Partial Pub Preservation: Hermit Micropubs?

Many historic pub building are too big to be sustainable but could micropubs be the answer to their salvation rather than, as now, merely added competition?

We’ve been thinking quite a lot about the problem of big old pubs in recent years. Many of them, especially those built between the wars, were constructed on the principle that one smart new pub replacing five old beerhouses was the way forward — easier to manage, easier to police, brighter and more airy. In practice, that wasn’t conducive to creating atmosphere, and they were both difficult and expensive to maintain as buildings. Which is why so many are now branches of Tesco or McDonald’s or whatever.

In 2014, we suggested this might be preferable to abandonment or dereliction because at least the building is occupied and cared for, and can be appreciated in its setting, even if you can’t get a pint. But, in emotional terms, it is sad to see, and we kept wondering if there might be some way to keep at least one part of those pubs operating for the benefit of boozers, behind a proper pub-like facade.

Then researching the new book (all good bookshops, always be closing, etc. etc.) we visited the Fellowship in Bellingham, south London, and heard about the current owners’ pragmatic plans to divide the vast building for use not only as a pub but also as a music rehearsal space, a microbrewery, a cinema, and so on.

At the same time, we’ve got to know micropubs — in fact, our new local, the Draper’s in Bristol, is a notable example of the trend. At their best, they can feel more pubby than many echoing, empty, over-grand pubs, focused as they are on beer and not much else. And, as passion projects, they often come with a warm glow and unique character missing from corporate, managed establishments, harking back to the days of Thompson’s Beerhouse.

So, putting two and two together, here’s our suggestion: developers in the process of converting pubs for other uses should be encouraged to make one part of the building available for use as a micropub, even if the rest becomes a fast food outlet, supermarket or nursery. After all, most of the pubs we’re talking about have, or had, multiple rooms and certainly multiple doors, so the separation between residential occupiers and/or shop customers ought to be quite easy.

The Greenford Hotel, west London.

Quibble #1: ‘Developers are mercenary cynics — why would they ever do this?’ Perhaps for the same reasons they chose to include a brewpub at the Westfield Shopping Centre in Stratford. (DISCLOSURE: Boak’s little brother works at Tap East.) That is, partly because beer is cool and having a pub/bar/brewery on site sells the ‘experience’; and partly because it helps with planning negotiations — a contribution to the community in exchange for the right to invade its space and change the character of the area. In other words, it’s a PR exercise, but that’s fine by us if the outcome is anything other than no pub at all.

Quibble #2: ‘Micropubs are awful — middle-class, middle-aged, not proper pubs.’ This would be somewhere in between, wouldn’t it? It would probably — hopefully — keep the old name and sign; and might even, if we’re lucky, retain at least part of the pub’s original interior, even if the rest has been turned over to self-service customer interaction nodes. And the perceived middle-classness of micropubs (debatable) helps with the planning negotiations as what is thought (rightly or wrongly) to be a respectable type of pub replaces pubs that have invariably become the very opposite.

Quibble #3: ‘This is Quisling collaboration with the enemy! No compromise!’ Skilled, determined campaigners with the support of heritage organisations and local government can win this kind of battle to keep pubs going, and it seems to be happening more and more often, but there are still places where forcing a huge old pub to remain a huge old pub, though it might feel like a victory, is just prolonging the misery. A pub with room for 300 drinkers, but where 300 drinkers are not be found in the surrounding streets, is going to struggle even if it is saved. But there might be 30 potential regulars, if not in the immediate area then perhaps a little beyond, such is the allure of the micropub to a certain kind of drinker. This is a way of keeping a foot in the door.

But, anyway, this is us thinking aloud again in the hope that (a) people might tell us if and where this has already happened or (b) point us to, say, planning documents which explain why it hasn’t. So, go for it!

A Cornish Micropub… Kind Of

We heard that a micropub had opened in St Ives back in the summer but hadn’t got round to visiting until last Friday when we popped across on the bus.

Contrary to rumour, it wasn’t hard to find — there’s a prominent gated entrance on the harbour-front, next door to Pizza Express. In true micropub fashion, however, its opening hours are limited and we found ourselves wandering about waiting for 4pm to roll around.

"Alehouse Yard" street sign.Signs on the gate: 'Micropub Open 4pm.'

Continue reading “A Cornish Micropub… Kind Of”

Impressions of Pubs in Newcastle

Based on our week holidaying there we reckon Newcastle is a great city, a great place to drink, and we’ll definitely be going back.

For one thing, we loved the sense that there’s less of a stark line there between ‘craft’ and ‘trad’, posh and rough, town and suburb, than in some other parts of the country. The Free Trade and The Cumberland, for example, were both just the right side of grotty. There and elsewhere, basic but decent pints were available at reasonable prices, alongside more extravagant, trendier products, with no sense that one is better than the other.

Newcastle Breweries branded Formica tables.

At the Gosforth Hotel we had what might be our beer of the year, Allendale Pennine Pale, at £2.85 a pint, but we could have gone for pints of keg BrewDog Punk at £3.55 — about the price of Bass in Penzance — if we’d been in that mood. Prices were displayed clearly in front of the pumps so there was no need for embarrassing conversations or warnings over price. In fact, prices were plainly on show, as far as we can recall, everywhere we went.

All of this made for genuinely mixed crowds, even if there was sometimes a self-segregation into lounge and public bar crowds — literally where the partitions survived.

The Crown Posada was one of a handful of pubs that was so good we made time to visit twice. Even on a busy weekend night in town we didn’t have any trouble getting in or getting a seat. The beer was great, the service was fantastic, and there were cellophane wrapped sandwiches going at two quid a pop. It’s a tourist attraction but not a tourist trap. When we went back on Sunday lunchtime, though, we found it deserted — just us and a barman — and, as a result, much less charming.

The more full-on craft outlets — BrewDog, The Bridge Tavern brewpub — seemed out of place, superimposed rather than integrated, as if they might have been picked up in any another city and dropped into place. (If we lived there, we no doubt welcome the variety.)

An inter-war improved pub with 'Flaming Grill' branding.
The Corner House, Heaton, built c.1936.

There aren’t as many inter-war ‘improved pubs’ in Newcastle as in Birmingham (on which more in our next post) but we found a couple, manorial in scale, chain-branded, but otherwise doing what they were built to do nearly a century ago: providing un-threatening environments in which men, women and children can socialise together over beer, food and afternoon tea. They’re not much good for serious beer lovers — just lots of Greene King IPA, well off its own turf, but even that was in good nick when we did try it.

We came away with a clear impression of what seemed to us to be the dominant breweries in the region: Allendale, Mordue and Wylam were almost everywhere. We’d tried Wylam beers in the past and thought they were decent but we’ve noticed a renewed buzz around them on social media in the last year; now we see why.

Almost every pub we went in had one beer we really wanted to drink and most had a couple more we were keen to try, or already knew we liked. Across the board there was a tendency to provide a range from dark to light, and from weak to strong. Only in one pub-bar (the otherwise likeable Cluny) did we find ourselves thinking that the vast range of hand-pumps might be a bit ambitious — the beer wasn’t off, just a bit tired.

Light shining through coloured glass into a dark pub.
Stained glass at the Crown Posada.

But even if the beer had been terrible everywhere it wouldn’t have mattered too much because the pubs are just so pretty — stained glass, fired tiles, decorative brick, shining brass, layers of patina — and often set beneath the cathedral-like arches of the city’s many great bridges.

And, finally, not in Newcastle but a short train ride away in Hartlepool, we got to visit our first micropub, The Rat Race — the second ever, which opened in 2009. We stayed for a couple of hours, interviewed the landlord, Peter Morgan, and chatted to some of his regulars, and to others who drifted through. We think we get it now and, yes, we reckon they’re probably a good thing.

Interior of the Rat Race micropub.
The Rat Race. Yes, that’s Astroturf on the floor.

This is a part of the world which, to our eyes, definitely seems to have a healthy beer culture. If you decide to pay a visit yourself — and you should — do check out these local publications for tips:

  • Tyneside & Northumberland CAMRA’s Canny Bevvy newsletter
  • Independent magazine Cheers North East edited by local expert Alastair Gilmour

News, Nuggets & Longreads 12 March 2016

Here’s the most noteworthy beer- and pub-writing of the last week, from home-brewing to the March blues for brewers.

→ For Vice‘s ‘Munchies’ section Chloe Scott-Moncrieff reports on ‘London’s Secret Homebrewing Club’:

Around the long table, I meet Tom Burrows, a 28-year-old physicist… “I think you can find lots of scientists in homebrewing,” he admits. “Although I know an accountant who doesn’t stick to recipes and while he has some misses, he’s created some brilliant beers.” He sounds slightly envious.

(Via @totalcurtis.)

→ Frank Curtis works with the malting industry in the US and has written an insider’s-view guest post for the London-based blog run by his son, Matt. The bit that really caught our attention was the idea of ‘craft’ malt:

Troubadour Malt, is located in Fort Collins, Colorado and I’ve followed their development with interest from the very first ideas to the consistent delivery of product – all produced from locally grown barley. Troubadour Malt is owned by Steve Clark (the engineer and scientist who designed the plant) and Chris Schooley (the artist and craftsman who kilns and roasts the malt to a wide set of specifications).

→ Dave Bailey at Hardknott provides a customarily frank account of the struggles of running a brewery in the post-Christmas doldrums:

It is my feeling that this year the post Christmas beer sales slump have been worse than ever. Dry-January seems to be getting ever more popular. Yes, I’m sure you, the reader, has decided for whatever reason that you are right to take part. You help us out every other month of the year shouldn’t feel any guilt. Perhaps you are right, but it still puts a great big hole in our cash-flow and our yeast maintenance alike. Not to mention the problem of managing stock.

(If we were managing his PR we would advise him against posting this kind of thing; as nosy bastards keen to know what’s going on behind the scenes, we’re very glad he does.)

→ Blogger Glenn Johnson keeps a close eye on the Micropub movement (we quoted him as an authority in our big state-of-the-nation piece last summer) and this week provided an update on two new entrants to the club in the Midlands.

The Tremenheere, the Wetherspoons in Penzance.

Wetherspoon’s watch: the pub chain’s headline-grabbing abandonment of Sunday roasts, the raising of prices, and the handing-off of several London pubs last year have raised questions about whether JDW might be struggling; but with their latest profit report they insist it’s all fine. (All links to The Morning Advertiser.) J.D. Wetherspoon also makes a cameo appearance in obituaries for Bristol reggae DJ Derek Serpell-Morris: he visited all of their pubs and collected receipts to prove it. (Via @fly_redwing.)

→ BrewDog watch: the Scottish brewery featured in an episode of the BBC’s Who’s the Boss (iPlayer) which no doubt raised awareness of BrewDog without necessarily improving its reputation. Mitch Adams sticks up for James Watt here; and there’s some (thin) commentary and a round-up of Twitter reactions from The Drum here. Meanwhile, the brewery’s Islington hot-dogs-and-beer bar has closed but Keith Flett doesn’t think there’s any cause for concern.

→ Andreas Krenmair has been home-brewing Berliner Weisse to historic spec, without a boil.

→ And, finally, a vital question has been answered: yes, you can use apps to swap faces with beer packaging.

QUOTE: Micropubs & Lager

“I used to drink brown and mild but beer in the 1970s was so rubbish that I eventually succumbed to lager… [Then] I discovered the Firkin pubs, Bruce’s Brewery… I had a pint of Whale Ale and thought, wow, this is fantastic! This is how beer is supposed to be… I could be wrong but I don’t think that in ten years, the police have never been called to a micropub. There’s twice as many hops in real ale as in lager, and hops are soporific – they make you sleepy and peaceful.”

Martyn Hillier, founder of the first micropub and godfather of the micropub movement, in an interview with one of the authors of this blog, 12/05/2015.