Why bars, not pubs, are the future22 Jul 2016
While pubs have dominated London’s craft beer scene until now, there are signs that that may be about to change ...
HACKNEY Wick is in flux. This once industrial neighbourhood is now home to a colourful abundance of street art, and bars in former factories and warehouses, with many of them - such as Crate and Howling Hops - devoted to beer. Another has recently opened in the form of Mason and Co, which fills a small part of the former Olympic media centre (now called Here East) and gazes westwards towards Hackney Wick from across the canal.
Mason and Co’s arrival is a decent signpost of London’s changing culture. It’s a successor to Mason and Taylor, which used to occupy the Bethnal Green Road site now home to Brewdog Shoreditch, and which was also owned by Ed Mason of The Five Points Brewery. But Mason and Co is no copy: the decor and atmosphere are entirely different, not to mention the beer. Mason and Taylor relied heavily on bottles, whereas Mason and Co boasts 20 taps on the tiled wall behind the bar.
“The scene has changed out of all recognition,” says Mason, 45. “Back then [Mason and Taylor opened in 2010 and closed September 2012] you couldn’t get anything like as much British-brewed keg beer, so our focus was on cask and bottles. We made a conscious decision to have more draught taps here.”
Hard as it may be to appreciate now, but Mason and Taylor’s arrival in 2010 was a big moment for London’s then-tiny gaggle of craft beer drinkers. With its huge street-facing windows (boasting golden ‘Mason and Taylor’ lettering), simple dark-wood furniture and flights of beer - a rarity at the time - it was quite different from anywhere else in the capital. It seemed to point towards a future for good beer outside pubs, but it hasn’t really turned out that way.
“We’ve got Mother Kelly’s, which is great, but for a city the size of London there doesn’t seem to be many beer bars,” says Mason. There aren’t. There’s the Euston Tap and its siblings, of course, but they’re pubby in atmosphere, while Brewdog’s bars have their own style but are all rather similiar, in a post-industrial, exposed piping way.
Does it matter? You might assume bars - which tend to have less of a male atmosphere - would attract a different crowd from pubs, but that’s not necessarily the case. “I don’t think there’s much difference,” says Nigel Owen, owner of Mother Kelly’s and two pubs, The Queen’s Head in King’s Cross and Simon The Tanner in Bermondsey. “We try and ensure that both the pubs and Mother Kellys are accessible - that if somebody wants to come in and have a pint of lager that is fine, that they are nice places to go for a beer.”
In terms of decor, though, there are big differences. Mason and Co has been heavily influenced by simple but elegant bars like Torst in Brooklyn or Mikkeller and Friends in Copenhagen. It might actually be nicer than those places, which can both feel pretty beer-geeky despite their decor. Mason and Co is far more open - literally so in good weather, thanks to the large bi-folding glass doors at the front.
A lot of attention has been paid to the decoration. There’s that white-tiled back wall, parquet flooring, pale pine furniture and a pot plant on every table (next to a bottle of water). At the back is the kitchen, run by Italian street-food masters Capish?, the name picked out in red neon above the pass. “We wanted to step the design up a level whilst also being open, democratic, accessible, light and airy,” says Mason.
That democratic element was clear on a weekday afternoon earlier this summer. A hockey tournament in the nearby Olympic complex had brought a varied crowd to the bar: a Spanish group chattered loudly between mouthfuls of food and glasses of beer. Outside groups of Londoners sat and enjoyed the sunshine.
It seems like the future, but then so did Mason and Taylor. Perhaps there’s a more compelling economic reason, though, why places like M&Co and Mother Kelly’s might soon be rather more common. “I think we will see a lot more open soon,” says Owen.”Pubs are getting harder to get hold off, so if you’re a small company looking to open a place it is the only way to go really.
“We are a small business that can’t afford to pay premiums on sites so if we want to expand then we have to think out of the box a little. It’s a lot more work but it will be the only way small company or individuals will be able to open a bar or expand in any way.”
Things are changing, then. Perhaps this time beer bars really are the future.
Mason and Co, Mother Kelly’s and The Queen’s Head are all taking part in London Beer City, a city-wide celebration of beer that takes place in bars, pubs and breweries all over town between 5 and 14 August. More details here.