Are micropubs and tap rooms genuine contenders against the brewing behemoths? More than that, could they be the future of British pub-going? Find out our full thoughts here!
The Office of National Statistics confirmed, in figures released at the end of 2018, that nearly a quarter (23%) of British pubs have closed since 2008, with so-called “pubcos” sacrificing many of their smaller outlets in favour of larger venues.
To a self-proclaimed beer enthusiast and regular patron of the ‘spit and sawdust’ end of the pub market the figures are hugely worrying, though not surprising. I’ve spent much of the last decade in a small village in my native Gloucestershire and the complaints from an everchanging roster of local pub landlords have been the same: exorbitant beer prices from tied breweries, entrepreneurial know-how punished as rising profits are snatched back in increasing rents, and all of this as competitors are boarded-up, shut down and handed over to housing developers.
The small rustic pubs in which I enjoyed my first underage pint, my first lock in, and my first legal pint are all either closed or under threat of closure. At the same time (so the report tells us), national turnover from pubs has remained steady: displaced patrons forced to look elsewhere, often in the direction of the same brewery’s larger, higher turnover establishments.
It’s a trend I would hate to see continue. Britain’s pubs are important for lots of reasons but in our increasingly secular society, it is their role as the hub of the community that cannot be underestimated. The local pub is a place for people to come together, to meet - and occasionally fall out with - like-minded individuals; a place where dinner table rules barring talk of politics or religion are as fluid and changeable as the best guest ale. And a place where the buildings themselves are of importance too, a collective sense of camaraderie and belonging stretching across the decades, informing their histories with the stories of the people that pass through.
Within this context, the closure of 23% of public houses in a decade becomes nothing short of a national tragedy. By no means the greatest one we face as a nation but a tragedy nonetheless. And one of identity. It’s 11,000 great British pubs and their associated stories, characters and ways of life resigned to history books and local nostalgia.
And now for the good news…
If there is a positive to be found amongst these depressing trends, it is that new pubs are opening too.
Relocating to North Leicestershire last year and keen to explore the pubs surrounding my new home, I have had cause to frequent many surviving (and indeed flourishing) rustic pubs and free houses, and have also been introduced to a smattering of micropubs and brewery taps. Largely unknown to me previously, they speak to the real ale (not to mention cider, wine and spirit) enthusiast and offer a genuine alternative to chain gastropubs and sports bars.
Now, I’m aware that neither micropubs nor tap rooms are a new phenomenon (the UK's first micropub opened back in 2005) but their abundance around the Midlands, with new ones popping up all the time, suggests a definite appetite for their grownup, epicurean approach to alcohol consumption. But, before we get into what they do well, and explore the reasons why they are sprouting up like never before, we might be better served by starting with some rough, and up for debate, definitions.
What is a Micropub?
A micropub, according to The Micropub Association is “a small free house which listens to its customers, mainly serves cask ales, promotes conversation, shuns all forms of electronic entertainment and dabbles in traditional pub snacks.” So far, so good.
Their website boasts a total of 343 signed-up micropub association members. However, a quick search by area indicates a regional bias that might explain why the concept of them was, until fairly recently, new to me.
What is a Tap Room?
A tap room on the other hand, or a ‘brewery tap’, is an outlet for a brewery’s beer, often in the brewery itself, but increasingly in taprooms opened by the brewery in towns nearby, thereby blurring the micropub/taproom line. A tap room is distinct from a brewpub though, where the beer is brewed onsite.
The terminology, as with all language, is constantly evolving but the take-home message appears to be that pubs come in all shapes and sizes, a truth borne out by the most meagre research, or indeed, the shortest of pub crawls.
I mentioned earlier an apparent regional bias: a quick search on the Microbrewery Association website confirms that there are 39 micropubs listed as ‘close to’ my North Leicestershire home, compared to 8 near Bristol, just 16 in the London area and a more respectable 28 near Manchester.
Loughborough & North Leicestershire CAMRAs pub of the year list for 2018 highlights its acceptance of these new forms of pub-going. Their pub of the year was the Needle & Pin, a Loughborough micropub, and their Micropub of the Year award (at time of writing the 2019 winners have yet to be announced) went to The Tap at No 76, a tap room/micropub (blurring those pesky definitions) in Ashby-da-le-Zouch.
It seemed important to pay a visit.
I know Ashby-de-la-Zouch only as the hometown of art-punk/indie rock band Young Knives who I saw play live around Gloucestershire more than a decade ago. Unsurprisingly, the North West Leicestershire market town’s history stretches back a little further. The ruin of a 12th-century castle is my first clue, and then, stepping out onto the high street, the Elizabethan timbers of a charity shop and, to a lesser extent, of the Bulls Head pub.
Ashby isn’t short on pubs. A quick scan confirms three or four along the high street with more to be found only short walks away, which might suggest that it's an odd location in which to open a new one. In fact, the first thing you notice about the Tap at No 76 is just how easy it would be to miss.
It's a feature of a large number of micropubs, repurposed high street shops in many cases, that they fit seamlessly into their surroundings (the Needle & Pin in Loughborough nestles between a Kebab House and a fast food pizza place) and don't immediately shout ‘pub'. This is by no means an accident. They're appealing to a different breed of pub-goer and eschew the traditional pub sign and aesthetic in favour of a more refined approach (albeit compromised slightly in this instance by the proud displaying of their Micropub of the Year credentials).
Inside is spectacular. A wooden floor leads to a robust dark-wood bar lined with gleaming hand pumps; behind that, racks of gravity dispense casks. There's bare brick above a supporting beam and a cosy, welcoming atmosphere aided by the low ceiling and the warmth of a wood burner that entices you into the back of the open-plan space.
The drink selection is, of course, top-notch (CAMRA know their beer). Most of the ale comes from the pub’s own Tollgate Brewery, situated in the grounds of the nearby National Trust-owned Calke Abbey estate but they also engage in brewery to brewery beer swaps, so local drops from elsewhere are available. The Tollgate brews range from the 8.3% Ra Ra Rasputin chocolate stout to the 3.8% Raspberry Pale, which I opt for and it’s crisp, flat and crystal clear with just the right level of hinted raspberry.
Sitting by the aforementioned log burner in this immaculate space it doesn't take an expert to see that the micropub formula (as set out by Martyn Hillier, landlord of Britain's first micropub The Butcher's Arms in Hearne, Kent, and co-founder of the Micropub Association), high-quality cask ales, an outright ban on all forms of electronic entertainment and a music-free space that promotes conversation- tick, tick and tick- is a winning one.
But it's the last of these tenets that is most extraordinary. Occasionally, the establishments in question being popular and seating at a premium, it has been necessary on previous micropub visits to sit on the end of an already occupied table, whether with an individual bent over a weekend paper or an already established group, deep in conversation. And every time, the ‘promotion of conversation’ rule has been strictly observed, less as a rule, more as a manifestation of something intrinsic to the building itself. The weather, help with a crossword clue, laments on the state of the nation- all have been addressed and used to open micropub discourse.
Today, our interlocutors are on the next table but just as keen to instigate a chat. We learn that The Tap is a former tea room and that the pub next door has an old well out back and a rumoured network of tunnels leading under the high street, and to the castle.
(I’m not suggesting ‘traditional’ pubs are silent, unfriendly places. It’s the ease with which conversation flows that is most striking. Certainly more readily than in a chain sports bar, where the limit of conversation would be a ‘Sit down!’ as you approach the bar and block someone's view of the football.)
Whatever has been done to promote conversation, be it witchcraft or Feng Shui, it has worked splendidly. The conversation, not to mention the atmosphere, the fire’s inviting glow and the crisp chill of a Saturday afternoon between Christmas and New Year just beyond the entrance, mean it’s not an easy place to leave, and when it becomes unavoidable, we do so already planning a return trip.
One for the Road…
A worthy winner then. CAMRA are beer experts and the beer is faultless. Having said which, and in view of the figures described above, should advocates of the more traditional British pub be worried that CAMRA, with their visibility and prestige, are abandoning existing outlets in favour of championing these newer venues? On balance, I think not.
Firstly, that would greatly underestimate the work CAMRA do in pub protection. Secondly, it would erroneously paint micropubs and tap rooms solely as purveyors of ale, which does them a massive disservice. I have frequented public houses all my adult life and the micropubs and tap rooms I have visited encapsulate the very best of what pubs can offer. Against the odds they are finding the means and the will to open up in numbers, providing an environment for new stories, new histories, and new ways to describe what a pub fundamentally is, and how a pub-going experience can be.
Which brings me back to the question posed at the start of this article. Are micropubs and taprooms the future of British pub-going? And the answer is that I hope not. Or at least not in isolation. Because 11,000 pubs were irretrievably lost in the last 10 years and it’s a trend that needs to be bucked. Among the 39,000 remaining pubs are many that share a complex history with their environment and deserve at least a share in that environment’s future. They won’t be large venues, run by pubcos as homogenised and chained McPubs, they will be smaller, quirkier, charming places out in rural communities or in thriving town centres.
They will be doing many of the things that micropubs and taprooms do so well: high-quality product, full of heart, at affordable prices, in a space and atmosphere that encourages conversation. They will act as beacons, bringing whole communities together, adding to - and maintaining - the diversity that makes the British pub landscape so special and so worthy of saving.
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