to satisfy the micropub brigade.

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