The Other Side of the Bar - Bitter

Words & Photo - Matthew Curtis

I’ve been working the odd shift at The Duke’s Head in Highgate, North London in order to ease the transition to becoming a full-time freelancer beer writer. This is the first in a series of short stories based on my experiences from the other side of the bar. 

A customer approaches the busy bar and spends several seconds scanning the row of pump clips in front of him. He then looks past the bar and through me as he stares at the blackboard to my left and continues to deliberate over the list of cask beers we have on draught at this moment. Eventually his focus returns to the pump clips for an instant, before eventually turning to me. 

“Do you have something nice and smooth?” He asks, and as I greet him and attempt to strike up a dialogue my right hand reaches below the bar where I collect two small glasses. I hand him a taster of Five Points Pale Ale and Moor So’Hop – two of our most popular cask ales, which had been flying out that day. Both could be described as being 'pale and hoppy'. He sips the first and winces, “No that’s too fruity” he says of the Five Points, before sipping the So’Hop and producing a similar reaction. “Don’t you have something a bit more malty, a nice bitter perhaps?”

Disaster. I had just pulled through our last pint of Stroud’s excellent Tom Long Bitter and my colleague, Mars had already disappeared into the cellar to begin the process of cleaning the line and changing the barrel.  It would be at least half an hour before we replaced it with our house bitter from Uley Brewery. Both satisfying and refreshing in the same instant, with a kind of golden syrup meets barley sugar sweetness in the finish – it ticks all the boxes for those who like to drink “something nice and smooth.”

I decide to have one more stab at appeasing my customer and pour him a sample of Hammerton’s N7 pale ale. It’s perhaps even more bitter and flavourful than the two beers I’d already offered, but it’s also darker in colour – more like a traditional bitter. I hoped that the pleasing amber hue would help my customer make up his mind. 

“I suppose that’ll do,” he says, and I pull through a pint for him. He then takes up residence at the bar with a friend, who is already halfway through his second pint of our most popular keg pale ale, Beavertown Gamma Ray. He takes one sniff of his friend’s pint and pulls a face that resembles a scrunched up brown paper bag. “I don’t know how you can drink that.” He says, as he tucks into his equally bitter and citrusy beer with abandon. 

“Is the Uley on yet?” he asks every ten minutes, gesturing towards my colleague, who is currently pulling water through the line. Not yet, I say and so he has another half of Hammerton. A few minutes later, Mars attaches the new pump clip to the handle and begins to write up the beers information in chalk on the board behind us. Noticing the customer is midway through his half I decide to pour the pint there and then before handing it over the bar without saying a word, just giving a knowing smile.

“That’s more like it,” he says, taking a deep gulp from the glass. “I think I’ll stay here a little longer.”