From it’s origins in one tiny venue in East Kent, dozens of mircopubs have sprung up across the country at an impressive rate. But exactly what’s behind the rapid rise of this independent movement making its mark on our towns, villages and communities?
With UK pubs reportedly continuing to close at an alarming rate of 29 a week, the industry has faced serious challenges over the past few years.
From increased tax on beer and changing social habits with the ban on smoking, to increased competition from supermarkets, the business has been one of the hardest-hit during the past six or seven years of economic downturn.
However, Kent in particular has seen some hope – or perhaps hops – on the horizon, with the rapid growth in micropubs and breweries that have been established.
Impressively, there are now several dozen brewers based within the county, which has added market diversity and driven a range of technical and creative innovations.
While smaller-scale microbrewing and its associated pubs may only account for a small size of the overall drinks market, it’s a scene which has been championed by those who enjoy a quality pint in an unpretentious environment that often doesn’t even have a conventional bar.
Ever since the first venue, The Butcher’s Arms, opened at Herne village near Herne Bay 10 years ago, they have gone from strength to strength. They now number around 200 – with several dozen sprouting up across the Kent.
They’ve set up in venues ranging from former pet stores to artists’ workshops, with locals keen to savour an authentic back-to-basics drinking experience.
“I just thought I was setting up a little pub,” says Martyn Hillier, owner of The Butcher’s Arms, who says it has been hugely rewarding seeing his venture become a social lifeline that has been emulated right across the country.
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Its success has led to him setting up the Micropub Association to serve this fast-evolving industry.
Carole Dalgleish, Secretary of CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) West Kent Branch, felt the surge in micropubs was especially encouraging. “We have a situation where pubs are closing every day, but small microbreweries are actually increasing, along with the number of beers out there,” she said, adding: “These breweries are coming up fast and have been able to gain a foothold in the last few years. One of the most interesting developments has been with key keg beers over the past few years, which are a similar idea to boxes of wine with the beer kept in containers.
“We have seen in places like Tunbridge Wells that unused shops can be turned into a micropub, as has happened with Fuggles, which has made larger pub companies really wake up and notice what is happening.”
She added there had been a trend for customers, including an increasing number of under-25s, to seek out traditional ales brewed with a distinctive flavour far removed from commercially processed beers. “The thing with real ale is that there are layers to it compared to commercial beers, which are a bit one dimensional. It’s the flavours that make them exciting,” explains Carole.
“We have seen in places like Tunbridge Wells that unused shops can be turned into a micropub”
One craft brewer in West Kent enjoying particularly notable success is Westerham Brewery, at Crockham Hill, Edenbridge. Founded in 2004, it has used traditional local recipes and ingredients in its beers, which the company believes has been an instrumental factor in its rise.
Managing Director Robert Wicks said demand for its products had been strongly driven by customers seeking an alternative to more commercial beers. On his company’s fortunes, he explained it had received a significant boost in being recognised by Defra (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) as among its top 50 national “Food Stars” initiative for its contribution towards broader economic revival through producing its range of classic and seasonal beers.
“We are doing very well as a company, with growth in 2015 of 50% over the previous year, which has been driven by demand for beer from a couple of key customers including major retailers,” said Robert.
“There is a high level of competition, with more and more breweries emerging, which has proved challenging. When I started out there were about nine breweries in Kent, but now it’s about 39. But this is something that we have met by creating high quality products and we have links with supermarket chains.
“We have also taken a holistic view of the business, meaning we have had to look at everything from our ethics, how we grow and develop our products, as well as looking after staff in being a living wage employer.”
While companies such as Westerham Brewery have sought major national commercial link-ups, other firms in the area, such as Larkins Brewery, have specialised in more localised supply serving a total of around 50 rural pubs and restaurants within the West Kent area. The family-owned business at Chiddingstone was set up by Bob Dockerty in the 1980s alongside his farming operation in which he grows around two-thirds of the company’s hops for its range of traditional beers.
As the veteran farmer, who now runs the business with his nephew Harry, reveals, it’s an industry he still loves despite not being without its major challenges. “We have seen a bit of growth in the business, which has been helped by growing many of our own hops. But this season was not a good harvest. Thankfully, we had a really good year the previous year, so we still have some hops left over as they do keep.
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“One of the big things that helped us was the cut in beer duty about 10 years ago. It is an interesting business, but we are starting to lose quite a lot of the old characters from it.”
Proving that the market can sustain its fair share of new kids on the block, one firm, The Pig and Porter, is among emerging challengers over the past couple of years. Director Robin Wright explained the business grew organically out of a catering operation in the Tunbridge Wells area and they’ve not looked back since.
Among its roster of intriguingly-named beers is the Elusive Pig II, Fatal Flaw, and a chocolate orange dark porter called Cast No Shadow. Although Robin concedes that independent brewing is now a crowded market, both he and business partner Sean Ayling are determined to carve out their niche.
“We started off doing event catering, but we have been cutting back on that as we’ve been brewing more. We’ve managed to take on extra staff and we are really happy with how it has been going,” says Robin, who adds that they are keen to expand their business even further.
Clearly, the emergence of such companies has provided even greater customer choice. This, in turn, has prompted a response from larger brewing companies in how they have approached their own operations.
Overall, with such a diverse range of brewers operating within Kent, it seems the industry is enjoying something of a boom period as entrepreneurs drive forward product innovation that has ensured a healthy sense of competition.
Having hosted the country’s very first micropub, it’s highly likely our high streets will see plenty more of these venues emerging, driven by people’s basic desire to foster a real sense of community.
Words Neill Barston
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