A new phenomenon has been appearing in our towns and cities in recent years: the creation of new small pubs in former shops. I remember the pioneer of micropubs, Martin Hillier, who opened the UK's first in Kent, speak about them to the CAMRA conference a few years ago. His approach involved no spirits, alcopops, keg beers, music, TV, juke boxes, and with only real ale, boxed real ciders, real ale in bottles and continental beers, especially Belgian. Put like that, it seems a rigid formula, but - like the term craft beer - it has no authority to justify it or any agreed definition. Do all new small pubs have to conform to it to be classed as micropubs?
In north Merseyside we now have four new small pubs converted from shops, three in Southport and one in Crosby, and I'm told there is a fifth on the way in Southport. There is also one in nearby Ormskirk in west Lancashire.
The oldest is the Inn Beer Shop on Southport's Lord Street, which I have written about many times, such as here; it's five or six years old, and while I'm unsure whether it strictly complies with the Hillier formula, it is certainly the first of its kind in Merseyside. It always sells beer from the Southport Brewery, which isn't very surprising as the brewer Paul Bardsley is the proprietor Pete Bardsley's brother. If this is a micropub according to the formula, it beats the Liverpool Pigeon (see below) by several years.
A few minutes' walk from Southport Station is the Tap and Bottles in the Cambridge Arcade, which opened last year in a former lingerie shop. As you can see from what I previously wrote, this does not comply with the Hillier formula. It has also had live acoustic music once a month recently - a Hillier no-no - and at other times has discreet background music that you can choose.
Close to Birkdale Station (the final stop before Southport on the Liverpool line) you'll find the Barrel House. This bar was converted from a newsagent's and it definitely does not comply with the template, as it sells, among other things, one smoothflow beer next to the real ale, Theakson's Bitter when I've been there. Curiously, it still sells papers and runs its old paper rounds!
The micropub that the Good Beer Guide (GBG) claims is the first in Merseyside is Crosby's Liverpool Pigeon, which opened in 2013 in an old children's clothes shop. This undeniably fits the definition and was last year's Liverpool CAMRA's Pub of the Year. It is close to Liverpool Road (A565), a major bus route, and about a mile's walk from Blundellsands railway station.
In Ormskirk, there is the Hop Inn Bier Shop on Burscough Street, the only one of these I have yet to visit. I don't know whether it complies with the formula in terms of what it sells, but according to the GBG it does have a Bavarian night, a quiz night and live music at the weekends, all of which may exclude it. Despite the name, this pub has no connection with Southport's Inn Beer Shop, but was set up by of Mike McCombe of the Hop Vine pub in Burscough, home of Burscough Brewery.
So are all these pubs micropubs? I think yes: they are all pubs and are undeniably small. The fact the some don't conform to the business model preferred by Martin Hillier shouldn't rule them out. All are primarily beer-orientated, but there is nothing wrong with catering for those who aren't beer drinkers; this will certainly give such places a broader appeal, and I have noticed that they seem more likely to attract groups of women than many conventional pubs. For myself, I have no more interest in drinking in an environment segregated by style of drink than I have by gender.
Martin Hillier is certainly an influential pioneer, but when I saw him speak, he was throwing out ideas, not laying down laws. The fact that he was the first doesn't mean his preferred approach is sacrosanct, or that it will suit all people and situations. What makes pubs, micro or otherwise, interesting is not conformity to a universal template, but diversity. Let's not create a dogma out of a good idea.
I've just noticed that there is a Micropub Association who state on their website: "The definition of a micropub is challenging. It is a set of ethics rather than a set of rules."
The Inn Beer Shop, The Hop Inn Bier Shop and the Liverpool Pigeon are all the GBG.