Raise your glasses to a movement on the march. All hail the rise of the micropub.
Since 2005 these intimate, cosy and welcoming venues have been popping up all over the country, pouring pints for punters in search of one of life’s simple pleasures – a nice, quiet beer.
If you’ve had enough of big screen sport, loud jukeboxes and annoying slot machines, then these modest boozers are the perfect antedote.
In the first of a new series, the InnSpectre turns the spotlight on those who are living the dream – running their very own micropub. Here, Rick from THE WATCHMAKER’S ARMS IN HOVE, answers some pressing questions…
Tell us a bit about your journey in the pub industry… We are completely new to the pub industry but that is typical of micropub owners. We visited the Tankerton Arms in Whitstable, which is owned by some friends of ours, and fell in love with the concept. We knew that a similar establishment would work in Hove so set about looking for suitable properties. Our micropub is owned and run by two couples. Dave and Rick still have full-time jobs but Ali and Ruth gave up their careers in education to run the micropub on a day-to-day basis.
Who/what inspired you to run a pub? Having visited the Tankerton Arms we spent several fun weekends travelling around the micropubs in Kent. Martyn Hillier, the L. Ron Hubbard of the micropub movement, set up the first micropub in Herne and set up the Micropub Association to help people like us to open our own micropubs.
What major challenges did you face in getting the pub up and running? We lost our first property. Having faced lots of objections to our change of use planning consent, the council still granted the change of use. Local pressure got to the vendor however and we had to look elsewhere. This set us back several months and cost us a good deal of money but the location we then found close to Hove station is much better. Planning consent and the licence application were very straightforward. If you follow Martyn’s established model you shouldn’t face too many challenges.
What’s in the name? We went to the Keep in Brighton, where the public records for East Sussex are archived, and researched the history of the shop we had found. When it was built in the late 19th century, it was a bird fanciers, which would have been an interesting name for a pub, but from the turn of the century up until the outbreak of the 2nd World War, it was a clock and watchmaker’s so that made the Watchmaker’s Arms an easy choice. Many micropubs are named with a nod to the previous use of the building – the original micropub, The Butcher’s Arms, being a case in point.
What do you think attracts people to your pub? As with most micropubs, it is the environment that people love. No music or gaming machines, very few children (although well-behaved children are very welcome) and an ever-changing range of excellent cask ales served in perfect condition by gravity from the cask. Beer and banter!
What kind of customers do you have? Anyone famous been to your pub? Most of our customers are local although we were on the Brighton & South Downs CAMRA Ale Trail this summer and we get lots of people in who are visiting Brighton and look for the nearest micropub. Our regulars are an eclectic mix of people from all walks of life but enjoying real ale transcends the usual barriers. We have had a few famous people in. Super Hans, who is often spotted around Brighton & Hove has been in, as has local comedian Joe Wilkinson. Martin Duffy from Primal Scream comes in from time to time and we have a number of journalists, authors and broadcasters amongst our regulars.
What’s the feedback been like from customers? The feedback we get on Facebook and Trip Advisor is always excellent but it is much nicer when a customer comes up to you just to tell you what a great place we have created. That makes it all worthwhile.
Any regular events? We prefer to have irregular events! Two of our most regular regulars run a pop-up gin cocktail bar called Gin & Bear It. We have done a couple of events at the micropub with them and we have recently put on some live acoustic folk music which went down really well and will be happening again soon. We have an annual beer festival on the first May Bank Holiday weekend to celebrate the anniversary of our opening.
Do you think micropubs are doing their bit to fill the void made by the closure of more traditional pubs? They offer something different. Most of our customers are not interested in going to big noisy pubs that sell a range of lager and a few poorly kept cask ales. If we weren’t here they probably wouldn’t go to a pub at all. As people become disaffected by those bigger pubs, they’ll either drink at home or come to somewhere more appealing, like The Watchmaker’s.
Has the micropub community been supportive? Very much so. As I mentioned, we visited a lot of established micropubs before opening and we always introduced ourselves and asked questions of the owners. We took all of their advice on board when designing the layout of our micropub and we are very pleased we did. The Micropub Association has a website which hosts a forum containing a wealth of information and advice. Everything from planning consent and business plans through to cask widgets has been discussed on there.
What’s the best thing about running your micropub? We’ve created a real ‘local’ and introduced people to each other who, while they live close together, would not have met if it wasn’t for their love of real ale.
Could you recommend another micropub? Hard to think of one I wouldn’t recommend but of our local micropubs in Sussex, The Brooksteed Alehouse in Worthing has just been awarded Sussex CAMRA pub of the year and that is thoroughly deserved.
What do you think of the state of the pub industry in the UK? I was delighted to see the news stories earlier this year highlighting the fall of sales in lager which coincides with increased consumption of craft beer, real ale and the rise of the independent brewery. I’m not surprised that these bigger, tied pubs are closing down – on the rare occasions I find myself in one I am completely uninspired. Unless a pub does great food or great beer, what’s the point?
What is the pub scene like in your part of the world? Have any closed down? Hove has a handful of decent real ale pubs but the pub scene in central Brighton is booming. Pubs that do close down usually do so because they aren’t providing what people want. They are often replaced by a pub selling good beer either in cask or keg. Brewdog took over the Blind Tiger and are really driving the craft beer market in Brighton. Brighton Bier has just announced that they are taking over a failing pub in town. Bison Beer, a craft ale bottle shop in central Brighton has raised £150,000 in crowd funding to renovate a large empty pub on Brighton seafront and reopen it as the Bison Arms. Unfortunately, away from the centres of Brighton and Hove there are plenty of large community pubs closing down and turning into supermarkets.
What are your top three favourite beers, and why? This is a really tricky question given the huge amounts of beer we’ve gone through in our first 18 months. Before we opened The Watchmaker’s I would have always chosen a dark beer or bitter over anything pale and found the very hoppy flavours that are so popular now, quite unpleasant. I have to say though that my tastes have changed and I now enjoy beers that are heavily hopped with US and Southern Hemisphere citrusy hops.
My favourite beer however is a Neapolitan Stout by Saugatuck in the US. It is available in more discerning bottle shops and online – it really tastes of ice cream!
Another favourite, and one of the most popular beers we sell at The Watchmaker’s Arms is Thornbridge Jaipur, a beer original concocted by Martin Dickie who left Thornbridge and went on to form Brewdog with James Watt. At 5.9% it is probably the strongest beer we sell but it’s so well balanced, the strength doesn’t put people off.
Finally I will include a session pale, Plateau which is brewed by Burning Sky in Firle, East Sussex. At just 3.5%, it has the flavour of a much stronger beer. If we were to have a house beer, which we don’t, it would likely be Plateau.
…and your top three pubs, wherever they may be? Even before we opened The Watchmaker’s I would seek out pubs that serve their beer from the cask by gravity. The Royal Oak in Wineham is my favourite pub for that reason but also because it is probably the most traditional pub in Sussex – it even has the gent’s toilet outside. The Cricketer’s Arms in Berwick is another favourite. Although it is tied to Harvey’s, the ales are served from a stillage in the back room. My third choice is the Pelt Trader in the City of London. I still work in London several days a week and this is a real ale oasis offering around eight casks and eight kegs.
Any local breweries near you we should keep an eye on? We are blessed with many good independent local breweries but Brighton Bier in particular are creating a great brand as well as excellent beer – the branding of beer is so important these days. Our own onsite brewery, Beercraft Brighton, is also one to watch.
Any other news/info about your pub you want to share? We have our own brewery on site although it is owned and run by our brewer under the name Beercraft Brighton. I would love to develop that with our brewer into bigger premises so we could stock more Beercraft beer in The Watchmaker’s. When we do have Beercraft beer on the stillage it sells really quickly – people love the idea that it was made on site. We even grew our own hops this year and had a Beercraft Green Hop Pale on offer.
What are your plans for the future? Just to keep listening to our customers and keep doing the same. We still get people in most nights who have never been in before and love what we are doing. We have been getting steadily busier since we opened and it’s hard to get through the door on a Friday night.
What are your top tips for those looking to run their own micropub? Choose the right location but don’t be put off if that location is close to an established pub. Visit as many micropubs as you can and speak to the owners. Ask them what they would do differently, given the chance, so you can learn from their mistakes. Also, use the forum on The Micropub Association website. Read the archives but ask any questions you have and someone will lend you the benefit of their experience.
Monday – Closed
Tuesday – 12pm-2pm & 5pm-9pm
Wednesday – 12pm-2pm & 5pm-9pm
Thursday – 12pm-2pm & 5pm-9pm
Friday – 12pm-2pm & 5pm-11pm
Saturday – 12pm-11pm
Sunday – 12pm-3pm
The InnSpectre reviews…
The Ship and Shovell has an area called The Snug which consists of a table and two chairs at the top of a small staircase. It provides the ideal place for two lovers to gaze into each others’ eyes and have a blazing row in private – a point well worth remembering the next time you and the missus have one of those make-or-break chats.
The Lion Inn, Blakey Ridge is surrounded by the beauty, peace and tranquility of the North Yorkshire Moors and this is what lures me back time after time. It’s where I come to escape the rat race and the wretched rodents who compete in it.
A young barman at the King’s Head in Deal came right over to me and played the spoons to an impressive standard before wowing his audience by drinking beer from his shoe. Once the applause died down the lad jumped on a table where he danced with a blonde female colleague. He looked cool. If I tried to do that it would’ve ended in disaster…
The barman at the Windsor Castle in Clapham could barely take his eyes off television coverage of the horse racing and pulled my pint with about as much vim and vigour as a donkey being led to the glue factory.