I write for lots of different reasons, some of which go very deep. I’ve wanted to be a writer – of some kind – since I was nine years old. But among all the complex psychology, creativity and ego needs, there are a few more pragmatic reasons why I’ve wanted to write specifically about beer over the last ten years or so.
One of these is that I really love drinking well-made, tasty craft beers, be they American hop bombs, beautifully balanced real ales or perfectly made pilsners.
The trouble is, until a few years ago not many pubs served them. I much prefer drinking in pubs to drinking at home, and nine times out of ten I would have to settle for something deeply average.
So purely selfishly, I figured that if I wrote about beer, and I was really good at it, I might in some small way encourage the spread and appreciation of great beer, and that would make it more common in pubs, and that would mean I could enjoy better beer when I’m out. You might think I do it to turn other people on to great beer, but my ultimate motive is entirely selfish.
And it’s kind of working. I’m not claiming any measure of direct credit for the spread in good quality beer, the huge rise in imports and the critical and commercial revitalisation of cask ale, but I am part of a big wave of enthusiasm that’s pushing the spread of great beer.
My local, the White Hart, used to have one dusty Spitfire pump in the corner of the bar. Now it has three well-kept cask ales – Doom Bar and Tribute on permanent, and a rotating guest.
And as of today, up the road, opposite the bus stop, we have the Jolly Butchers.
Previously, the Jolly Butchers was a Stoke Newington institution – in more than one sense of the word. It was also known as Stokie’s Bar and Father Ted’s, each rebrand not replacing the previous name but adding fresh layers to to it, like the coats of grime on the windows.
It was populated exclusively by old men wearing what the late Pete McCarthy dubbed ‘Irish drinking suits’, those once smart, now shiny and stained dark jackets and trousers that are the uniform of a certain type of veteran drinker. They’d huddle together in a vast, derelict space to watch an endless diet of horse racing on the pub’s many TVs, pumping the change from their pints of Foster’s into a bank of gaming machines.
The pub had a certain notoriety in Stoke Newington’s broader population thanks to its 3am licence, but whatever business this brought in it clearly wasn’t enough: rumour has it the pub was losing thousands of pounds a week when it finally closed earlier this year. Twitter briefly flurried with comments along the lines of “Where are we going to go to have a late night fight with an Irishman now?” and then fell silent.
Two days ago I was invited for a sneak peak at the new Jolly Butcher’s.
The Victorian wrought ironwork and stained glass above the windows, previously boarded over, has been exposed. The walls have been stripped back to the brickwork and left unfinished, stylishly shabby, apart from one wall covered in trendy Fornasetti wallpaper.
The central bar that once dominated the centre of the room has been moved to the side, and an open kitchen has been built in the corner. And as for that bar, well…
There are ten handpumps, combining beers from London’s late-to-the-party but finally emerging range of craft brewers, plus regular beers from Thornbridge and Dark Star, real cider from Gwatkin’s and a perry.
Apart from the ales, there’s smoked beer Schlenkerla on draught, as well as De Koninck, Bruges Zot, Mort Subite Kriek, Vedett, Erdinger and Meantime Helles. Yes, all on draught. Then there’s a lot of Chimay in bottles, some more Meantime and a few others. The bottle range does need beefing up, but landlord Martin wanted to focus on getting the draught range right first.
I used to have to get on a train for two hours to drink Jaipur on draught. Now I have to walk five minutes to the end of my street. My plan has worked.
I can’t claim any credit at all for the Jolly Butchers though – Martin had never heard of me until he started placing orders for beers. But when he did, people kept telling him I lived locally and he should get in touch with me. I’m so glad he followed their advice.
The other day I chipped in a few comments about the beers as the staff were taken through a tutored tasting of them by Martin (behind the bar, above). Some of the Irish drinking suits were hanging around outside, curious, proprietorial. They’re still welcome if they’re happy with no racing, no bandits and Meantime Helles instead of Foster’s.
Martin knows what he’s doing – he also runs the Rose and Crown in N16 and the Wrestlers in Highgate. Both those pubs are tied, but the Jolly Butchers is a freehouse. As such, he couldn’t wait to get his hands on it and turn it into a beer shrine. Why? Martin is a beer fan, but not a beer geek. He enjoys a decent pint, but talking to him you realise first and foremost he’s a businessman. He’s reinvented the Jolly Butchers, taking it from one extreme of the pub spectrum to the other, purely because he believes he’ll make a lot of money by doing so.
“If this doesn’t work, that means I don’t understand pubs. And the thing is, I do understand pubs – I’ve worked in them all my life,” he says.
It’s striking that he had to wait until he could get a freehold to do this – that PubCos simply wouldn’t allow him to create this dream. When the Jolly Butchers makes more money than Martin’s other pubs, than other Enterprise and Punch pubs, it will prove what readers of this blog understand but PubCos, global brewers and mainstream media still do not – craft beer is thriving, and when forty pubs a week are closing, catering to craft beer is a sure fire route to profit.
See you there tonight.