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The rise of low-tech English micropubs

Britain is enjoying a low-tech micropub revolution. Would it work in America?
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MICRO PUBS - Joe StangeOn a clear day in Deal, England, you can see France across the English Channel. You can chew on fresh whelks from the beachfront stall, and you can walk down the street for a pint at a corner pub called The Just Reproach.

An intriguing name for a pub, isn’t it? It’s borrowed from Daniel Defoe’s 1704 book “The Storm”—arguably the first work of modern journalism. It details how one of Britain’s worst natural disasters devastated southern England and drowned a fifth of the British navy. Defoe wrote that the storm was punishment for the country’s sins and corruption in towns like Deal, left standing “as a just reproach to all the land.”

But as you walk into this pub—small and square—you could be forgiven for thinking the name has another meaning. Because, like the heads of enemies spiked on castle ramparts, there are a dozen cellular phones impaled with heavy nails upon the far wall.

The warning is clear: Turn your phone off and prepare to engage with actual, warm-blooded beings who are likely to greet you on arrival. Real, live ones. In person.

And so they do. Patrons nod and say “hullo” as we walk in, and so does the landlord, and we begin to chat about the phones and the pub and the beer and politics, and anything else.

“A lot of it is the lost art of conversation,” says my friend Phil Lowry, who lives near Dover. He guides me to nearly a dozen other micropubs in Kent over the weekend, but we are only scratching the surface. The Micropub Association lists 113 of them across Britain.

That’s the number as we go to press, but there will be more by the time you read this. As recently as six years ago, there was only one.

The Butcher’s Arms in Herne was the first one to call itself a micropub, in 2005. The idea didn’t catch on until publican Martyn Hillier spoke at a Campaign for Real Ale meeting in 2009, explaining how easy it was to start one. Less of a definition than an ethos, Hillier and his Association say the micropub is “a small freehouse which listens to its customers, mainly serves cask ales, promotes conversation, shuns all forms of electronic entertainment, and dabbles in traditional pub snacks.”

That’s it, really. No cell phones, no TVs, a small collection of beers and simple food. The idea is elegant, even when the furnishings are not. We visit The Butcher’s Arms, with its tiny front room that was once the local meat shop. Its walls and ceilings now sag under the weight of bric-a-brac like bar towels, dried hops (this is Kent, after all) and rubber chickens. Unusually, Hillier is not here—he’s gone to Nottingham to accept nothing less than CAMRA’s 2015 Campaigner of the Year award.

One of the pub’s regulars, Alistair Russell, fills in for him. He says the micropub model might not fit everywhere, but “’round here it works, and each one seems to be able to sustain itself. And each one, they’ve all got character,” infused with each owner’s idiosyncratic personality.

Among the reasons why micropubs have caught on in the UK: the enthusiasm of the publicans, who tend to be the sort who have always wanted to run a pub. They buy cheap real estate on Britain’s High Street—what we’d call Main Street, USA—since the changing economy has left a lot of storefronts vacant. Notably, a new law in 2005 made it easier to get a pub license in Britain. Meanwhile, micropublicans tend to keep profits low and “stay under the radar,” as Lowry puts it, to avoid additional taxes, fees and red tape. The places are small and self-run, with limited hours, so no need to hire iffy staff at great expense. Many publicans are retirees or doing this as an entertaining second job. They like it simple.

But none of this would be possible without the demand. The micropub model strikes a chord: Pubs like this are not supposed to exist anymore. “A micropub is almost a time warp,” Lowry says. “A time bubble.”

The appeal of the micropub, in part, is a return to simplicity, a reaction to the antisocial.

At The Firkin Alehouse in Folkestone, a chalkboard lays down the rules: “ALL electronic devices to be turned off or put on silent please. Phone calls to be taken outside. A noise device incurs a £1 fine to charity, thank you.” Nobody seems to mind. The small front room of this former hair salon is packed with chatty drinkers.

It’s also about the beer. Brits have a growing taste for hoppier kegged things, but micropubs remain bastions of traditional cask ale. Usually there are only two or three choices, virtually always from nearby breweries, and typically in top condition. The publicans tend to be persnickety about their pints—that’s part of why they’re doing this. Less variety means the casks turn over more quickly, helping to ensure freshness. And once that cask is kicked, everybody gets to try a different one.

At the Hair of the Dog in Minster-in-Thanet, co-owner Gary Hake—who still works as an electrician—says he thought his village could use a different sort of pub. Besides being both kid- and pet-friendly, the pub promises “no machines, no music, no distractions at all.”

“Plus,” he adds, as if to include me in a conspiracy, “you get to try real ales. Lots of them! … If you’ve got a dream that you want to run a pub, this is the ideal way of doing it.”

Could the micropub concept succeed in the States? Perhaps. It might be easier in some places than others: While Britain’s licensing laws got simpler in 2005, American liquor licensing rules vary by state. (It’s never as simple as it sounds anyway, once you factor in legal fees, insurance, taxes and all the other complications that come with running a business.)

A few places have tried banning phones, or at least the overt use of them—notably the trendy “speakeasy” cocktail bars, often hidden behind nondescript doors. Victoria, British Columbia, has the Swans Brewpub, which requires guests to turn off their phones. In Brazil, one bar made a few headlines by unveiling a wonky glass that only stands upright when resting atop a phone. The idea is to get patrons to put them down and talk to each other.

There are a few places calling themselves “micropubs” in the States, but the name is mostly coincidental, unconnected to the British micropub ethos—like Anthony’s Micro Pub & Pizza in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

One that has taken some inspiration from Kent is the Commonwealth Micropub in Emeryville, California, just outside Oakland. It’s not the same, though, since it serves plenty of cooked grub, doesn’t fuss with cask ale, and allows phones.

Commonwealth owner Ross Adair grew up in Scotland, but hasn’t been back to the UK in some years. “As we’ve not visited in so long I have never drank in an actual micropub,” Adair explains in an email, “but we came across the concept when doing research for the new location. Because the space is quite small with no room for a proper bar, we thought the atmosphere and layout would be similar to what we were reading about the micropubs in the old country.

“We don’t operate with such a stringent set of ethics. We do play music and have a small TV. We serve strictly locally brewed craft beer, but our focus is not on cask ales … In the end though I think our heart is in the same place. We operate a cozy neighborhood pub that serves as a friendly gathering place for anyone who cares to stop in for a visit. We are serious about supporting our local breweries. It’s a very worthy cause.”

It’s possible that American drinkers would not respond well to checking their phones at the door. But then again, I met some British drinkers who thought the same—and now find the experience somewhat liberating.

Back at The Just Reproach, landlord Mark Robson says the reaction to the no-phones rule has been positive—even if people were skeptical at first.

“People said, ‘It’s the 21st century, you can’t expect people not to use their phones,’” Robson says. Then he smiles.

“Yes, you can.”

 

Author
Joe Stange is the author of Around Brussels in 80 Beers and co-author of Good Beer Guide Belgium. Follow him on Twitter @Thirsty_Pilgrim.

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