Cask Ale, No Frills, and Plenty of Conversation: Reinventing the English Pub for the 21st Century

Feature by | Oct 2018 | Issue #132
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The pub, or public house, is a revered institution in the United Kingdom, outweighing and outlasting even the church as an everyday part of British life. Pubs are romanticized, sentimentalized, and politicized, a nexus for conversations about gentrification and culture, and a proxy for the very state of the nation.

The ideal English pub might be an ancient rural coaching inn out of a painting by Constable, or an urban gin palace dancing with warm light reflected in mirrors and polished wood. Either way, it will probably be at least a hundred years old. New pubs were built in the 20th century—some 5,000 so-called “improved public houses” between the world wars, and around 4,000 austere modernist structures in the era of post-war reconstruction—but they tend to be less well-loved than their predecessors, lacking their dark corners and coziness.

But as the century wore on, giant brewing concerns such as Watney’s and Whitbread pulled out of the beer and pub industry altogether, largely as a result of anti-monopoly measures by the UK government. That, along with wider changes in English society, saw many pubs fall into disuse or ruin, or converted into other businesses. Tourists visiting London might scoff at this idea—isn’t there a pub every 50 meters?—but it’s in residential areas and small towns that the loss is felt most sharply.

The problem is partly that as the breweries withdrew, a new type of company moved in: the so-called “pub company,” or pubco. Their business model is based on acquiring pubs and leasing them at below-market rate to publicans who are then contractually obliged to purchase stock from the parent firm at what can feel like grossly inflated prices. Within this restrictive framework, many of those pubs that have survived are forced to try everything and anything to draw in additional profit, from serving elaborate coffees to operating effectively as family fast food restaurants with beer as a mere add on.

Even so, many pubs seem trapped in a death cycle: under new management, then boarded up; under new management, boarded up again; and so on until a final closure. To those nostalgic souls who love pubs in their beer-soaked, burnished glory, this is a sad state of affairs, and many entrepreneurs who dream of running their own pub balk at the idea of entering into the necessary Faustian pact. Across the UK, however, a new concept is shaking up the notion of the neighborhood watering hole, and it’s called a micropub. This new model is to the English pub what the iPhone was to Nokia, or Uber to taxicabs—a “disruptor” that changes the rules of the game, for better or worse. It certainly brings a new energy.

Martyn Hillier came up with the micropub concept in 2005 when he converted a former butcher’s shop in Kent in Southeast England into The Butcher’s Arms. This might not seem especially revolutionary, but until this moment in time it had been almost impossible for a private citizen to open a new pub. In 2003 the law was changed: it was no longer the job of the would-be publican to prove that the community needed another pub (need was the legal terminology), only that the new pub would not cause any trouble. In other words, licenses for new pubs would be granted by default rather than forbidden automatically.

This was the opportunity for which Hillier, an affable, plain-talking Londoner, had been waiting. “What I wanted to do was take a pop at the big boys,” he told us when we first interviewed him in 2015. The take-away beer shop he had been operating needed only a few changes to convert it into a functional but extremely tiny pub. While it has room for a maximum of 35 people, The Butcher’s Arms more comfortably holds around 18. There is no bar—Hillier fetches beer from a back room “cellar” and holds court from the floor, leaning on a shelf or the edge of a table. Customers sit on benches facing the center of the room, and by this method, as well as the natural intimacy of the space, are forced to make conversation. There is an iPhone nailed to the wall of the pub as a not-so-subtle signal of the expected behavior. “People go to the pub thinking it’s social but what do they do?” he said when we asked him about the unusual piece of decor in 2016. “They go to their own corners, talk to the people they’re with, look at their phones.”

Hillier only sells cask ale and a few simple snacks. The front window, in an artful faux-Victorian design, bears the slogan “NFL,” which has nothing to do with American football. It stands for No Fizzy Lager—in polite company at least. The pub opens just a few hours a day and employs no staff. And that, in a pint pot, is the micropub formula: cask ale, conversation, no frills, low operating costs.

In the years that followed, Hillier gained disciples who went forth and opened their own micropubs. Peter Morgan was the first of Hillier’s followers, establishing the Rat Race in a disused space at the railway station in Hartlepool in 2009, followed by Just Beer in Newark-on-Trent in 2010. According to the Micropub Association, an organization founded by Hillier to oversee the loose network of sibling pubs with the lightest of touches, there were 315 in operation across the UK at the beginning of 2018. Some break with Hillier’s vision in various ways. They might offer wine, for example, or bottled Belgian beer, or even lager. They might be rather large. What they all tend to have in common is a basic DIY aesthetic driven by economy rather than fashion, and a hermit-crab tendency to occupy disused shops or railway arches.

Ray Hurley, landlord of the Door Hinge in Welling, south London, (the pub is named after his late mother, Doreen Indge) told us that he never considered for one moment taking on an existing pub: “It has to be a shop. Pubs are too big, they’re too much. I wouldn’t want some bloody great big pub with five people in it, shouting across at each other. My pub’s 21 feet wide. You can see who’s got an empty glass and just ask them quietly if they want a refill.” A former London cabbie, he summarizes his ethos simply as “No lager, no alcopops, no breathing, basically.” One-upping Hillier, he has 64 mobile phones nailed to his wall.

While researching our most recent book, 20th Century Pub, we visited several micropubs, spoke to pioneers including Hillier himself, and read everything about them we could get our hands on. Nonetheless, they remained somewhat abstract. Then, in the summer of 2017, we moved to Bristol and a micropub became our local. And we mean really local—a two-minute walk from our house.

The Draper's Arms, a former fabric shop, is Bristol, England's first micropub.

The Draper’s Arms, a former fabric shop, is Bristol, England’s first micropub.

The Draper’s Arms is in Horfield, a suburb on Bristol’s northeastern fringe full of low, unassuming red-brick buildings, with stretches of open parkland and community gardens. “Lots of chimney pots,” as the publicans’ saying goes. In other words, plenty of potential customers. Indeed, there are many pubs in the area, from the Wellington (grand, smart, Edwardian) to the hipper Lazy Dog (tapas and craft breweries). In 2015, though, Garvan Hickey and Vince Crocker, inspired by Martyn Hillier, decided that Horfield could stand one more, and acquired a humble-looking retail unit on Gloucester Road, a major artery. For most of the 20th century it had sold curtains and fabric, so they decided to call their new pub the Draper’s Arms.

Like many micropubs, Bristol’s first such example does not, frankly, look all that appealing from the outside. A large metal-framed, frosted display window makes it impossible to see in, and the sign with its slightly drooping wooden type is a long way from the heraldic grandeur of the traditional painted pub sign. We weren’t alone in underestimating its appeal, either. On one recent visit we overheard a young man say to his friend, “I must have walked past here a hundred times and it’s never occurred to me to actually come in. It looks like a total dive.”

Inside the Draper’s is a different story, however. Where a traditional pub might have a substantial fitted bar of more or less elaborate design, the Draper’s has a small counter Frankensteined together from an old dining table and various odds and ends. Where a typical pub would have a cellar and hand-pumps, the Draper’s has 10 or so jacket-cooler casks on a rack behind the bar, dispensing beer from taps directly into glasses or 4-pint jugs. There are perches, shelves and benches, and a handful of tables. It’s bigger than Hillier’s pub in Herne, but still only has space for around 40 people. The atmosphere, though, despite its oddities, is unarguably comfortable and “pubby,” the creation of people immersed in pub culture and free to indulge their own preferences.

At the Draper’s you will see the same faces time and again, such as members of the local branch of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) who declared it their Pub of the Year in 2017. Brewers drink there too—like everywhere, it seems, Bristol is experiencing a brewing boom—as do several of our immediate neighbors, including the local butcher. Eighty-six-year-old Dave Priddy travels to the pub from nearby Lockleaze five nights most weeks and is treated like a VIP. “I have to get two buses,” he says. “Why I like this pub is that it’s quiet—no music going on—and…” He points at his handled beer mug and gives a firm nod. “The ale.” Soccer fans attending games at the nearby Bristol Rovers ground flood the place at intervals during the season, too, in their blue-and-white shirts and bobble hats.

Hickey, a big man who greets everyone like an old acquaintance whether he knows them or not, admits to having worked hard to build the right kind of clientele. At the launch party in December 2015, someone told him the Draper’s was the cheapest pub on Gloucester Road, at which point, fearing the trouble such a reputation might bring, they raised prices. Crocker, when he isn’t working at the pub, runs the tiny Ashley Down Brewery. (Out of action after a fire in October 2017, it still releases the occasional gypsy brew.) Quieter than his partner and skeptical of both publicity and technology, he is no less friendly and brightens when anyone asks for beer advice, probing their preferences before offering samples poured with a deft flick of the taps. The lack of lager, industrial cider, or Guinness gently excludes another tranche of potential customers. Still, just occasionally, Hickey is forced to loom with his full bulk and ask people to move on. “Perhaps this place isn’t for you,” he recalls telling a group of young drinkers who became rowdy on strong Somerset “scrumpy” cider.

On most days, the pub opens at 5 p.m. and closes at 9:30. This frustrated us when we tried to visit from out of town, but as locals, it makes complete sense: we come home from work, eat dinner, and hit the Draper’s just in time for one or two pints. Or we go straight to the Draper’s for (an important bit of English vernacular) “a swift half” before going home to eat. It’s a pub designed for people who live nearby, for the neighborhood, not for tourists or dilettantes, and it encourages frequent but moderate consumption.

But as enamored as we are, we keep thinking about the Victoria, a sadly shuttered Victorian pub across the road. It closed early in 2017 after a year of competition from the Draper’s. Did the micropub steal the “proper” pub’s customers and contribute to its death? The locals don’t think so. From talking to various fellow drinkers over the months, we’ve established that the Victoria was a fairly rough pub, struggling with public order issues. Hickey, for his part, expresses distress at the fate of the former neighbor: “I want pubs to do well. I’d like to see the Queen Vic open and trading as a pub again.” Not least, he admits, because he thinks a real run of pubs on that stretch of Gloucester Road might bring in yet more customers.

Ray Hurley at the Door Hinge also believes that micropubs can exist happily alongside more traditional establishments. “We’re serving a niche market,” he says. “They’re ‘public houses,’ we’re an alehouse. We just do ales. If you want anything else—wine, Belgian beer, lager—then, sorry mate, you’re in the wrong place. Go next door.”

The success of the micropub model is due in part to its ability to fill a gap in the market. It is unpretentious but not without standards; pointedly basic but far from spit-n-sawdust; genteel without being precious. It represents what happens when people have the freedom to create a pub from scratch, without baggage, and to their own taste. Build them, the evidence seems to suggest, and people will come. At least 20 people, that is, which is really all any good pub needs.