In an earlier era, it might have been called “back to basics”, a return to the two core themes of the British pub that have defined it since the first Anglo-Saxon alewife hung a green bush from the eaves of her hovel to show that she was open for business: drink and chat.
At least three more “micro-pubs” popped up this week, one on the edge of Wolverhampton claiming to be the first such outlet in the West Midlands, another in Hucknall, Nottinghamshire and a third (which was granted its licence but still has to obtain planning permission) in Devizes, Wiltshire. These openings bring to more than two dozen the number of micro-pubs opened since Martyn Hillier founded the genre in 2005 with The Butcher’s Arms in Herne, Kent.
For five years, Hillier marched pretty much alone, before a burst of openings beginning in the second half of 2010. Seven new micro-pubs appeared in 2012, and ten so far this year. This may not yet be a tidal wave: but it certainly appears to be more than a ripple.
The essence of a micro-pub is not just that it is small – most have only one room, and a capacity of no more than 25 or so customers before things start to get uncomfortably sweaty – but that it eschews almost everything the modern pub chain owner would regard as essential in today’s British boozer. There will be no TV, juke box or gaming machines, and no food except traditional snacks. It will almost certainly sell only cask beer (most likely from local small brewers), cider and wine: no spirits, no famous-name lagers. The big opportunity for entertainment is the chance to chat with the other customers, who may or may not be complete strangers.
This is, of course, very far from a new idea. The local village alehouse provided just these facilities for centuries. A tremendous boost to the country’s stock of small drinkeries came with the Beerhouse Act of 1830, which resulted in tens of thousands of mostly small beer-only on-licence outlets with limited facilities opening in cities, towns and villages: the micro-pub is in essence the beerhouse for the 21st century. While licensing magistrates began to cull these beerhouses in their hundreds at the start of the 20th century, shutting them down as “surplus”, many survived pretty much unaltered to well past the Second World War, except that almost all eventually acquired licences allowing them to sell spirits, along with the trappings of modernity: not just a proper bar, a carpeted floor, electric lighting and decent toilets (I still remember fondly the outside gents at an isolated beerhouse in the Hertfordshire countryside in the 1970s, where you could gaze up at the stars while going about your business) but gaming machines, televisions, keg beers and lagers, food beyond crisps and pickled eggs.
As the very last of the unreformed beerhouses disappear, however (there are reckoned to be fewer than 20 “unaltered” pubs left in Britain), the micro-pub appears to be resurrecting their best values. The slow rise since the 1950s of the home as the place for entertainment and relaxation, and drinking, rather than the pub, placed increasing pressure on pubs to attract people through their doors. But pubs’ efforts to compete with the home, paradoxically, badly damaged their ability to be what the American sociologist Ray Oldenburg called “the third place”, that haven which was not-home and not-work where people could go and relax from the pressures of home and work, and talk and laugh and joke and interact with others with whom one had no relationship of responsibility. Instead many pubs became places where it was impossible to relax: too noisy, full of flickering distractions, full of strangers who you couldn’t chat with, even if you wanted to, because you couldn’t hear each other.
There has been, and still is, a suggestion that the coffee bar is replacing the pub as the “third place”, the community hub where friends meet up and meet new friends. But to believe this is to underestimate two important factors: the importance of alcohol as a social lubricant, and relaxant, and the role that the pub plays in Britain’s image of itself. Think of the vital parts that The Rovers Return, The Queen Vic, The Bull in Ambridge have their hugely popular fictional societies. Britons of all kinds and classes wish to live in communities where they had a Rovers Return or a Bull of their own to use as their third place. Our self-image is that of a pub-going nation. No Briton ever said after work: “Coming down the coffee bar?”.
The micro-pub movement, by stripping back to the basics, appears to be trying to fill that need for a third place where people can interact with others in the community that many clearly feel is lost in many pubs today. It is a point that seems as yet unremarked, incidentally, that the micro-pub movement only took off after the ban on smoking in public places: with barely one in five people in Britain smoking today, it appears too few people wanted to spend time in small smoke-filled rooms for the idea of a pre-smoking ban micro-pub to work.
There will have to be at least a hundred times more micro-pubs open before it can even start to be called a genuine movement. They will have to be opening in more varied places than small towns. But if and when that starts happening, pub chain owners are going to have to think about whether the pub offer has become unnecessarily overcomplicated in the past 50 years.
Martyn Cornell is managing editor of Propel Info