Credit where it’s due, not everything brilliant was invented in London. The chocolate bar was invented in Bristol, for example. The oldest licensed whiskey distillery is in Northern Ireland and chips are, for some reason, from Belgium.
And so we shouldn’t be too surprised when somewhere like Kent – or more specifically, a Kentish man – comes up with an idea so truly amazing in its simplicity that by night it will enter your dreams and by day actually change habits of a life-time.
I am speaking, of course, of the micropub.
Ten years ago a chance encounter with a local licensing officer gave Martyn Hillier, a florist from Herne, in Kent, an idea. The 2003 licensing act (which came into play two years later) changed the permissible objections to licensed premises. Henceforth, objections had to be on one of only four grounds: Health and safety, law and order, protection of children and criminal record. In practice, this meant that the days of big breweries preventing competition through perpetual legal action against anyone foolhardy enough to take them on were over. In theory, it meant that anyone could now open a pub.
So that’s what Hillier did.
In 2005 the Butcher’s Arms opened in an old butcher’s shop, with 12 seats, pickled onions and some of the finest local ales in the county. It was an instant hit and won CAMRA’s East Kent pub of the year. Twice.
But Hillier wasn’t finished there. Filled with evangelistic fervour and a love of his fellow drinker, in 2009 he gave a 15-minute presentation at CAMRA’s AGM in Eastbourne on how to start your own micropub. The result was a beer-fuelled revolution – quite the best kind, in our view.
Attendees of that meeting started micropubs as far afield as Hartlepool and Newark, but it was in Hillier’s home county of Kent where something akin to magic occurred. Within months, micropubs had opened in Ramsgate, Margate and Westgate-on-Sea; within a year they were in Deal, Broadstairs and Folkestone. Now they flourish in Herne Bay, Whitstable, Minster, Birchington and throughout the county. Hillier’s Micropub Association website now lists 55 micropubs (see update below – now 300+) and almost half are in Kent.
At the same time, a rejuvenated British brewing industry, benefitting from the introduction of small brewers’ relief which allows brewers who produce less than a certain amount of beer or cider to pay less tax, saw new breweries popping up around the country like poorly struck spiles. Low overhead micropubs selling beer from low overhead microbreweries… It’s almost as if such commercial symbiosis was planned, but this is Britain and so it was just jammy.
So, what is a micropub?
A micropub will have some or all of the following features: Real cask-conditioned ale (sometimes exclusively); snacks, but no formal dining; no bar; no music; no fruit machines; no mobile phones; will be housed in previously unlicensed premises and will, crucially, be small.
Over the years, during extensive research, we’ve found that the best pub in town is often the smallest and micropubs tap into this phenomenon. Many are ‘one-conversation’ rooms, where everyone joins in the ebb and flow of whatever is the topic of the moment – like how pubs used to be before breweries took them over, built an extension, removed the seats, stuck on the telly and turned up the music.
Of course, one drawback from a Londoner’s point of view is that the micropub revolution is happening in the country, where, as everyone knows, beneath a barely visible veneer of modernity people are racist, sexist and homophobic monsters who marry their sisters who are also their brothers. Worse, perhaps, the places are filled with men.
It would be inaccurate to say that Kent’s micropubs are an hotbed of misogyny – women are welcomed into every one of them we’ve been to – but there is a sense of a reclamation of lost masculine spaces, like working mens clubs. I did see a sign in the lavatory of one Kentish micropub that read, ‘will women please return the toilet seat to the upright position when they have finished.’ The ‘please’ had been struck through with marker pen.
Would a London micropub be so testosterone-heavy? Well, now you can go and see for yourselves because just as the Ottoman Empire managed to reach the gates of Vienna, so the micropub has reached a metropolitan outskirt near you:
London’s first official micropub is in Welling, on the very borders of Deserter-land, in the borough of Bexley. Legend has it that the name Welling comes from the notion that by the time your carriage arrived there from town you were ‘well in’ to Kent. But this is, in fact, what historians call ‘bollocks’.
Rather, the name comes from a local underground spring at Welling Cross and the drinking connection has been maintained by the opening of The Door Hinge, a single-room, bar-less ale-house run by ex-cabbie, Ray Hurley, and situated in an old electrical shop on the High Street, amongst the gun shops and funeral directors.
It was in here during one lost afternoon that we ran into Paul Herbert of the very fine Kent Brewery. I asked him why he thought the micropub revolution was a little slow taking off in the capital.
‘Rent,’ he replied. ‘That’s the key overhead and rent is much, much cheaper in, say, Thanet. If you’re lucky, you might be able to get it subsidised – maybe approach a council about empty premises. But because turnover is limited, you’ll struggle with London rents.’
Earlier this year, The Door Hinge was awarded Bexley CAMRA Pub of the Year and hopefully this will encourage others to take a chance on that rent.
Historically, there have not been many reasons to visit Gipsy Hill. That has now changed forever.
London’s second micropub, Beer Rebellion, is housed in an old restaurant opposite the station and is linked to Penge’s Late Knights brewery. It plays fast and loose with the micropub ethos – they play a bit of music, they serve wine and whisky alongside the ales and they offer fine burgers and hand-cut chips – but it is without doubt part of the micropub revolution. The eight-cask stillage stands in the small bar, in pride of place, and your beer is served to you directly from it by charming, knowledgeable staff, to be drunk in the simple but elegant surroundings.
And if you hang around in the bar area, you will get involved in conversation, be it with CAMRA-types, the cool young friends of the staff, people like us who travel over especially or just wide-eyed locals coming home from work and still unable to believe their luck in having such a place on their doorstep.
It is the best micropub we know of – maybe even our favourite London bar, full stop – and what’s more, with sister pubs already in Brighton and Brockley, a new branch is set to open this Thursday (14th August) in Queen’s Road, Peckham. See you there?
An honourable mention goes to this Borough Market favourite, which although it hasn’t, like the places above, officially signed up to the Micropub Association, nevertheless shares many of the characteristics of micropubs. It is small, there is a fine selection of cask, keg and bottled beers, the food is simple (but delicious), there is no music and in its place people talk to one another.
So that’s three to be going on with, four from Thursday, and all in South East London. Cheers, Kent!
Update, August 2015: Beer Rebellion, Gipsy Hill, moved next door into permanent premises. The second Beer Rebellion in Queen’s Road, Peckham, is now a firmly established local institution. The London Beer Dispensary, from the guys at Southey Brewing, opened in Brockley.
Update Sept 2018: The Micropub Association now lists 334 micropubs! They’re like bloody rabbits. And there are now so many micros in South east London from Greenwich to Bromley, we had to do a map, ‘cos lists are hard.
Listen to the Dulwich Raider and Dirty South talk about this and other vital matters in our first podcast: