There are plenty of things in the world of pubs and beer that for me fall into this category, including most of what has been promoted as “craft beer”. And another is the micropubs that have blossomed in recent years. Now there is one very good thing about micropubs, in that they demonstrate that free markets work. Make it easier for people to open new drinking establishments and, where there is the demand, they will spring up to replace the big, old-fashioned pubs that have struggled to prosper in a changed climate for the licensed trade. But, as places that I personally want to visit as a drinker, they tend to leave me cold.
The first problem is that they generally seem rather Spartan and lacking in comfort. They’re usually devoid of upholstered benches and comfortable chairs, and high-level posing tables and hard stools often predominate. The photo, of the Hopper’s Hut in Bexley, underlines the point, although it is perhaps at the extreme of stark functionality. Indeed, last year I walked out of one GBG-listed micropub in Deal in Kent because there was no seating on offer apart from high-level stools.
Allied to this is the enforced sociability. In traditional pubs, even the smallest ones, it’s generally recognised that it’s up to you whether you want to engage with the company or just enjoy a quiet drink on your own. But, in a micropub, it’s often difficult to avoid social interaction, whether you want it or not. Some people just prefer to mind their own business. Plus the clientele is often something of a monoculture, and lacks the variety of ages, sexes, classes and types of drinks which is often what gives a proper pub its atmosphere.
And they seem to lack that distinctive “character” that long-established pubs acquire over the years, both from their architectural and design qualities and from the steady accretion of memories and identity from a succession of licensees and customers. Partly that’s a function of newness, but you do wonder whether, in view of their narrow appeal, many micropubs will ever achieve it, and it’s certainly unlikely that it will survive passing out of the hand of their original owner. People will often travel long distances and go well out of their way to visit some traditional pubs of character, but it’s very hard to see that happening with micropubs.
On his Thewickingman blog, Ian Thurman was rather sceptical about the rise of micropubs, and I have to say I share his sentiments.
I’m unconvinced that micro pubs have increased consumer spend and therefore they must be taking money from proper pubs. I’m all for innovation and letting the market decide but for the reasons described above I’m not sure we have a level playing field for pubs v micro pubs. As increasing numbers of micro pubs hit the GBG (and hit trade in other pubs) we are, in my view, hastening the decline of proper pubs and we could be heading to a world of converted shops as our leading ontrade beer emporia.As I said, I’m not against micropubs, and if they meet a demand and prove successful then good luck to them. I might even enjoy the occasional pint in one. But visiting them and writing about them isn’t something I choose to pursue as a leisure interest. And, to be honest, in general I’d much rather plonk myself down in Wetherspoon’s.