Published: 06:00, 08 May 2021
Martyn Hillier had been selling draught ale out of his flower shop for seven years when he was told he could turn the business into a pub.
Drinkers would descend on his store – called Herne Village Florist and Beer Seller – near Herne Bay and march past the flowers sold inside for a tipple.
But during a conversation with a Canterbury City Council licensing officer, the then 46-year-old was informed a recent change in the law had eased the way for spaces to be converted into boozers.
Shortly afterwards, in November 2005, Martyn opened the country’s first micropub.
“It couldn’t be done before 2005 – it was nigh-on impossible because of the old laws,” the landlord, now 62, says.
“After speaking to the licensing officer, my first thought was, ‘Bloody pubs. They sell lager and most people smoke in them. And they’re not friendly places.’
“But then I realised this was going to be my pub – I would decide what I’d sell. It would be my pub, and I’d do as I wish.”
Called the Butcher’s Arms, the watering hole had no music, television, lager or food.
It was not equipped with a conventional bar either, in a bid to prevent patrons from spending inordinate time queuing for drinks.
Seats were also positioned in such a way that they all faced each other, forcing pub-goers into conversation.
“The banter in the pub is the winner,” Martyn adds. “It’s brilliant – it’s better than watching TV.”
This created a band of regulars, which includes, according to Martyn, former nuclear submariners, senior police officers and millionaires.
While inside, many of them are known by different names, including Popeye, Andy the Onion and Kev the Pickle.
Despite this, the Butcher’s Arms remained the only micropub in the country for four years. Martyn’s vision for pubs was looked upon with suspicion.
“I opened expecting loads to follow me, but they didn’t,” he continues.
“They were just thinking it can’t work – if big pubs selling food can’t work, how can this?
“But my overheads are so low. Shops are cheap to rent and, by not serving food, I don’t need to employ chefs and waitresses.
“Costs go on the beer because that’s what people can’t buy anywhere else, proper draught beer.”
The second sprouted up in Hartlepool, sparking a wave of new micropub openings in former tattoo parlours, saddleries, pet shops and hairdressers across the country.
They were all small free houses that predominantly served cask ale and were wedded to the notion that all forms of electronic entertainment should be shunned. They also subscribed to the idea that the only food sold on-site should be traditional bar snacks.
There are now 720 in the UK. Martyn says he lost the custom of six of his own customers, as they too decided to launch their own micropubs.
One of them was Bob Jackson. The 76-year-old, along with old friends Gary O’Hara and Werner Neumann, chewed over the idea of running their own boozer after their local in Strood was bought by a landlord intent on attracting a younger clientele.
They sampled the atmosphere in the The Butcher’s Arms, and liked what they saw. But just to be sure they were on to a winner, the trio visited 27 more micropubs across Kent.
After completing their rigorous investigation in 2015, they unveiled the 10:50 from Victoria, which lies in a railway arch behind an Asda car park.
“I’ve got a property in Strood with 11 railway arches in the garden. We just chose one and that was it,” Bob remembers.
“It took three or four months to convert it. We had to render the inside to stop the water coming through from the railway.
“I didn’t think it would do all that well to start with, but you’d be surprised just how many people like real ale. There was just us three guys drinking in it and then it grew and grew and grew.
“It’s very popular now. There were 130 people in the garden last Saturday.”
The pub, which can squeeze a maximum of 30 punters inside, only serves real ale, cider and wine,
Like Martyn, the trio decided not to sell food or lager and dispensed with anything they thought could inhibit conversations between customers.
It is for this reason that many landlords believe their premises have become integral to their communities.
Retired police officer Shawn Galvin says his Broadstairs micropubs, the Yard of Ale and Mind the Gap, attract men and women of all ages.
“Because there is no loud music or any distractions, like fruit machines, it’s a community hub,” he explains. “Everyone’s sitting down chatting to each other and everyone’s friendly.
“We get people inside ranging from 18-year-olds to people in old age.”
Before Shawn launched the Yard of Ale, his first pub, the building used to be a decrepit stable. Despite having to contend with collapsing walls and mangled windows, he says the six-month renovation of the site cost him just £16,000.
“It was a lot of hard work, but it paid off. If someone wanted to start one up, there’s no massive outlay,” he opines.
“If you could just convert a shop that didn’t need an awful lot done to it, anything from £8,000 to £15,000 would probably be enough.
“Because they’re generally smaller, you get rate relief and you pay less for heating.”
The hospitality industry has been among the hardest-hit by the pandemic, prompting some landlords to fear micropubs will be forced to close.
But Kent filmmaker Syd Heather, whose documentary Micropubs - The New Local is set to premier next month, believes their rise will continue once life returns to normal.
"For the most part, because of their low overheads, I think they have been able to manage better than larger pubs because they can be run solo or with just one or two others," the 30-year-old reasons.
"With that business model I think they’re more likely to have at least managed to sustain themselves over the last year, so I think generally they’ll be OK. I think they can bounce back a bit quicker than larger pubs."
Learn about more micropubs across the county…
The Paper Mill, Sittingbourne
Landlord Harvey Melia runs the pub out of a former builder’s merchants.
The owner of the building was eyeing up converting the site into two flats before the publican and mum Marianne, 54, convinced him to allow them set up a tavern instead.
Harvey says that, when it opened in 2013, “it was one of the first 15-20 micropubs to happen in Kent”.
“It was the perfect size and just out of town, which is where we wanted to be because we wanted to be a hidden gem,” the 30-year-old recalls.
“My dad and I found ourselves having to go out of town to get good beer, whether it was to Faversham or Maidstone. There was none within walking distance for us.
“We’ve made it our hobby of finding the very best beers and showcasing them in Sittingbourne.
“We get people coming who are in their 20s, and also 70 or 80-year-olds who meet up every Tuesday for a couple of pints of mild.
“One of my favourite stories is we had a couple who’d been coming here for a few years, they got chatting to a bloke and it turned out they lived about four doors apart for eight years. It was through a chance meeting at the pub that they met their neighbour.”
The Mole Hole, Gravesend
One of the latest additions to the county's beer scene, this alehouse set up shop in a former tattoo parlour.
Sitting empty and unloved in the middle of town for several months the idea to turn the space in to a micropub was first mooted during a changing room chat at Gravesend Rugby Club.
Graeme Trigg is one of 10 partners behind the venture.
He previously told KentOnline: “I think micropubs are still up and coming.
“There’s been such a warmth and enthusiasm for it - people are just so pleased to see another micropub opening up.”
The Thirsty Scarecrow, Dover
Owners Katy Tatham and Kieran Redmond transformed a former greasy spoon into the boozer six years ago.
The pair also operate a side business from the premises, a hair salon.
The boho-style tavern is also Britain's first micro cider house and scooped the title of best cider provider in the district in 2017.
The Heritage, Sheerness
The alehouse moved into the Minster Road site in 2013, becoming Sheppey’s first micropub.
It took over the premises after the Post Office, which was run from the same building, closed in the same year.