Small is beautiful

by Steve Renshaw

This month, I’m off to Newark to visit the pub that has beaten our own Strugglers Inn to be named CAMRA’s East Midlands Pub of the Year. And Just Beer isn’t an ordinary pub – it’s a micropub!

Most beer drinkers are familiar with the idea of a microbrewery. The term has been used since the late 1970s to describe the new generation of small breweries which focus on producing traditional cask ale. But a micropub?

At CAMRA’s 2009 AGM in Eastbourne, we heard how the Licensing Act 2003 had made it easier to set up a new pub. Martyn Hillier had turned a former butcher’s shop in the Kent village of Herne into a tiny pub. The micropub formula that he developed involved converting an existing (small) premises, selling real ale with no lager whatsoever, and promoting lively chat with no music.

Former chairman of Newark CAMRA, Phil Ayling, who was in the audience that day, was inspired to have a go himself. He got together with three other enthusiasts to work on the project.

The search for suitable premises took them to the Swan and Salmon Yard, close to Newark Castle. The unit had originally been part of the stables of a nearby coaching inn. Following extensive building work, Just Beer opened its doors in August 2010. At 8.5 metres by 3.5 metres and with a limit of 57 customers at any one time, it’s one of the biggest of the micropubs that have sprung up across the country.

The aim of the four “tapsters” was to provide the best features of a traditional pub. They seek out beers from microbreweries across the country that are not normally found in the town, and also support local brewers. The beer is served in oversize glasses so you can be sure of getting a full pint. Tasting notes are provided and, if you’re not sure what to choose, they’ll give you a sample. There’s no TV or gaming machine so, in the confined space, lively conversations can develop.

On weekdays, four ales are available, with five or six at the weekend. There are no regular beers and there’s always a dark ale available. A board over the bar gives the number of different beers served since they opened; on the day I visited, the total stood at 1,310.

If you can’t find a beer you like, there’s traditional cider and a perry. The only other drinks are red or white wine, cola or water. You certainly won’t find any keg beers or trendy bottles.

When they first started, there was no food on offer, but they now have crisps and snacks for drinkers with the munchies. The platter of local cheese and biscuits looked very tempting.

Since Just Beer opened, business has built steadily. They’re now selling around 1,000 pints each week plus cider and perry, with relatively low overheads. And being voted one of the top sixteen pubs in the country can’t harm trade, can it?

And what about the beer? I couldn’t resist trying the latest brew from Project Venus, the occasional collaboration of brewsters (women brewers) from across the country. Sugar & Spice (4.6% ABV) was produced at Brentwood Brewing Company in Essex. It’s a pale gold colour and was fermented with honey and root ginger. I’m not usually a fan of beer with added ingredients, but this mix was very subtle. There was some early sweetness, and the hops and ginger combined to produce a wonderful aftertaste that stayed with me for most of the journey back to Lincoln.

To find out more about the Campaign for Real Ale in Lincoln, visit www.lincolncamra.org.uk