No lager, no food, no bar, and a pub no bigger than your living room – I investigate the ‘micropub’ phenomenon that’s attracting a growing band of regulars dedicated to real ale served in the old fashioned way
A well-dressed group with pull-along suitcases peer around the door of the Rat Race Ale House at Hartlepool Rail Station and looking across the small space with its benches and newspaper racks wonder if they’ve stumbled on the waiting room by mistake.
One of the party takes a stride across the room, searching for the bar, and on pushing open the back door finds he’s arrived on another station platform. Resigned, he slumps into a chair and asks: “Can I have a lager please?”
Surprise is a regular occurrence at the Rat Race. Landlord Pete Morgan doesn’t have a bar, or a jukebox or Sky Sports for that matter, and, as his numerous hand-written signs will tell you, if you’re after lager, or alcopops, or food – you’ll only find British real ale and pork scratchings.
Morgan’s 20 by 16ft pub is a ‘micropub’ – one of a growing band of tiny British real ale pubs stripping back the frippery of modern drinking barns in favour of no-nonsense shrines to great ale and good company.
Martyn Hillier, evangelical promoter of the concept and landlord of possibly the smallest freehouse in England, became the father of this quiet revolution when he gave a speech to the real ale faithful at the Campaign for Real Ale’s AGM in 2009.
“There are 700 or so microbreweries in this country making real ale but with nowhere to sell it. The big pubs try to please everyone and they end up pleasing no one – I’m not here to please,” says Hillier, who has been dishing out pints inside a former butcher’s shop at his 15-seater Butcher’s Arms micropub, in Herne village, Kent, for the last five years. “I coined the phrase ‘micropub’ but kept it quiet until the AGM. Now everyone’s at it!”
Since his speech, three more micropubs – none of them bigger than the average living room – have opened in Kent, Nottinghamshire and Hartlepool, two are set to open in Westgate-on-Sea and Warwickshire next year, and more are at the planning stages. Characterised by their lack of jukeboxes, televisions and branded drinks, they offer bundles of old fashioned charm, conversation and well-kept real ale.
Real ale and recession
Morgan was one of the early converts, using a £9,000 redundancy package to set up the Rat Race from scratch. He proudly shows off his eight pub tables bought from Ebay for 99p, his bookshelves made from old decking planks and the racks of pint glasses scavenged from beer festivals.
“They’re the perfect recessionary business,” says Morgan, who has also built his own ‘cellar’ behind a partition wall, from behind which he dishes out pints to customers tableside. ”It’s a low-cost start-up that’s not just chasing the latest fad.”
Morgan sources and tastes all the beers himself – more than 1,380 different types since it opened in 2009 – and, in this way, the Rat Race is indicative of the advantages of these tiny pubs. Unlike larger chains, micropubs can buy the ale they, and their customers, want rather than offer bland and ubiquitous beer some office-bound buyer has sourced. It means they can support the local breweries, and, without even a bar standing between licensee and customer, there are few of the usual barriers between drinkers and hosts in micropubs, with enthusiastic beer fans having an impact on what the pub serves.
“We may be small but, ultimately, it’s all about the beer,” says Morgan, whose pub opening times – 12.02-14.15 and 16.02- 20.15 – were influenced by the train timetable. “Every other pub sells lager and crisps and plays loud music but I wanted to be different. I have never had the slightest doubt it would work.”
The micropub spirit
The set-up is remarkably simple with budding micropubbers needing to apply for a premises licence (around £70 a year), a personal licence (up to £165 for a recognised course) and change of use planning permission (around £230) from their local council.
Fellow micropub landlord Phil Ayling says he set up his Just Beer pub, located in an old stable block in Newark, Nottinghamshire, for around £33K. Conversely, at 16 by 40ft, Just Beer is also one of the largest micropubs in the UK!
“Out of work for 18 months – and with a lifelong interest in beer – everyone said I should open a pub,” says Ayling. “I didn’t fancy running a big one but because this is so small, we just needed a steady trickle of people. First indications are we should be turning a profit by year three.”
So what’s the appeal of these diminutive drinkeries? “There’s no set definition – it’s just the spirit of the thing – a modern pub with traditional values,” says Ayling, who plans to expand the concept into other Nottinghamshire villages. “Years ago there would be a pub on every street corner, but they’ve all gone. Other pubs have lost their way with big screen tellies and piped music; they don’t know or care about the beer. I think the little pubs will come back – it’s something I’m very passionate about.”
Like the Rat Race, all the ales at Just Beer are sourced from small and micro- UK breweries, and – fittingly for a micropub – Ayling has just secured a deal to sell beers brewed at the smallest community brewery in the world, the 5ft square Bragdy Gwynant brewery in Capel Bangor, near Aberystwyth, which was formerly an outside toilet! The pub is also a ‘Book Crossing Zone’, whereby customers can pick up free books and pass them on to other regulars.
Companionship and conversation
Colin Aris, landlord of The Conqueror Alehouse, in Ramsgate, who set up his micropub inside a former sweetshop last year – and sells ales predominantly from Kent breweries, as well as the occasional British-sourced “foreigner” – was also inspired by Hillier’s AGM speech.
“Martyn told me: ‘all you need is three barrels of beer and a toilet’ and I knew it was for me! I see micropubs as an extension of an Englishman’s willingness to open his house to friend and stranger alike. It’s sharing companionship over a well-kept pint of ale.”
Above all, micropubs are characterised by their intimacy and simplicity, embodying these times of austerity in the way superpubs marked the boom times. They hark back to the pubs of yesteryear – where everyone knew your name – and, it seems, there’s already a steady stream of regulars.
“It’s like the old days,” says Butcher’s Arms’ customer Ian Whale. “The beer is all natural with no nasty chemicals, and Martyn knows what he’s doing with it and how to look after it. There’s no bar, just benches and a butcher’s block that acts as a table, and people sit, stand and slouch – it’s like being in someone’s front room – and we all have a chat.”
He continues: “All the regulars have nicknames: Glyn the Roofer, Spudnose Ken and Alan the Onion – he brings the jars of pickled onions – and we’ll all talk and eat onions, and sometimes there’s pickled eggs! There’s three pubs in the village but this one is at the heart and sums up the spirit of the community; it’s more of a drinking club than a pub.”
Andrew Aitken, whose golden retriever Barnie regularly meets with whippet chum Charlie over a handful of pork scratchings in the dog-friendly Just Beer, agrees. “Bigger pubs can be scary, but this is warm, welcoming and safe. I’m trying beers I would never have dreamed of trying before and every second or third day there’s a new beer – it’s a real ale Mecca!” says Aitken.
Back at the Rat Race, regular Chris Frank pops in to nurse a pint and play dominoes with his pals. “It’s the smallness that makes micropubs what they are. If I taste a nice real ale somewhere, I can pop along and tell Pete and he’ll get it in for us,” he says.
“More often than not we’ll just drink halves – it’s not about getting drunk, it’s about enjoying the drink – and it’s the way pubs were in my dad’s era: five-star service, quietness and always people you know.”
Across the room, the well-dressed group are still drinking and chatting. It looks likely they’ll experience the other regular occurrence at the Rat Race – missing their train.
First published in Great British Food (updated for this blog)