Small beer: why micropubs are the toast of Britain’s real ale revival
Good Beer Guide salutes the no-frills boozers squeezing into unlikely spaces that are growing in number and offering greater choice for drinkers
They have popped up in former butchers’ shops, pet grooming parlours and even undertakers – and the growth in tiny no-frills boozers across the UK, tipped to number 200 this year, is being hailed as spearheading a revival in the enjoyment of real ale.
The burgeoning micropub scene is helping to bring real ale to spaces where a traditional pub would not be appropriate, filling gaps on high streets and improving choice for drinkers, according to the Campaign for Real Ale’s (Camra) 2016 Good Beer Guide, published on Thursday, which also reports a 10% rise in the number of UK breweries for the third consecutive year.
In the past 12 months, 204 breweries were founded, taking the total to 1,424 – the highest number since the 1930s and 1940s.
Micropubs “offer beer lovers choice, keen prices and convivial meeting places”, said Roger Protz, the editor of the guide. “They now exist as far north as Northumbria, across into Lancashire, in Wales and the West Country. There are even two in that bastion of beer-making, Burton upon Trent, which is not short of traditional pubs as well.”
By finding homes in disused or even derelict buildings, micropubs can keep their overheads low and offer beer at more competitive prices than traditional rivals, Protz said.
The first British micropub opened in east Kent in 2005 after a licensing law shakeup which made it simpler to sell alcohol. The Butcher’s Arms near Herne Bay, housed in a former butcher’s shop, showed what could be done with a small (14ft by 12ft) room, an ale-loving landlord and a back-to-basics desire for conviviality and community.
It was the brainchild of Martyn Hillier, named Camra’s campaigner of the year for 2015 for his work launching the Micropub Association and encouraging beer lovers to open small pubs in empty premises.
Hillier is proud of what he calls his “village pub for village people, where my customers talk to people they don’t know”, even if he modestly denies he launched the phenomenon.
Phil Ayling, then an unemployed draughtsman, opened the UK’s third micropub, Just Beer, in Newark, Nottinghamshire, which is housed in a derelict artists’ studio and gallery. He has since opened BeerHeadZ in nearby Retford, and will open a micropub in Grantham, Lincolnshire, before Christmas.
Hillier says there are more than 150 micropubs in the UK, but expects them to surpass 200 by the end of 2015. They remain massively outnumbered by the UK’s 53,444 traditional UK pubs, of which 37,356 serve real ale, according to the Good Beer Guide.
Among other micropubs in unlikely spaces is the Yard of Ale in Broadstairs, Kent, which is housed in the former stable block of the adjacent funeral directors.
The pub has kept much of the building’s character, including the original flagstone floor, and often reflects its former life by being used for wakes. Hillier quipped: “I think they missed a trick there – it could have been called Last Orders.”