How the thirst for tap rooms is reviving UK towns

As more small breweries open across the UK, tap rooms are increasingly springing up beside them - and breathing new life into urban areas.

June 04, 2018

A revival in brewery tap rooms is bringing a new edge to modern retail developments – and helping to revitalise town centres facing tough trading conditions and intensifying competition from the online retailers.

Tap rooms hark back to the days when pubs brewed their own beer and sold it directly to punters – a tradition that went into stark decline when larger breweries like Greene King and Scottish & Newcastle started to take over small breweries last century.

Last year, however, the number of breweries exceeded 2,000 for the first time since the 1930s in the UK and, according to the Society of Independent Brewers, around a third of small breweries now run a tap room from Bermondsey’s beer mile in London to the brewtaps nestled around Manchester’s Piccadilly station.

In some parts of the country, tap bars are being introduced to help to regenerate local areas.

In Newcastle, craft brewery Wylam is building a microbrewery underneath the Tyne Bridge as part of a development that will turn Hillgate Quays into a vibrant container community. Mercato Metropolitana in London’s Elephant & Castle has brought a vast new street food market, including the German Kraft Tap Room, to a once disused area.

The growing tap bar scene has even caught the eye of shopping centres like Westfield Stratford City, where shoppers can sample ales at specialist beer bar and microbrewery Tap East.

Richard Moulds, Associate Director in JLL’s Foodservice Consulting team, says the popularity of tap rooms has also been aided by a desire among customers for more interesting flavour and home grown produce.

“Customers today are really keen to know where the food and drink they’re consuming originates from – we’ve seen evidence of that in the burgeoning street food scene,” says Moulds. “If people can go to the place where the beer they’re drinking is brewed, you can’t really get better than that.”

Another big driver is the change in tax duty laws in 2002, which meant it became more expensive to brew more than 60,000 hectolitres of beer a year. This resulted in a rise of the number of smaller breweries who sometimes resurrected old brewery names and opened tap rooms in order to sell beer direct to customers.

Urban regeneration

While tap rooms are drawing in the crowds, they nevertheless require strategic location and design decisions.

“What makes a good tap bar is not so much about a standard design, but about matching the right space to the right audience,” says Moulds. “If the two are married together, a tap room can enhance and increase footfall to any development.”

As well as creating tap rooms, some small breweries are opening up micropubs – often the size of a living room – in empty shops on local high street streets from Bristol to Prescot.

“Micropubs and tap rooms can give a real sense of community to a town centre – something that many towns have been lacking for the past few years as many long-standing pubs have shut down,” Moulds says. “There will always be a market for places where people can meet up in a welcoming environment and sample good quality beer.”

Town centre rental costs in many UK cities might be within reach of a micropub due to their size, but Moulds says if someone wants to open a brewery and tap house they will usually seek an out-of-town location to accommodate the space required. A brewery selling beer every day would need space for around five to seven large tanks, in addition to bar space.

“Rent is the main consideration when breweries are deciding where to set up their operation,” says Moulds. “For many, an area on the outskirts of the city that is up and coming with good transport links would be an attractive option. A good brewery with tap house can be a destination and see a growth in food offers and bars in the area surrounding it.”

Industry competition

With new tap rooms and micropubs coming onto the market every month, there is a danger that the UK’s towns and cities will reach saturation point, but Moulds thinks this is a long way off – especially with demand remaining strong.

“Any brewery could create their own tap room, so there is the potential for hundreds to open up across the country,” he says. “Something we may see more of is big breweries buying up smaller breweries in order to get a piece of the craft ale action – it could be cyclic and end up with a smaller number of large breweries again. Also we are seeing a number of the new breweries closing due to stiff competition.”

Yet the growth of tap rooms and micropubs could put further pressure on the UK’s beleaguered pub industry – even though the two concepts appeal to different audiences.

“Micropubs are more about sampling good quality beer, whereas traditional pubs are places where people can go to watch the football, have a night out or treat their family to a meal,” says Moulds. “But with people of all ages upping their focus on food and drink quality, traditional pubs will have to work hard to compete with the emerging tap room scene.”

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