Trading spaces

How the pub is evolving to meet the needs of a modern audience
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Before digging into this piece, humour me for a moment: close your eyes and try to visualise your perfect pub. What did your personal ideal of a public house look like? Was the outside simple and minimalistic, or was it done up in shining, glorious tilework? Was the interior bright, airy and spacious or was it cosy and confined – full of nooks and crannies in which to hide away and perhaps enjoy a solitary pint?

Was the bar top made of copper, concrete, brass or wood? Were there several gleaming handpulls of cask ale or was there a sharp, modern wall of keg taps? How about the floors - did you go for tiles, wooden floorboards or did you go à la Wetherspoon and put down a luridly putrid, yet strangely enchanting carpet? Or perhaps it was none of those things. I’m sure for many of you the idea of a pub is rooted in many of these traditional ideals but for others, that ideal could be a different space entirely.

In this rapidly evolving modern beer market is it now time to leave the traditional notion of the Great British pub behind us as we strive to embrace the new? Or does the idyllic notion of a classic public house need to be protected, so we might avoid losing a slice of heritage to the history books? Perhaps it’s time to redefine what we think of as a public house.

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“There will always be a place for the traditional pub in Britain, especially those that keep their cask well,” Jodie Kennedy, Events Manager at The Bottle Shop in Bermondsey, South East London, says. “There’s so many breweries now open in the UK and pubs will most definitely always have local breweries on their taps. Pubs supporting their local breweries is something I think is incredibly important.”

I think that what we now define as a “pub” can come in a variety of shapes and forms. Of course there will always be a place for the traditional pub, they are too great a part of British cultural and social heritage to be allowed to fall by the wayside. However this doesn’t give these establishments the excuse to rest on their laurels and rely solely on their heritage in order to drive custom.


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Beer drinkers are now more demanding than ever. Variety is key to satisfying that demand and I’m not just referring to beer – the spaces in which we drink the beers we love, be that a traditional pub, modern craft beer bar or bottle shop, or anything else, all have a role to play in creating an environment that is as welcoming as it is exciting for the modern beer drinker.

“The role of the pub is changing,” Kennedy says. “Consumers now want to visit bars and pubs with constantly rotating keg and cask lines as well as shelves and fridges full of every option of style and breweries you could think of on the beer market.”

NO SURPRISES, PLEASE

Hidden away in a little corner of Tottenham Hale, North London, are possibly two of the UK’s more unique spaces in which to enjoy a beer. Markfield Road is just a short, 10 minute stroll away from Beavertown and Pressure Drop breweries, both of which have become powerhouses of the London beer scene. 100’s flock to their adjacent taprooms every Saturday afternoon, boosting the local beer scene in the process.

The street is easily identifiable by the shamrock green pub, Mannion’s, on its corner. When you first enter the building you’ll spot a classic wooden bar loaded with the likes of John Smiths, Amstel and Guinness on its taps. There’s gambling machines flickering away in the corner and a carpet that’s admittedly seen better days. It’s every bit the picture of a classic London boozer and arguably a craft beer fan’s worst nightmare. But it’s impossible to deny the charm of the place.

However, a little further down the road, past what appears to be a graveyard for ice cream vans that have long since served their last Mr. Whippy, are two venues that in their own quiet way are challenging what it means to be a pub in 2018. With a name like Craving Coffee you might think this café, which fronts a hive of artist’s studios for hire, has little in common with a pub. The white, minimalist room with its concrete floors and wooden benches will do little to shake that first impression either.

However, once the sun sets and the lights get turned down low, Craving Coffee undergoes a miraculous transformation. Instead of flat whites and espresso, customers instead opt for wines by the glass, some absolutely killer cocktails and, of course, beer, by the bottle, can and even on draft, thanks to a single tap that sits proudly at the centre of the bar. On my most recent visit this was graced by the bright and citrusy Kaleidoscope Pale Ale from Bristol’s Wiper & True, but the offering is forever at the whim of owners Matthew Christian and Rachel Ho, both of who are huge beer fans.

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“In Australia where we’re from it’s quite common for cafés to stay open late and serve alcohol,” Ho says of her cafés concept. “I think it offers an alternative place for people to meet in the evenings, especially in a group of friends that consists of both drinkers and non drinkers. There’s less perceived pressure to drink alcohol in a café.”

Craving Coffee’s atmosphere certainly feels unique for a business that predominantly identifies as a speciality coffee shop. It might be stretching the definition a little to call this space a “pub” – Ho and Christian certainly don’t use the term – but there’s no denying that the charm and unique atmosphere created here certainly provides a comparable alternative to a traditional public house.

“People are now very experience orientated, so places that are a bit different fulfils that appeal,” Ho says. “We are definitely not a traditional venue in any sense – next to a loading bay next to a dump on the dirtiest road in Tottenham, but somehow, that seems to add to the charm!”

Remarkably, Craving Coffee isn’t the only genre smashing beer destination on Markfield Road. Just a few metres away is perhaps one of the most unique beer destinations in the country, if not the world: Five Miles, which serves as a bar, cafe, restaurant and, most bizarrely, a nightclub. One that’ll facilitate your evening until as late as 4am to boot.

“We wanted a club we could go to and not get home with ringing ears and a gut full of Red Stripe,” Five Miles co-founder Mark Hislop says of the venues concept. “I think people want more than ever from their night out now. It’s expensive to go out in London and if you are going out you want everything in one place: good food, good drink and good sound. We think by having all that under one roof it creates a really good space for sharing creative ideas.”

The look and feel of Five Miles embraces the industrial surroundings of Markfield Road – the club itself is inside a warehouse – but adds a softer edge through warm lighting and the odd lick of green from a carefully placed plant or two. The bar is perhaps one of the coolest features, with a surface featuring a myriad of coloured shapes offset by a white background. Behind is a tap wall serving craft beers from local breweries such as Beavertown, those from further afield such as Left Handed Giant and Burning Sky, as well as its own beers from the in-house Hale Brewing Company.

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And of course there’s the club itself. A snaking tunnel leads into the purpose built room with a custom designed sound system mounted into the wall. It’s a space like few others in the UK, and in this little corner of Tottenham it has fast become a local for those looking for a catch all venue with a great atmosphere. Hislop doesn’t see it as a replacement for a traditional pub, however.

“A lot of self described craft beer bars are all cookie cutter designs: Industrial exposed steel, welded table frames, neon lights & Edison bulbs. Not a single unique idea amongst them just a pinterest board for trendy bars,” he says. “A great pub like The Free Trade Inn in Newcastle, Blackfriars in Glasgow or even the King’s Arms in Bethnal Green. They all have an immediate atmosphere and feel that a newer bar can’t have.”

SPINNING PLATES

Perhaps the secret to creating the perfect pub in the modern era is finding that perfect balance of both modern and traditional. Or you could simply have both. Ed Mason, founder of Hackney’s The Five Points Brewing Company also operates a small handful of pubs and bars. These include Mason and Company, a sister bar to the East London brewery. It’s a shining example of a modern bar, with its modern yet welcoming Scandinavian-inspired interior.

Mason also owns Whitelocks, the oldest bar in Leeds that’s still operating to this day, with a history dating back to 1715. Whitelocks is a picture perfect traditional pub – perhaps even similar to what I asked you to imagine at the start of this piece. It’s centrepiece is its gleaming copper bar, almost projecting upon you the latent desire to lean upon it and enjoy pint after pint of perfectly conditioned cask ale.

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Or you could go next door to The Turk’s Head, also owned by Mason, which brings the concept of a 1920’s speakeasy into the modern era, with a sleek feel, and a cocktail list that more than rivals the 14 beers on tap from some of the UK’s latest and greatest brewers. Whichever you prefer to while away your time in, finding the right balance between the modern and the traditional appears to be key for the brewery and bar operator.

“Modern beer bars can feel friendly, welcoming, open and democratic in ways that perhaps traditionally some pubs didn’t, especially to women and younger drinkers,” he says. “A lot of modern beer bars go out of their way to make exploring the drinks menus as easy as possible with detailed menus and tasting notes for example. Some traditional pubs can learn lessons from the way that beers are presented and customer service standards in more modern beer bars.”

Mason recently acquired his latest pub, The Pembury Tavern in Hackney. This beautiful old East London boozer somewhat poignantly sits on the junction from which his brewery takes its name, and is only 100 metres or so from the brewery itself. The intent is to bring this pub gracefully into the modern era, but not without preserving the heritage that has made this pub something of an institution amongst its locals. Embracing both the modern and the traditional is key towards the success of Mason’s sites. 

“It’s a bit like the two sides to our brewery,” Mason says. “we brew modern, flavour-forward, highly hopped beers in cans and on keg, but we are also firmly committed to cask beer. We love the fact that the pub is a unique part of British beer culture, it doesn’t exist in the same way anywhere else in the world.”

Whatever your prefered space in which to enjoy a beer, you can take comfort in the fact that now there is a wider variety of spaces in which to do so than ever before. The traditional pub will never be replaced and it’s vital we show them our support. But can a modern beer bar be thought of as a pub? I certainly think so.

“We’re never sure whether to call Mason & Company a pub or a bar!” Mason concludes. We’re beer focussed, friendly, welcoming, we have lots of regulars, locals, and after work drinkers, we keep pub hours, we have lots of the traits of a traditional pub, but we don’t “look” like a pub - we launched describing ourselves as a “beer bar & kitchen”, but I think maybe really we’re just a modern pub with an awesome range of beers!”

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