Monday, 17 April 2017

Micro appeal

A point about this blog that some people seem to struggle with is that the fact I don’t show much enthusiasm for something doesn’t mean I actively dislike it. This is a point I made in this blogpost, where I argued that you can’t expect people to be enthusiastic about everything. If you’re a member of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, you’re still likely to use many examples of modern architecture, recognise some as efficient and functional and even, in a few cases, like their design. But it doesn’t mean they’re something you want to pursue or champion as a leisure interest.

There are plenty of things in the world of pubs and beer that for me fall into this category, including most of what has been promoted as “craft beer”. And another is the micropubs that have blossomed in recent years. Now there is one very good thing about micropubs, in that they demonstrate that free markets work. Make it easier for people to open new drinking establishments and, where there is the demand, they will spring up to replace the big, old-fashioned pubs that have struggled to prosper in a changed climate for the licensed trade. But, as places that I personally want to visit as a drinker, they tend to leave me cold.

The first problem is that they generally seem rather Spartan and lacking in comfort. They’re usually devoid of upholstered benches and comfortable chairs, and high-level posing tables and hard stools often predominate. The photo, of the Hopper’s Hut in Bexley, underlines the point, although it is perhaps at the extreme of stark functionality. Indeed, last year I walked out of one GBG-listed micropub in Deal in Kent because there was no seating on offer apart from high-level stools.

Allied to this is the enforced sociability. In traditional pubs, even the smallest ones, it’s generally recognised that it’s up to you whether you want to engage with the company or just enjoy a quiet drink on your own. But, in a micropub, it’s often difficult to avoid social interaction, whether you want it or not. Some people just prefer to mind their own business. Plus the clientele is often something of a monoculture, and lacks the variety of ages, sexes, classes and types of drinks which is often what gives a proper pub its atmosphere.

And they seem to lack that distinctive “character” that long-established pubs acquire over the years, both from their architectural and design qualities and from the steady accretion of memories and identity from a succession of licensees and customers. Partly that’s a function of newness, but you do wonder whether, in view of their narrow appeal, many micropubs will ever achieve it, and it’s certainly unlikely that it will survive passing out of the hand of their original owner. People will often travel long distances and go well out of their way to visit some traditional pubs of character, but it’s very hard to see that happening with micropubs.

On his Thewickingman blog, Ian Thurman was rather sceptical about the rise of micropubs, and I have to say I share his sentiments.

I’m unconvinced that micro pubs have increased consumer spend and therefore they must be taking money from proper pubs. I’m all for innovation and letting the market decide but for the reasons described above I’m not sure we have a level playing field for pubs v micro pubs. As increasing numbers of micro pubs hit the GBG (and hit trade in other pubs) we are, in my view, hastening the decline of proper pubs and we could be heading to a world of converted shops as our leading ontrade beer emporia.
As I said, I’m not against micropubs, and if they meet a demand and prove successful then good luck to them. I might even enjoy the occasional pint in one. But visiting them and writing about them isn’t something I choose to pursue as a leisure interest. And, to be honest, in general I’d much rather plonk myself down in Wetherspoon’s.

14 comments:

  1. Not sure Wetherspoon's is the summum bonum either.

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    1. Oh, as I'm sure you'll have gathered, I'm no great fan of Spoons, but at least they offer comfortable seating, anonymity if you want it, and a wide customer mix.

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  2. Given the choice the micropub beats spoons all the way for me.

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    1. Unless I feel "at home" in a pub I'm never really going to enjoy the beer, no matter how good it is.

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    2. Excellent point and very true.

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  3. That's exactly my feeling as well. They're certainly taking custom from other pubs, though I suspect in South London they're encouraging middle-aged blokes who would otherwise spend more time at home with bottles.

    People who go to micros actually seem to like high tables and sociability. As I'm only making a few dozen one-off trips to them, I'm happy to chat and mix, but I'd rarely go back. No lager drinkers and few young people, male or female.

    Martin

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  4. In general I like micropubs, but precisely for the reason you don't. I like going into a pub and chatting to random people (including the landlord) and that almost always happens in micropubs. I don't know whether it is the size, or just the type of person who frequents them, but the ones I've been to have all been very social places. That said, they probably aren't the sort of place I would go to spend an evening, just an hour or so.

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  5. micro pubs are great. it keeps all the beardy weirdies in their own special place to talk about hops and well clear of actual pubs normal people go in.

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  6. Stanley Blenkinsop18 April 2017 at 19:49

    My moments of peak frisson of tumescence usually occur when I walk into rather plain pubs,often in market towns that are a little rough at the edges and find myself in a proper no-nonsense boozer.
    Just after midday is a favourite time.If Radio 2 is on the wireless I know I've hit the motherlode.
    The landlord is often overweight and a bit pasty,wheezing from the half packet of John Player Blue that has got him through a late breakfast after last night's heavy session,shifting some barrels in the cellar and sending the missus off to the cash and carry for the nuts and crisps.
    His hand is a little unsteady holding the glass underneath the local best bitter tap as my pint goes in but I cut him some slack as I reach for the unread newspaper on the bar.It's always the Daily Mail.
    He and I care little for conversation but that's fine by me.If I want a chat about inconsequential bollocks I'll start on the second person coming into the bar.
    He's always an old feller with a scraggy dog.He always smokes roll-ups.
    I can while away a couple of hours watching this theatre of mediocre normality.The players arrive at their usual times and go through their usual performance - joshing the landlord,complaining of their aches and pains or some slight from a neighbour.Anything that justifies them getting out of the house and socialsing with fellow humans.
    I know the same thing is happening in pubs up and down the land at that time.It makes me feel comfortable.
    And I really don't want much more than that at my stage of life.
    I don't mind craft pubs.If I was four decades younger I'd be in them myself.How else does a young buck get his end away ?

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    1. Lovely piece of writing, Mr Blenkinsop :-)

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    2. A moon under water for our times.

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  7. Two more downsides of micropubs that I could have mentioned are their often limited opening hours, and their often limited toilet facilities. Personally, I'm not really prepared to spend any time drinking in somewhere with a single unisex WC, which could potentially lead to some very awkward and embarrassing situations.

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    1. Not if there's an adequate lock on the door, surely?

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    2. I was thinking more of the person on the outside...

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