Wednesday, 20 February 2013

The micropubs of East Kent

Got any peas?

Something which has not received nearly as much attention as the growth in London’s nano- and microbreweries is the way that so-called “micropubs” have been springing up. They have been featured in the broadsheets and on the BBC, though mostly as a novelty story. However there is an in-depth feature on them in the latest issue of BEER magazine.

While there are a few elsewhere, their heartland seems to be Kent, where the first one, the Butchers Arms, appeared a few years ago. The first imitators were in other parts of the country, but in the last couple of years more and more have opened closer to the first and the corner of East Kent is now dotted with them.

The story is basically that a few pub-lovers, driven by high business rates and unwilling to be tied to a rapacious, parasitical pub company, have rejected the road of taking over an existing pub, and instead just rented an empty, cheap shop unit, acquired a licence and and started selling beer to friends and neighbours.

In a parallel development to London’s keg-focused new breweries, the micropubs sell real ale and nothing else. You might get a glass of wine, a pie or some cheese if you’re lucky, but otherwise they are dedicated to cask beer. No lager, no spirits, no food, no TV, no music. Just people crammed into a tiny space drinking whatever ale from a local small brewery the landlord (are they even called landlords?) has available. In this they hark back to a time when public houses really were just someone’s house, open to the public to have a drink.

I thought all this sounded wonderful and made plans to take a day trip from London to see a few of these places.

We meet Phil in Ramsgate, expecting to have a pint or two with him in a pub and then make our way back to Broadstairs in time for the evening session. Instead he offers, unbelievably generously, to stay sober and drive us around visiting whatever micropubs we want. Well, we weren’t stupid enough to say no to that. Would you?

First though, a quick roll around Ramsgate itself. After visiting pretty Faversham on the way, the depressed dock town looks grim, but the pubs are attractive enough. In the Artillery Arms we have Gadds IPA, hoppy and a bit sticky. Gadds beer seems to be everywhere, and rightly so (we got to our fourth pub before there was no Gadds on offer).

The Churchill Tavern on the seafront is a seaside pub. Maybe it’s its location, facing to Belgium across the sea, that makes me fancy it’s similar in style, externally at least, to the cafés of Oostende. Here we taste an unfortunately treacley and oxidised Dark Star beer and more Gadds – No. 5 this time.

Observe the Tomson & Wotton signage
In the White Swan in St Peters, nothing much seems to have changed for a generation or more. We walk through the public bar before settling in the saloon. I don’t think I’ve been in a pub like this before, not in this country, though the pale wood everywhere reminds me of some of the more rustic places in Germany. Beers are Gadd’s Seasider, Oakleaf Nupth’ale and Outstanding Blonde, which is far from outstanding. A quick look at the ornamental Fremlins elephant high up on a shelf, and we’re off again.

Our first micropub proper is one of the newest. The Why Not in Broadstairs, only opened in December 2012, is a converted shop, rather brightly lit. There is Goacher’s beer – Gold Star – here and we make an exception and stay for a full pint. It’s good, sweet buttery vanilla balanced by a bitter finish, though if I had a cask ale brewery I wouldn’t name my beer after a brand of chip shop vinegar; that would be tempting fate. There’s a pub quiz about to start, and halfway through our pints a couple of delivery guys from the local takeaway arrive with a huge order of food and people start setting plates out on their table and getting ready to dig in.

Did I mention chip shop vinegar? Up a bit from the Why Not is the Fish Inn, an apparently ordinary chippy. We pop in just for a snack really. Those “cod bites” – 10 for £3 – should do, I think, expecting battered chunks the size of ping-pong balls. When the huge parcels appear, we can only gawp in amazement: each “cod bite” is a piece of battered fish roughly a third of the size typically served alongside chips. Phil’s portion of chips would feed a family of four. My hunger is sated after two of the cod bites (I eventually finish eating them all on the train back to London).

Almost as new as the Why Not is the 39 Steps, operating only since November. It’s a more dimly lit place, and the only one we visit which has an actual bar – in the others the beer is fetched from a stillage in the back room. Okell’s Olaf Mild and Milk Street The Usual are on here, with the casks behind an air-conditioned plastic curtain. Some people from Gadd’s are drinking here, including Eddie Gadd himself, but sadly we don’t have time to hang around for long.

I never knew I wanted to drink in a pub named after a Two Ronnies sketch, until I found out that such a place existed. The Four Candles is the smallest pub so far, but we manage to squeeze in. According to the pub’s website, Broadstairs, where Ronnie Corbett had a holiday home, was the location of the original hardware shop on which Ronnie Barker based the sketch. Dark Star Original and Gadd’s Dogbolter both come rather flat, but the ambience is fantastic. There’s a cycle club, whose rides are relaxed and place a high priority on getting back to the Four Candles for opening time. My favourite so far. It’s difficult to believe this one too has only been open since August. A cup of tea for Phil and once more we’re on the move.

Phil says the micropubs attract an audience who do not feel comfortable in what I shall (for want of a more accurate term to differentiate) call “commercial” pubs. The service can be charmingly amateurish – in one we very nearly walk out without paying, and when we (of course) apologetically turn round to pay it turns out it had slipped the landlord’s mind too. That’s despite us all having shaken his hand on the way out.

For my part, it seems really exactly the same phenomenon as the hipster nanobreweries of London. Only the generation they appeal to is different, but there’s the same intimacy, endearingly makeshift set-up and the same sense of abandoning the traditional model and starting again from scratch.

Our last stop is the original, the Butchers Arms in Herne. We’re short of time and I hadn’t realised how far away Herne is from the other villages. Poor Phil is nervous that we won’t make it and we already have a Plan B of taking a later train from Canterbury.

We dash in. The original micropub, and still the smallest! There are about eight customers and it’s fairly full. Oakham JHB! They have JHB! Quickly we sup our half pints while admiring the old poster on the wall of beer labels from defunct English breweries. Meat Stout seems particularly intriguing. But there’s no time to think about Meat Stout – a tweet from Phil, who’s stayed outside, getaway driver style, telling us to get a move on. We need more JHB – fortunately the Butchers does carry-outs and we hurry out with two pints of it in a lemonade bottle. And we do make it to the station on time.

Having thanked Phil once more and boarded the train, we sup the lovely cold beer with relish on the way back to London. I always think there’s nothing quite like drinking freshly drawn cask beer on a train, and our only regret is not taking the four-pint bottle instead.

I am eternally grateful to Phil Lowry for local knowledge and heroic driving. Also thanks to Mark Dredge and Pete Brissenden who also kindly gave me lots of tips for Kent pubs, even though I changed my plans at the last minute and ended up not using any of them.


  1. Mmm, sounds rather like the beer houses of the middle 19th century.

  2. Very enjoyable piece. Pity you didn't have more time, as I imagine these places are best taken at leisure.

  3. Without the civilising effect of lager drinkers, isn't there a lot of fights?