Words & Photos - Matthew Curtis
The Craft Beer industry stops for no one. I conducted this interview in December 2014 and went back to take the photos in April this year. Shortly before I published this interview, Steve took up a position at Daisy Green Food where he will be looking after all things beer. The reins at Mother Kelly's have been placed in the capable hands of Assistant Manager Peter McCall. Despite this, I believe there's some wonderful insight in Steve's interview and so took the decision to publish it anyway.
In the few short months it's been open, Mother Kelly's has become a go to bar for both beer enthusiasts and casual, fun seeking drinkers alike. I've previously written at length about why this bar really clicks but not about the people that make it tick. Breweries are but a single piece of the intricate puzzle that makes up a beer scene and a bar is perhaps the best and most crucial part of that scene. It's here that you can sit and enjoy the fruits of a brewers labour. Good beer and time with friends is one of the greatest things you can have and the space you enjoy these things in is as important as those individual elements.
Steve Taylor is well known by many in the London Beer Scene, he's been the General Manager at Mother Kelly's beer and bottle shop since it opened. He was previously one half of The Mason and Taylor, a great bar on Bethnal Green Road that was eventually bought by Brewdog and transformed into their Shoreditch venue. His former colleague, Ed Mason, went on to set up The Five Points Brewing Company while Steve remained in hospitality and helped set up some of the best beer bars in London, including Mother Kelly's. Recently, I caught up with Steve for a chat about his bar and the London beer scene in general.
Hi Steve! So would you say Mother Kelly’s is your baby?
I’d say Mother Kelly’s became my baby about seven days before we opened. We’ve also got two sister pubs, The Queens Head in Kings Cross and Simon the Tanner in Borough.
Which bars inspired you when creating Mother Kelly’s?
On a personal level the bars that have inspired me the most are those of the Leeds beer scene, not North Bar necessarily but bars like The Reliance, Mojo and Sandinista. The informal feel of the cocktail scene and the level of personal service made it the first good bar scene I enjoyed in the UK. The main influence for Mother Kelly’s was a bar in New York, the name escapes me but it gave us ideas such as the wall of taps and the open fridges in a public space, things like that.
What vibe/feel did you hope you achieve when creating it?
We wanted to create an informality that puts people at ease and yet with an attention to detail that hopefully surpasses people’s expectations. For the atmosphere overall, I would want the lighting to be right, the music to be right and for the staff to be engaging people.
Why do you think Mother Kelly’s stands out from other pubs and bars?
I think it’s still one of the few independent beer bars in London and I’m surprised to be saying that in 2015. I think people hopefully realise that when they come in and see us that it stands us apart. Having fridges in the customer space is the biggest wow factor when you walk in here. The way people react to being trusted with an open fridge is interesting. A lot of people go up to them and tentatively pull the doors, which for me is a really surprising situation to be in.
"On a personal level the bars that have inspired me the most are those of the Leeds beer scene"
How do you feel Mother Kelly’s fits in with the Bethnal Green community?
I would say that we offer something different to what was here before. I feel that this is an area with some patronised but decent pubs with affordable food offerings like The Camel and The Globe. When you go further into Victoria Park village there are a lot more patronised local pubs with quality offerings and frankly, there are still good working class pubs here which I’ve welcomed. But I felt that there wasn’t a specialist beer place nor was there a bottle shop so hopefully we’ll be welcomed as offering something that wasn’t here before we arrived.
As the stretch of six arches on Paradise Row goes, my expectations of the quality of my neighbours has been exceeded. When Sager and Wilde took on the arch next door and to have the varied offering of cocktails, restaurants, a wine bar and ourselves, I think gives people a real balance. It certainly wasn’t conceived of by a higher power but it’s how things came together.
What inspires your beer selection?
What’s really inspiring is to know when things are going to be fresh and you can guarantee that they’re going to be fresh. When you know something’s arriving in the country and we can get our hands on it straight away. It’s exciting for us to work with people who are delivering from brewery to bar with chilled transit the whole way. I like to stock new beers because people like new experiences but also I like to throw in some tried and trusted classics that hopefully might even surprise people… You could call it a ‘new heavy’ selection I suppose.
The bar's name comes from an old ragtime tune, was this intentional?
Yes, it felt like a name we couldn’t pass up on the opportunity to pay homage to. It's a beautifully sincere song about a Jewish moneylender who lived on this street where we were opening a bar and this young girl who would sit on this moneylenders doorstep and reminisce about her lost loves.
Which beers could you not bear to not have in stock?
There are probably only about five… Siren Half Mast is one of the only sub 3% pale ales I’ve really enjoyed and we can only get in when it’s in season. I do feel unsettled when we run out of Orval (I don’t blame you - Ed.) Augustiner Helles makes people stay, so many people relate to that lager as their favourite and while there are so many newcomers to beer it’s great to have that diversity. If someone wants to have a good lager and you give them Augustiner it surpasses their expectations every time.
I couldn’t run the place without a gluten free and an alcohol free lager. When people come in and have given up on the idea of having a beer and to be able to offer them one is great and often these people haven’t had a beer in years – it’s just staggering the amount of pleasure that can give. It’s funny, Tripel Karmeliet is the beer that people get most excited about more than any other when we have it on tap. I think beers from mainland Europe excite me the most because they can be tough to get hold of and it’s exciting trying to find ways to get them here.
Which beers that you don’t stock would you love to, even if it’s something you couldn’t get hold of?
Probably the Hill Farmstead sours? Part of me is happy that I can’t get hold of them… It’s absurd the idea that everything is purchasable even from small producers, I don’t want everything to be purchasable. The beer scene needs something that’s aspirational.
"The thing I’m most looking forward is more ‘comfortable’ places to drink beer in that aren’t particularly male heavy."
Which local breweries really stand out for you?
Apart from Pressure Drop who brews our best selling beer, Pale Fire, I would say I’m looking forward to Bullfinch the most. Their red rye IPA really excited me and I’m looking forward to their draught beer becoming more honed and widely available. Can you write an article without mentioning the Kernel? They’re still outstanding.
I’ve also got a lot of affection for Redchurch now that they’ve settled in and have developed a decent core range. When I entered hospitality about 10 years ago I stuck with it because the modesty of brewers was just so endearing. We’ve entered a slightly different period now where PR exists even in small breweries but someone like Redchurch who don’t use PR in a traditional sense still appeals to me. They’re just people that love doing what they do.
Where do you see the London beer scene in five years time?
I think we’ll see a better availability of beer within the developing restaurant scene. I’m still surprised at how slowly restaurants have been to take beer seriously as something to pair with food. Back when Pete Brown wrote three sheets to the wind, Quilon and Le Gavroche were part of a very small number of restaurants that took beer seriously. I can’t imagine a restaurant opening now that wouldn’t use the phrase craft beer but I’m still waiting for them to take it seriously. This is something I’m looking forward to, when restaurants take real notice of it and have fun with it and pair dishes properly.
Production is going to have to move outside of London as people scale up but I can only imagine the scene getting more diverse. The hunger in London for diversity is enormous and I don’t know what obscurities the history books are going to throw at us. I still don’t think there’s that many decent bars for people to go to where they can drink decent beer in London.
The thing I’m most looking forward is more ‘comfortable’ places to drink beer in that aren’t particularly male heavy. I want to see more well designed spaces and a genuinely good bar culture developing in London. I want to see more bars though and not more pubs. I’m very wedded to pubs, they were the first place I went where I felt a sense of stability and community – I was that annoying kid that kept asking why things taste the way they do and no one could really give me an answer, which often frustrated me.
Where, bar Mother Kelly’s is your favourite place to drink?
The Lower Red Lion, St. Albans – It’s a pub where people of all ages go to drink and CAMRA was in fact convened only two streets away from there. That’s where I started drinking.