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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.