Friday, 27 May 2016

The Watchmaker's Arms

It’s snowing as I head out to the Watchmaker’s Arms. It’s that wet, slushy snow that you get in the liminal weeks between winter and spring, the kind that disintegrates on contact and soaks my jacket and hair whilst a cold wind whips around my ears. The prospect of a warm and cosy pub has rarely seemed more appealing. The Watchmakers’ doors have only been open a matter of minutes, but the first regular customer is already sitting down with an early-afternoon pint and newspaper, and it’s not long until there’s a glass of Hammerpot’s Bottle Wreck Porter in my hand. It’s rich and warming with deep liquorice flavours, and I’ve soon forgotten the grey, apocalyptic skies outside.

This is East Sussex’s first and currently only micropub. I’ve been in pubs that are physically smaller, but the micropub model is more about taking a back-to-basics approach than necessarily setting up in a tiny premises. It’s easy to define this in negative terms – “no television, no music, no gaming machines” says Ali, one of four partners who own and run the pub – that don’t make micropubs sound especially inviting or fun, and there are those that find them a little exclusive. But think about the positive inversion of what this all means – a social environment that both encourages the sharing of tables and conversation, but also a peaceful place to relax with a book and a pint if you prefer. And, of course, a focus on beer which, bizarrely, is a subject many of Brighton and Hove’s innumerable pubs don’t seem particularly interested in. “Beer is what brings most people to us”, Ali says “a really nice pint of ale, served at the right temperature, straight from the cask. And then they say it’s friendly, or they met someone they liked here and that brings them back.”

Coincidence plays a large part in Ali and Ruth’s story. A former teacher and teaching assistant respectively, they were both looking for a change when an intriguing property came up on nearby Richardson Road, a small community shopping street. “You know how you start looking at houses for sale when you’re not really intending to buy one? I started looking at commercial property online, and this place came up”, Ali explains. Despite having fallen in love with Kent’s micropubs, it wasn’t the first thing to spring to mind – “I thought maybe I could sell furniture.” As it turned out, Ruth and husband Rick had already had the thought that the same property would make a great micropub - “and that was it, that’s what started it.”

After a lot of time, effort and money, the seller pulled out. But soon their current premises, a couple of hundred yards from Hove train station, came up for sale. As with many micropubs, the building is an old shop. With a visit to a local history archive, they discovered it had been a watchmaker’s in 1889, giving the pub its name. “We were worried it might have been a brothel or an undertakers”, says Ruth – “The Undertakers Arms!” They’ve now been here a little over a year, celebrating their first birthday with a weekend-long beer festival – when I visited, a steady stream of casks from the likes of 360 and Brighton Bier were rolling in in preparation.

There’s no bar here as such – more of a counter where you place your order, which is then poured from gravity-dispensing stillage in a separate room. Pump clips, wreaths of hops and regulars’ pewter tankards line the walls, along with a tasteful collection of clocks to tie in with the watchmaking theme. Alongside the beer, local cider and wine are served, but lager is notably absent. I’m intrigued by this – even the most beer-focused pubs and bars operate on the logic that you must serve at least one lager. “We do get people come in and ask for it”, says Ali. “Quite often they’ll come in with a friend who’s an ale drinker and very often we can find something they like.” “People come in and say “do you do lager?” and we say no, and either they try something or they go somewhere where they can get it”, says Ruth. “It’s a bit different to go somewhere where it’s just real ale and real cider.” This is the important point, I think. Should we really worry that lager drinkers (closed-minded lager drinkers who won’t even consider trying anything else, at that) might be excluded from micropubs when lager is available absolutely everywhere else, and decent cask ale isn’t? I think not.

The micropub model offers a lot of freedom and, in the Watchmaker’s case, very few challenges. Overheads are low, so financially there’s less risk in staying small and doing things their own way. Getting started even sounds painless – long waiting times notwithstanding. “The micropubs in West Sussex seemed to have a lot of restrictions put on them from what we know of them”, say Ruth, “like there’s no vertical drinking, so everyone has to be sitting down. I don’t know why, because some of them are so small, there’s not even any room to have a fight even if you wanted to! It was as if they were making it difficult for them to open, whereas for us it was a bit long winded but everything was fine.” In fact, they had their fans at the council – “we had a lot of people there who said “oh I love real ale, that sounds really cool!””, Ali says. Indeed, most of their restrictions are self-imposed – “they couldn’t believe that we’d be closing at nine and only sell real ale!” Ruth says.

As of a few months ago, the Watchmaker’s is also home to BeerCraft, a small pilot brewery using their premises to brew beer for sale here as well as other local pubs. “We’re really lucky because we’d have taken his beer even if it was average, seeing as he’s here”, Ali says, “but it’s really good!” “It just sells like hot cakes”, Ruth adds, “we put it on and it just goes straight away. It’s a real talking point. People come in and ask about his beer and want to know when it will be on. It’s good for us and good for him, because he’s just starting out and he’s got somewhere to brew."

After a successful first year, they seem content to keep doing what they do so well. “There are some very business-minded people who get off the train and come in who ask us, “what are your plans to expand?””, Ali says, “and we say, “nothing!” It will be nice if this carries on and does well but we’re not building an empire.” Sometimes small is just perfect.

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