Author: Jaine Organ
Kent, one of the home-counties that border London is known as the Garden of England due to the abundance of fruit and vegetable crops grown there. It has an extensive brewing pedigree; Shepherd Neame, based in Faversham, is said to be the oldest brewery in England. Up until the 1960s vast areas of Kent were covered in hop gardens and during the summer holidays mass excursions of Londoners headed there to pick hops.
The old stone Oast houses, hop-kilns with their distinct conical roofs, are still dotted around the Kent countryside however their hop-drying days are over and they’re mostly converted into houses and holiday lets. Kent now has another claim, as the micropub capital, where it all kicked-off and now home to the highest concentration of micropubs in the UK.
So what is the definition of a micropub and what is their appeal? Martyn Hillier is credited with opening the first micropub, The Butchers Arms in Herne, near the Kent coastal areas of Herne Bay and Whitstable, in 2003 following relaxation of licensing laws. The standard definition of a micropub is one room with no electronic devices, no TV, no music, no food other than bar snacks, no tables or with facing tables aimed at encouraging the conversation flow. The focus is on a rotating selection of ales and cider but strictly no lager, cocktails or wine.
They’re not as costly to set up or run as traditional pubs, with shorter opening hours and fewer overheads. They’re often set up in old disused shops giving the owners free rein to decorate and furnish these small spaces with quirky décor. The Butchers Arms was originally a butcher’s shop and the old meat counter was repurposed into the bar. Fat Sam in Whitstable is housed in a former antique shop and has a wall-to-wall tribute to the owner’s cat Sam and his feline friends.
The Black Dog in Whitstable, originally a delicatessen, has a contemporary Victorian feel. In a small space with facing benches it’s difficult not to chat and within 10 minutes of sitting down, Janet and Derek from a neighboroughing county were telling me how much they loved micropubs: “People put down their smartphones and chat like they used to in pubs plus they serve great beer”.
While Kent currently holds the micropub crown, London is catching up. The Dodo in west London and the Little Green Dragon in north London and have both won regional CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) awards. The Little Green Dragon is a nod to the Green Dragon pub that existed from 1720 to 2014 and against local opposition was closed down and turned into a supermarket. The Dodo is a modern, fresh looking space but still with great beer and a community feel.
A recent report in the London Evening Standard said the opening of new micropubs and microbreweries was balancing the closure of traditional pubs. CAMRA welcomed the report but stressed the need to continue campaigning for an environment that halts the decline in traditional pubs.
Pictures: Jaine Organ