Rise of the micropub: How these tiny bars in the Sunderland area are blossoming while traditional pubs struggle

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Economists agree on very little, but they will all confirm that the best way to protect a local economy is to keep as much money as possible in the area.

The micropubs in and around Sunderland are rising to the challenges of the times; the cost of living crisis chief amongst them, while in turn investing in local breweries.

But they can’t succeed unless they provide something different and offer a good time. So they do.

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Many pubs, for reasons perhaps best known to themselves, imagine that customers don’t want to have a conversation and crank up the volume of music accordingly.

Four great micropubs which are well worth a try.Four great micropubs which are well worth a try.
Four great micropubs which are well worth a try.

Micropubs take a somewhat more civilised approach, while also eschewing mass produced drinks. They sell local brews which are not only a superior product, but those who drink them are investing in their own area, rather than in multinational conglomerates.

What is a micropub?

After 14 seconds of ceaseless internet research, we came across the definition: “A micro pub is a small licensed establishment, usually consisting of just one small room with a bar.

“The primary focus in most micro pubs is serving unique, local beer and ales of the sort that you won't find in run-of-the-mill chain pubs, often sourcing drinks from independent microbreweries in the local area.”

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Sean Turbull, owner of the Lighthouse in Fulwell.Sean Turbull, owner of the Lighthouse in Fulwell.
Sean Turbull, owner of the Lighthouse in Fulwell.

That’s about the size of it really. However, they are also known for not having jukeboxes or non-live music, fruit machines or “manufactured” beer.

They are places where discussions can be held on great matters of state, art, literature, philosophy – or complete rubbish. Talk about whatever you fancy really, it doesn’t matter. What’s important in micropubs, other than nice drinkies, is human interaction which is difficult to achieve when Meghan Trainor’s latest is being given rather too much welly.

It’s what places us above the beasts.

Our local micropubs

Alice Pye of Blue's micropub in Whitburn.Alice Pye of Blue's micropub in Whitburn.
Alice Pye of Blue's micropub in Whitburn.

Among such establishments on our patch are The Lighthouse and Ocean, which are about 100 metres apart on Fulwell’s Sea Road.

The Lighthouse opened in December 2019 and has built up a loyal and appreciative clientele. Ocean began trading in May 2021. The two bars complement each other, as people who frequent one also tend to call in at the other.

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They are becoming part of an established pub crawl which features more conventional pubs nearby, such as the Blue Bell and Royal Marine.

The Stables on Boldon Lane in Cleadon opened in April 2021, selling the wares of the Lazy Lizard Brewery which is based at the same premises and makes IPA. The locals love it.

The cosy inside of Stables in Whitburn.The cosy inside of Stables in Whitburn.
The cosy inside of Stables in Whitburn.

Then there is Blue’s, another micropub, this time on Percy Terrace in Whitburn. It was opened in 2020 and again, was immediately taken to the hearts of locals.

Run by the recently married Alice Pye and Callum Watson, it isn’t just local backing which is establishing the place. In 2022 it was named as the North East Cider Pub of the Year by The Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA).

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All four micropubs are short distances from bus stops, so there’s no need for a designated driver.

What it’s like running a micropub and the bargains on offer

In short, it isn’t easy to compete with huge breweries as well as cheap supermarket offers. But management and customers alike think it’s all worth the effort.

Lorraine Bengston, manager of The Stables having previously been a midwife for 34 years, said: “We’re doing okay and the reviews from the customers are fab. We’re all quite new to it.

"We have live music, a quiz, table magic, wine tasting. We’re always trying to think outside the box because people don’t want to come to pubs anymore. You have to entice them.

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“It’s hard work, but fun. It can be difficult because we’re small and need to fit people in. But if we were bigger I think we’d lose what’s nice about being a micropub. We’d just be like everybody else.”

Sean Turnbull owns of The Lighthouse on Sea Road. He has a wealth of experience behind him including 10 years at the Maxim Brewery, with another 12 at Vaux before that.

He decided to try running a pub in 2019. He loves what he does and knows what he’s talking about. It’s tough, especially in the present economic climate. But he seems to have cracked it.

He told the Echo: “I’m good friends with the breweries. But they’ve been hit with costs and it gets passed down the chain. Our own cost of living has gone up. Bottles of gas have doubled in price and lots of little things like that all add up.

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“But in a lot of places now you’re looking at an average price of £5 a pint. My average is £3.60. I’m keeping to my promise, which was a decent pint for a decent price.

“I’ve got some lovely customers and some of them have said to put the prices up. But I’ve said no. That’s not why I opened the pub.

“I got sick of the big breweries charging five and six pounds for a pint. That was the whole point of me doing it. Instead of being bullied by the big breweries and the pub chains, having a micropub meant selling at a reasonable price.

“It’s hard work, but I do enjoy it and we’ve got great customers.

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“We offer a good pint at a decent price. There’s a warm welcome and people like that there are no TVs or music. You can come here and actually talk to each other.

Sean, 50, doesn’t see another nearby micropub, Ocean, as rivals. Quite the opposite. The two bars support each other and want the whole area to thrive.

Get yourself there

Price and product play an important part. But perhaps micropubs are mostly about atmosphere. So why not try them?

A few drinks in some quite excellent bars appeals to the many. Especially when you can claim that you were only doing so to boost the local economy.

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