Monday, 6 March 2017

What no micro-pub?

One thing which is peculiar to this part of Kent; certainly when compared to other parts of the county, is the complete absence of any micro-pubs. Given that the micro-pub “phenomena” originated in Kent, there is not a single example amongst the four towns (Edenbridge, Sevenoaks, Tonbridge and Tunbridge Wells), which make up this corner of West Kent.

Our nearest micro-pubs are in Gravesend, Maidstone, and Petts Wood, but none of these destinations are exactly on the doorstep, so unless inhabitants of this locality, fancy embarking on a bus or a train journey for their "micro-pub fix", they are well and truly stuffed.

Tonbridge came quite close to getting a micro, a couple of years ago, but after taking the option of a lease on a vacant small shop at the north end of the High Street, and obtaining a Premises License, the potential proprietor got cold feet and aborted the project. The former shop is now an art gallery, and as far as I am aware is doing OK: not that Tonbridge is known as a centre for fine art!

Fortunately we will soon be getting our own branch of Fuggles, ironically not too far away from the aborted micro-pub. The Tonbridge Fuggles though, will operate as a full-blown pub, along the same lines as the highly successful original Tunbridge Wells Beer Cafe, and not as a micro-pub.

Something tells me I ought to be disappointed by the lack of a true micro-pub in the area, but strangely enough I am not; and whilst I think the basic concept is sound, I don’t see it as a panacea for the ills currently afflicting the pub trade. My micro-pub experiences have largely been confined to Thanet and Gravesend, and whilst I have visited some excellent establishments, particularly in East Kent, I have been in one or two real duds.

I feel that the guidelines set out by the Micro-Pub Association, are too rigid; even though I accept they are laid out that way in order to encourage a particular clientele and discourage various other sorts. I am also not a huge fan of the really tiny ones, where if someone wants to visit the Gents, everyone has to make way for them; or if you turn round too quickly you are likely to knock someone’s pint out of their hands!

Also, whilst I am normally quite a gregarious individual, there are times when I prefer my own company, and want to sit quietly and read a book, or just watch the world go by. I know what you are saying – don’t go into such places when you’re feeling grumpy or unsociable, and of course you are right, but as a micro-pub will often provide the best selection and most unusual selection of beers within a town, there is sometimes nowhere else suitable to go.

Micro-pubs are also known for not doing food; certainly nothing beyond basic snacks such as filled rolls, pork pies or scotch eggs. Again, for many people, this is a big plus point, and as someone who frequents pubs a lot less frequently than I once did, it’s not really incumbent on me to dictate the food offering. 

So should the famous Herne – Butcher’s Arms model remain the gold standard for a true micro, or is here scope for enhancement and improvement? Personally, whilst I would like the emphasis to remain on locally sourced, cask-ales, I see no reason why a couple of slightly more adventurous “key-keg” beers could not be stocked. Also, why not stock a couple of genuine, continental Pilsners, which would keep lager lovers happy, without attracting the Fosters and Carling “lout” drinkers. I also don’t see a problem with offering a small range of quality malt whiskies or artisan gins and vodkas. Then there are the wine drinkers of course, and here something rather better than Cash & Carry, “bag-in-a-box” plonk, wouldn’t go amiss.

On reflection, I would leave the food offering alone, as not only would it be impractical, it would also be financially unviable, to employ a chef. In addition, most micro-pubs aren’t large enough (yes I know the clue is in the name) and besides, the smell of cooking is enough to put many drinkers off.

So perhaps with a bit of tweaking, the “enhanced” micro-pub could be the way forward. Or perhaps not!


Dave said...

I'm watching the evolution of the micropub with great interest. I am really not sure where this turns out. I too have mixed feelings, but I have to admit one of my best pub experiences was in the Butcher's Arms in Herne. I still laugh at some of the conversation I heard in there.

Anonymous said...

Interesting to read your take on micros Paul. Very similar to mine. Clearly some towns and suburbs have a lot cheaper premises than other. A Fuggles with £5 craft keg and excellent platters is going to draw in a lot more punters and cash than a tightly drawn micro. Fuggles is great for Tonbridge I think.

The space issue really puts me off tiny micros. There's often no free tables so you end up sharing, whether you or the incumbent wants it ! Not places to take your book or paper in general.

The owners and customers are nearly always lovely and chatty, but nearly always blokes in their early retirement years, and I like a wider mix in a pub.

DaveS said...

I think the key thing about the micropub model is that they focus on doing one thing well and are small enough that the local market for that thing will sustain the business. Typically that seems to be doing real ale for middle-aged blokes, but if you found another niche to fill or a tweak to the offer then I don't think your non-compliance with the Herne Convention would do your business any harm.

Malcolm Nicholls said...

What is a "true" micro pub? I don't see that the Micropub Association, or a licensee in Kent, can lay down strict guidelines for anyone.
Weal Ales have a pub near me. It stocks 6 cask beers and 4 keg, a dozen gins and 15 or so wines, it also plays background music.
Is it a micro? As it holds only 30 people I would say that it is,
There are common characteristics within micros, I had a go recently on Martin's blog site at identifying some of them. However as the number of micros grows, seemingly by the week, they will inevitably become more differentiated, particularly in terms of product range.
Stafford now has two micros owned by the same fella, but they have different design and very different product ranges.
Finally, as Martin says property costs are key, not just rent but the dreaded business rates, It would be tough to make a return in the more affluent parts of the South East (or Alderley Edge).

Paul Bailey said...

Thanks everyone for your comments. The MPA/Herne Convention is only a set of guidelines, of course and I’m sure the association would not refuse membership to an establishment breaking some of their guidelines.

Unrelated to this blog, I was chatting to a work colleague today about pubs in general and micro-pubs in particular. I think his wife’s reported comment to the effect of, “I’m not the only woman in here, again!” rather neatly sums up many micro-pubs.

High rents, in this part of Kent, are undoubtedly a factor in the absence of micro-pubs in the area, and the proposed hike in business rates will not help either. As for running one, having run an off-licence for nearly six years, I think the novelty would soon wear off; certainly for me.

Many CAMRA branches seem to have taken micro-pubs to heart, which is great if you’re in search of some good local beer and the company of your fellow men. Not so good if you want a little more, like a hot meal and a good mix of clientele.

Dave said...

Interesting that women feel that way. The same idea is included in a list of reasons for the rise of micropubs on RM's site. The commentator stated that women are more comfortable in micropubs than in traditional pubs. I hadn't picked up on this myself since my wife loves the traditional pubs. I wonder if the more traditional pubs can increase their appeal to women?

Paul Bailey said...

Dave, my experience of micro-pubs is rather limited, so I may well be wrong in my observation about them not appealing to women. There does seem to be a preponderance of retired males making up their clientele, but this might be because my visits to micro-pubs have largely been during working hours, when younger members of society are more likely to be beavering away at their respective places of employment.

Dave said...

I did not mean to question your perceptions. I was more commenting on the reverse thoughts from others. My experience, very limited, is that a lot of women do visit micropubs. However, I never felt like traditional pubs were off putting to women. I would have said I saw a fair number of women in traditional pubs.

Paul Narramore said...

I love micropubs but like you have visited one or two duds as well. My favourites are the 1250 from Victoria in Strood (surely a benchmark as to to create a superb micropub), the Flippin Frog in Rochester (roast dinners and nobody but nobody complains about the smell of food) and the Admiral's Arm in Queenborough (I visited there yesterday). The Isle of Thanet has many and by using the superb and frequent bud service, the Loop) many are reachable.