Friday, 9 January 2015

Micro to macro?

Let’s imagine a new wave of pubs started opening in the UK. They were small, plain and unassuming, with no food, children, piped music or pay-TV, where good beer and conversation ruled the roost. Mudgie heaven, you might think, but not really very likely. However, it does seem to be happening in the form of the still small but fast-growing micropub sector. Indeed, it has now been forecast that in five years’ time their number will mushroom from a hundred or so to five thousand. We’re even shortly going to get our own local example in Cheadle Hulme.

Let me be quite clear, I’m entirely in favour of micropubs. Most of them sound like places I would find very congenial to drink in, and they also underline the point that, if existing pubs don’t provide what people want, the opportunities are there in the market to open up new venues that do. But I can’t help thinking that, as I’ve said before here and here, they have been over-hyped and their potential for expansion is exaggerated.

For many years, industry experts have been saying that the days of the old-fashioned, wet-led, adults-only, drink and chat pubs are numbered. Customers are demanding food, music (whether live or piped) and TV football, and want to take their offspring with them, and you increasingly struggle to find pubs that do none of the above. Where they still survive – often in small towns and rural locations – they seem like an anachronism whose very survival is surprising.

As I’ve often said on here, in my view this trend has been overstated, and the obvious success of many Sam Smith’s pubs suggests there remains a market for pubs without these diversions. Plenty serve some food, but many don’t, and I’d suggest the tiny Queen’s Arms (aka Turner’s Vaults) in central Stockport is the closest thing we have to a micropub at present. Maybe the Olde Vic in Edgeley too. But it’s hard to deny that, in general, the embrace of some combination of food and entertainment has dominated for several decades. Is there really a large untapped demand to buck that trend?

I also get the feeling that, from their very intimacy, micropubs may end up being somewhat cliquey, basically a drinking shop for the landlord and his mates. It’s always been an important feature of pubs that customers decide for themselves to what extent they interact with others. If you want to chat, fine, but if you just want to sit reading the paper, or browsing the smartphone, that will be respected. But if it’s just a group of blokes sitting around a single table, will that be possible?

It may seem a piddling point, but you do wonder whether small, plain pubs will also have rudimentary toilet facilities. I don’t know from personal experience how far this is true, but I would feel uncomfortable spending much time in a pub with only a single unisex WC. I’d expect as a bare minimum a gents’ with one urinal and one trap. But that level of provision – plus the ladies’ – might take up as much room as the entire bar.

Some of the early micropubs seemed to suffer from an anti-lager mentality. “A pint of real ale for the gentleman and a glass of generic white wine for the lady”. Many pubgoers are in mixed groups, some of whom will drink real ale while others prefer lager. Deliberately alienating a large section of your potential market doesn’t come across as good business practice. And lager doesn’t have to mean Carling – there are plenty of excellent British-brewed craft lagers out there. Micropubs won’t enjoy rapid growth if they just cater to a limited audience of middle-aged and elderly Real Ale Twats. But there is always the risk of metamorphosing into “trendy bars”, which have also taken over plenty of former shop units. Where do you draw the line?

Will we be seeing village micropubs too? No doubt many villages could sustain a micropub even after a full-service pub trying to attract out-of-area dining trade has failed. That may be a great opportunity.

The licensed trade is becoming increasingly diverse, with more and more different types of venues opening up to appeal to a variety of clientele. It would be wonderful if, in five years’ time, there were five thousand micropubs up and down the country. But I doubt whether Tim Martin will be quaking in his boots.

The picture is of the Bouncing Barrel in Herne Bay, Kent, which gets very good reviews on TripAdvisor.


  1. Indeed the condition of the loos is a problem (really the only problem) I have with the micropubs I visted during my recent holiday in Kent. There were only a couple that had proper unisex toilets, and the others ranged quite a bit from decent to...not great at all. If *I* were to open a micropub, I'd have the toilets done properly, hopefully finding a big enough shop to afford the space.

    Indeed the very limited size of such pubs pretty much forces you to interact with your fellow drinkers. They are not uniform in layout, however, with a number of them having multiple tables, evenly dispersed. I saw several people over the course of my visits sitting alone with a paper or smartphone.

    I personally don't care what the founder of the organisation (whom I met and enjoyed drinking and talking with) says should be allowed or not, there's no need for certification or anything. I would be keen to offer proper bottled Franconian lager in mine. He'd be welcome to try some or boycott my place, as he saw fit.

  2. Erm...make that "proper seperate toilets", not "unisex"!

  3. What's the issue with having unisex toilets? Don't have a problem with it myself.

  4. If they are successful small businesses more power to their elbow.

    Not sure they are my cup of tea. I think you make a good point about cliques and rats. I quite like the all human life is here element in pubs. I get the impression they are more about who isn't welcome than who is.

    It shows how niche pubs are becoming and all human life isn't there. It's tailored for a narrow demographic.

  5. Martin, Cambridge9 January 2015 at 17:22

    You make a very good point about Sam Smiths, which are often drinking pubs catering to a range of society. Micro pubs have increased drinkers options where they open, but seem to attract a narrower range of folk for the reasons you highlight.

    I've been in some fantastic micros (e.g.Harbour Lights in Margate or the Ilkeston Brewery Tap), but surprisingly I often find beer quality a bit wishy-washy, though that may be more to do with the micro home-brewers that dominate the counters.

  6. There are a couple of "micropubs" opened in Nottingham that I visited the other day.

    They were very nice, with decent beer and congenial chatter, but I couldn't help but notice that they're just like normal pubs, but slightly smaller. I don't see what the fuss is about.

  7. Many village pubs already ARE effectively micropubs attached to a restaurant next door.

    Whether or not both ventures would be solvent in their own right is another question.

  8. I think you’re missing the point here, Mudge. Micro-pubs aren’t so small that everyone has to sit around the same table. I was fortunate to visit six such establishments back in October, and in the majority there was room for the bloke who wants to sit quietly in the corner reading his paper, as well as the group(s) who want to socialise.

    I wouldn’t describe them as cliquey either; certainly no more than any other pub. As for drinks, who says they shouldn’t sell lager? The reason most of them don’t stock international “blands” is they don’t wish to attract the typical lager drinker, with all that entails. Next critics will be saying they ought to have fruit machines, juke boxes plus Sky Sports!

    I also disagree with your assumption that women will automatically want to drink wine, and by not stocking a wide selection of fermented grape juice the pub is deliberately alienating a large section of its potential market. Plenty of women enjoy a glass or two of beer and/or cider, so why this feeling that a micro-pub should stock a huge range of wines? The clue is in the name; it’s a micro-pub and NOT a wine bar!

    Hopefully you will soon be able to enjoy the micro-pub experience yourself, when the one you mention in Cheadle opens its doors. Claims of 5,000 such establishments in five years time are obviously exaggerated, but as a whole the micro-pub movement hasn’t been over-hyped; it’s just been a bit slow to catch on in the North-West.

  9. I keep telling Mudgie that he's called it wrong here (although I agree the 5000 prediction is way too high) but he won't have it. The concept is clearly gaining traction is likely to grow exponentially I think.

    One example of a very modern micro-pub (although it won't call itself that) is Marble Brewery's 57 Thomas Street in Manchester's Northern Quarter. Former shop, one uni-sex toilet, one large (very large) table plus a couple of others - ticks the boxes. Sells wide range of beers and lagers (keg, bottle and cask), bottled ciders and wine. Decent food offer too (up-market toasties, plus meat and cheese platters).

    I often pop in but I think Mudgie would hate it.

  10. @Paul - of course many women enjoy real ale, but the point is that if you deliberately limit the range of drinks you sell you also limit your potential customer base. And of course I earlier quoted Martin Hiller as saying “I used to do red and white wine but it confused the ladies," Hillier says. "They'd start asking what red wine it was, and I'm not here to sell wine. So now it's just white wine. Simpler that way.”

    @John - if there are even 1,000 micropubs in 2020 I will be very surprised. And is 57 Thomas Street really more of a "new-wave bar"? I'd say the original micropub ethos was somewhat different.

  11. Martin, Cambridge10 January 2015 at 10:29

    On Paul's point, while the Kent micropubs do have a few tables, they're not really places you can slip into the background and avoid conversation. That's probably not an issue for you or me, but is a factor.

    That said, I've persuaded my piece to take the trip from Canterbury Uni around the Thanet micros, so be interested to get an alternate view soon.

  12. "The reason most of them don’t stock international “blands” is they don’t wish to attract the typical lager drinker, with all that entails" this bit of Paul Baileys comment is quite revealing.

    By typical lager drinker I read young working class male. I gather a number of old, fat, middle aged, middle class types want a gaff that only caters for there sort and does not welcome a wider community.

    That's fine, if that's where customer demand is. It's not not my cup of tea, but I have no objection.

    If you then cross reference that to other bits of beery enthusiasm. Claims that pubs are community resources. Arguments about the price of alcohol through different outlets. This, for me, is where is doesn't add up.

  13. Ageist, fatist and sexist, Cookie, but true to form. And how do you know I'm a bit on the plump side? Let's all start stereo-typing people shall we?

    BTW, the likes of Carling and Fosters have been around so long that the typical lager drinker has now morphed into a middle-aged working class male.

  14. Ageist, fatist and sexist? Deary me Paulo. That pongy ale upset your delicate constitution? A light crisp fizzy lager would perk you up. Pity these cliquey coffin dodger micro ponce pits don’t do it.

    Don’t make the mistake of believing the CAMRA claptrap that these things are a renaissance of the great British pub. They are the dying last gasps of the British pub as it fades into obscurity and irrelevance. Only able to muster a few old timers to frequent it. Only getting the interest of a semi retired drunk to run it. The best that can be said is that it is a noble rage against the dying of the light.

    The reason we don’t have much of them in the North isn’t because the North is behind the times, it’s because the north has “pubmen” These semi-mythical creatures are common place oop north. They bestride the proud north like Titans. Kids don’t tell you they want to be footballers and have shed loads of cash and shag loads of filthy slappers, they tell you they want to grow up and be pub men.

    Kids up here collect Panini pub men stickers and put them into a book. On the bus last week I saw kids swapping 3 Mudgies for 1 Clarkey, such is the value of some stickers. The most valuable is “The Tand”. Tand stickers sell for thousands on Ebay.

  15. "cliquey coffin dodger micro ponce pits"

    Love it. Cookie's certainly on form today.

  16. And this early on a Sunday! Must not have been all that much Olde Wifebæter for him last night.

  17. You ought to pursue your “Panini Pub Men” idea further, Cookie. Who knows it might make you a few bob.

    As for me, I might well crack open a bottle or two of pale, fizzy lager later. Yes, a couple of pints of Pilsner Urquell will certainly perk me up!

  18. "Must not have been all that much Olde Wifebæter for him last night."

    He was conspicuous by his absence at last night's CAMRA piss-up. Mind you, I suspect he might be doing Dry January. The twat.

  19. This conceals a wider phenomenon - the rise of "box bars" in former shop premises. Some are micropubs, some are trendy beer-focused bars, as in Chorlton, many are places aiming for a young clientele, with nothing of interest on the beer front, as we see in Heaton Moor and the south end of Hazel Grove.

    That is the real trend, and something to be welcomed as an example of the free market at work.

  20. Good choice Paulo, Urquell is Tescos latest discount SABMiller cooking lager. Good bang per buck, good choice my friend.

    Me, dry January? The beard club exercise their usual middle class discrimination by having a piss up on darts semi final day to discourage working class folk from attending and you Mudge are daft enough to fall for it? Go on, have a beardy piss up during middle class toss pot fest wimbledon. You can't even see through the class based discrimination for what it is. There is little hope for you.

  21. Regarding the darts, BBC coverage of the second rate BDO is pretty middle class, any fool knows that Sky and ITV4 provided real working class darts.

  22. You wouldn't know the working classes if they smacked you on the arse, Anon. It's just a twitter baiting documentary on channel 4 to you.

    Me and Mudge have been in a Sam Smiths pub. We've lived it.

  23. It has to be said that the newly-opened Heaton Hops, while praiseworthy in many respects, only has a single unisex WC which in my view is just not good enough.


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