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:-
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.