Tuesday 28 June 2011

Britain's First "Craft Beer" Bar

Just over ten years ago a bar opened in London.

Not just any bar. Britain’s first new-wave beer bar. Britain’s first bar, as far as we know, explicitly using the term “craft beer.” It was our bar. Me and my brother.

In 1998 I’d had a holiday in San Francisco. I’d gone there knowing good beer was available but expecting to experience the feelings I’d always had at home – constant frustration at the lack of opportunities to drink the stuff, and the thought that my interest in beer was somehow embarrassing and not to be mentioned in polite company for fear of being perceived loutish or nerdy.

I was staying in my friends’ flat in a fairly lifeless neighbourhood of car dealerships and furniture showrooms. On my first night in San Francisco, exhausted by travelling, I needed some beer. I went down to the grocery store on the ground floor of the apartment block. I discovered a range of colourful bottles and intriguing bottles. Result! That was the night I became enchanted by Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. There were also beers from Anchor and a number of other beers from Californian, Oregon and Washington I’d never heard of.

I’d struck lucky. The local grocery store had a good beer selection.

Well, I thought I’d struck lucky. What I found in the following two weeks was that good beer was everywhere. My initial find wasn’t anything special. These beers, and more, were everywhere. And what is more, the people drinking these beers were the very people that the real ale businesses at home found hard to sell to: young people and women.

This trip, and a return visit the following year, convinced me that the struggles and complaints of marginalisation in the world of real ale were simple failures of marketing rather than incontestable laws of nature. It’s that “narrative” thing: buy into the real ale mindset and buy the idea that good beer is a hard sell.

Back home Steve and I became evangelists for a new way of selling beer. We’d often mulled over the idea of opening a pub or bar that would do quality beer in a new way, ditching the real ale shibboleths. We wouldn’t be anti-lager or anti-keg, acknowledging that CAMRA’s proposition – real ale good; everything else bad – just ain’t true[1]. Beer would be on a pedestal, loud, proud and if you didn’t like it you could go elsewhere: there’d be no pandering to mass-produced blandness.

There were, and still are, lots of real ale pubs, but that model was not what we were about. We knew there were many potential customers who wished to drink good beer but not wear the “I’m a real ale drinker” rosette. The world of real ale has it’s own dogmas and narratives. There are the beliefs that it’s hard to sell beer to young people and it’s hard to sell beer to women. Is it any wonder?

Strongly influenced by the American craft beer market with its profusion of microbreweries, the prefix “micro” spoke to us. The beers we would sell were largely characterised by their relatively small-scale production. MicroBar seemed natural and it stuck. We knew a microbar was a one-millionth of a bar of pressure but we didn’t think it was a problem.

We started doing some research into the nitty-gritty of the business: leases, funds, licenses, planning permission, suppliers – anything we could think of that might be useful to know. I found myself become a bit obsessed with identifying the subtle factors that made a bar or pub feel right. I carried around a thermometer to measure ambient temperatures; I carried a tape measure to find the optimum elbow-on-bar height. I closely watched people’s behaviour in pubs.

We spent a lot of time in the British Library’s business section in its old site at Clerkenwell. We studied marketing data and publications. All the pointers were that our emerging plan was a good one. I recently re-discovered at notebook I was using at the time. In it I found some hand-written notes:

Keynote Premium, Lagers, Beers [sic] and Ciders, 1997:
“Consumers are now discerning. They are drinking less but are prepared to pay more for something which they believe is good quality”
“The demand for premium lagers, ales and ciders has been growing continuously for many years. The cynical viewpoint is that the UK drinks industry provided low-quality drinks for far too long”
“The market for premium beers grew by 20.7% in 1992-1996, mainly dark beers.”
“The brewers have recognised that the public houses created in the sixties and seventies are no longer interested in the younger consumer but have failed to do anything about it.”
“The creation of more interesting modern on-trade outlets for drinks favours the supply of new premium brands.”
“Mature lager drinkers are discovering new, distinctive tastes from brewers in Europe, particularly Germany, Belgium and the Czech Republic.”
“Consumers in the UK are clearly interested not only in premium products but totally new concepts and brands.”
The long search for premises began. We weren’t going to compromise our ideals by being subject to a supply tie, so leased pubs were out of the question. We certainly couldn’t afford to buy the freehold of a pub. We had to look at the kind of premises that would define our business as a bar rather than pub.
We had a choice: fork out a stack of money for the lease on premises ready to trade, or fork out a stack of money making a bare “shell” premises fit for the job. There were lots of premises available but few had the requisite A3 planning status. The ones that did tended to be existing business for which the “premium” was hugely expensive. Taking on bare premises then failing to get a “change of use” to A3 was too risky.

Many months went by. We researched countless potential sites but were getting nowhere slowly. We lived in the area that is either described as Battersea or Clapham according to the whims of estate agents. One day, on Lavender Hill we passed a To Let sign on a boarded-up shop site. It looked like a disaster area but we called the agent anyway. It was in a state of disrepair after a company had taken a lease with the intention of building a Bulgarian restaurant. In documents we later inherited, the named individuals have to disappeared one at a time. They had started work knocking down walls and tearing up floors but it seems the people named were spirited away one at a time. The site was back in the hands of the landlord who was embarking on a very necessary renovation. Although the place was a wreck the Bulgarians had done something very useful – they’d successfully applied for change of use to planning permission to A3 status. The location wasn’t particularly good – few local business to provide lunchtime trade, and a somewhat grubby little corner within an otherwise affluent district – but we beggars couldn’t be choosers. It would have cost about £100,000 more to set up in the honeypots of Clapham High Street or the Junction. We’d just have to cope with being on one of the bus routes between them.

Taking on the lease of business premises is rather like buying a house. It’s a lot more complicated than renting a flat; an activity it superficially resembles. The landlord had, in principle, accepted our proposal and those obfuscating parasites known as solicitors were let loose.

Meanwhile we had to deal with another set of obfuscating parasites – the banks. We were looking for a loan of £50,000 secured against the future value of the lease and the future business[2]. We approached several. To our surprise, one said yes. The bank whose name resembles “Twat Nest” would lend us £50,000.

This was September 2000. All the ingredients were coming into place. That feeling of “keeping the plates spinning” familiar to all business owners was starting to occur.

Establishing some idea of the amount of time necessary for each of the ingredients, lease, loan, license, and countless other things, to be in place was of paramount importance. Missing ingredients would create delays and cost money. We asked the bank how long it typically takes for all the paperwork to be done and for us to get our hands on the loot. Nine weeks they said. Nine weeks.

We could be open by Christmas, or so we naively thought. The solicitors did their usual trick. They ground to a halt. Sorting out the minor niggling points in the draft lease became exercises of great tedious and tortuous letter writing. Although some were very necessary, such as the removal of the requirement that the premises be vacated between 11pm and 7am, some of the more arcane details seemed designed by solicitors to keep their colleagues in work. When a point was raised a letter had to be written to the landlord’s solicitors. This would take a week. The chap who owned the company that owned the building lived in the Caribbean. The reply would take a week and more. It was as if email and fax hadn’t been invented.

December arrived and the lease was signed. The loan funds were nowhere to be seen. We embarked on the renovation with our funds. Christmas came and went. January and February saw the building firm embark on the transformation while we dealt with a profusion of red-tape tangles.

We’d asked our solicitor about the license application. With an admirable and rare candidness he told us it wasn’t worth us spending money with him – we should do it ourselves. How to actually go about the application took all our detective powers. I believe it’s improved since the 2005 change in the licensing laws, but under the old system there was no book, leaflet or guide. Gaining insight into what was required for a new license relied on quizzing the clerks at the magistrate’s court. Do you know what the “Proper Office” is? No? Nor did we. We envisaged Victorian gentlemen busying themselves issuing enforcement notices for the covering-up of piano legs. This mysterious entity was one recipient of the application. There were eight others. An application in nine-tuplicate.

One of the terms of our lease was that we had a rent-free period of thirteen weeks in which to prepare the premises. Plenty of time – or so we thought.

The deal we had with the building company was that we’d pay a third upfront, a third during the work, and a third on satisfactory completion of the work. In mid-February the second payment was due. Five months on from the Twat Nest’s nine weeks advice, the loan money still hadn’t arrived. The builders drifted on to jobs on other sites. It would be unnecessarily tabloid to say they “downed tools” but the message was clear: we carry on building when you pay the second instalment. The rent-free thirteen weeks had evaporated and we were nowhere near ready to trade.

Things got frantic. We pestered family and friend for loans. The Twat Nest had given us corporate credit cards. In a living paradox, in effect, we borrowed money from the bank that was failing to lend us money. They gained from extra interest of course.

The building work resumed. The site needed inspecting by the council to ensure the regulations were being met. We had two or three visits from a kindly fifty-something chap wielding a clipboard. We drank cups of tea and chatted. All the boxes were ticked and nothing had to be altered. Three years later Steve called me with a sense of urgency: “put the telly on; the news; it’s that building bloke”. There he was, top of the news and on the front page of the newspapers. He had been sent down for a very long time for a particularly nasty series of rapes of young women going back twenty or so years. I had thought of myself as a pretty good judge of character but this made me reassess. Scary.

As the premises started to look like a bar we started decorating. Next door was a paint shop. They provided test pots of paints and we decorated one wall with splotches of vivid colour. After much chin-rubbing, a three colour palette was decided upon: a rich plummy dark red, a sand colour and a pale grey for the ceiling. With the decorating underway a friend visited and remarked that we’d chosen the colour scheme of Chimay Red. It wasn’t intentional.

The licensing committee sat once a month. To get a license, all the paperwork had to be in place and the premises be inspected by members of the committee to check it was fit to trade. If you couldn’t tick these boxes, or you anticipated you couldn’t tick these boxes, your application would roll over to the next month. And so it was in February, March and April 2001 we watched the licensing session come and go. Thanks to the Twat Nest’s utter shoddiness we were paying rent on our premises while not trading.

In this period were on the phone to the Twat Nest almost daily. A poster and a leaflet in the local branch declared that business managers were based locally[3] and they were available every day. Fucking liars.

One day I rang the business manager’s office. The manager’s assistant David told us Brian[4] wasn’t in the office that day. Getting frustrated I decided David would just have to do. I launched into my long list of niggling details the bank had to get a bloody move on with. About ten minutes into the call I stumped David with a question he couldn’t answer. This wrong-footed him. Letting his guard down, he said “I’ll have to hand you over to Brian for that one.” Available every day? Fucking liars.

My advice to new business owners is to treat every interaction with a bank just as you would with an estate agent or used car salesman. I also suggest recording every phone call you have with anyone important and make detailed notes of what was said. You really ought to tell those you are speaking to that you are recording them, but if you are simply recording them in order to keep notes and not retaining the recording, who’s to know? In legal proceedings contemporary notes are given a great deal of credence – so make good ones about any negotiations you undertake.[5]

We started to recruit staff. Stupidly, we put an advert in Clapham Junction job centre. We were very specific in that we wanted people who could hold a conversation. As we’d be expecting them to be familiar with the beers they’d be selling, we didn’t want teetotallers. We firmly believe that if a customer props up the bar, he or she wants conversation and to meet new people; if a customer sits at a table, he or she wants privacy. The role of bar staff is not simply to serve and drinks; bar staff are the catalysts for the social interaction of customers at the bar. The bar staff would have to be able to hold an intelligent conversation and not be shy; they would also have to serve beer correctly. The latter is the easy bit. Our interviews were designed to eliminate the candidates who we thought would struggle with the former. The fools at the job centre disregarded our needs. Streams of people came knocking at the door straight from their consultation with their job advisors. It became annoying. We were spending time fending off people who could barely speak English and, to our astonishment, we even had to interview teetotallers – umpteen times we had people tell us “Oh no, I don’t drink, I’m a devout [Christian/Muslim/Hindu].” We phoned the job centre and told them quite firmly not to send non-English speakers and teetotallers. But still they came. I presume the job centre functionaries were happy presenting to their bosses glowing figures about how many people had been successfully despatched to job interviews. That the valuable time of business owners was being wasted didn’t seem to be of any importance to them.

Time marched on apace. The place was starting to look like a bar. After long days painting, sawing and nailing we open a few bottles and put our elbows on the new varnish. Our research into suppliers had revealed James Clay & Sons. They’d been round to install two keg lines: Anchor Steam and Liberty Ale, the only US keg beers in the UK at that time. Tentatively we sampled them. Yup, that’s the stuff. The Beer Seller delivered countless cases of bottled beer and we eagerly filled our newly-leased fridges.

May arrived and with us working frantically to finish furbishing. Soon we felt we were ready for inspection by the licensing committee. On Tuesday 8th May we dutifully attended court and went through the rigmarole of affirming and confirming our license application. The magistrates would visit the following day.

Wednesday 9th May 2001. Butterflies the size of pterodactyls fluttered in our stomachs. At 2pm two members of the committee and a clerk knocked on the door. One of the magistrates did all the talking. A big rosy-cheeked bloke, he looked no stranger to the delights of public houses. They toured the building making sure all the essential facilities were in place. “All good”, he told us, “you’ve got your license, the full paperwork will follow.”

Sighs of relief were breathed.

That evening at 6pm, we opened the doors. Customers arrived. They drank beer.

Two weeks after we opened the loan funds from the Twat Nest arrived. This was the middle of May 2001, eight months after we’d been told nine weeks. The most painful consequence of the bank’s shiteness was that we had used the working capital we had budgeted on. I still believe that when banks' business departments pore over their spreadsheets they conclude that bankrupting small business owners is more profitable than allowing them to prosper. A big launch do, advertising, a swanky website were sacrificed. Things were tight, and remained forever tight, but it was fun, as we did our pioneering bit for craft beer in the UK.

[1] Paraphrasing Duke Ellington “there are two kinds of beer: good, and the other kind.”
[2] Eh, that’s what it were like in t’Good Old Days, before t’banking crisis.
[3] The business banking office was in Beckenham in SE London. That can almost be described as “local”. Later, once we were up and running, the business office moved to Hertfordshire. That cannot be described as “local” by any stretch of the imagination. We almost went to the Banking Ombudsman about this. I wish we had.
[4] Not their real names.
[5] None of this constitutes legal advice.


StringersBeer said...

Excellent - ahead of the curve? Why not do it again in Cumbria, where we're still waiting for the curve. What could possibly go wrong?

dredpenguin said...

A great read. Used to drink in Clapham Junction area a lot in the 1990's and early 2000's (mainly at the Falcon to be fair) and never came across this place.

What happened next? Does the bar still exist? If so is it still a craft beer bar?

Jeff Pickthall said...

@dredgepenguin Yes it's still there selling great beer. It mutated into the "Ink Rooms" in 2009.

Anonymous said...

Brilliant read! The joys of brewreaucracy!


BeerReviewsAndy said...

Nice one!! Like strigers says u should
Do it in Cumbria...

Mark said...

Nice potted history of MicroBar Mr Pickthall :) you were ahead of your time

Anonymous said...

A great story ,well done for sticking it out with the bureacrats.
I had a similar experience to yours in the summer on a visit to California, I couldn't believe the range and quality of the beer, I just hope the UK can follow the example. God bless America!