Words & Photos - Matthew Curtis
Like beer, a good bar or pub needs good quality ingredients in just the right balance in order to be a success. Good food and drink is arguably the most important of these, great service is of course essential as is cleanliness. No one in their right mind appreciates putting their elbows on sticky tables or holding their nose whilst side-stepping pools of urine on their way to relieve themselves. There's another element though that's far more difficult to achieve. Some pubs have it, some don't and then there are those rare places that have it in spades. I'm talking about vibe.
There are a handful of pubs in the world that have this magical balance of which I speak. Pub vibe is akin to the perfect dry-hopping regime, that injection of unicorn power that makes a beer like Pliny the Elder one of the best in its class. North Bar in Leeds has it as does 't Brugs Beertjes in Bruges and on the other side of the pond I've so far found no better than the Mayor of Old Town in Fort Collins, Colorado. Sadly, in London I've not yet found a place that quite has that essence, that pull that makes me want to empty my wallet and waste my hours descending slowly into drunken bliss, until now that is.
It's easy to get lost in the short distance between the exit of Bethnal Green Underground station and Mother Kelly's Beer and Bottle Shop but once you've located the narrow, cobbled Paradise Row you're only metres away. Soon you're presented with several freshly renovated and for now mostly uninhabited retail spaces beneath a railway arch. There's no huge neon sign (although perhaps there should be) to indicate you've arrived at your destination, just some subtle branding frosted onto the glass of a doorway that's been invitingly flung wide open.
Picnic tables are laid out on a generously sized outdoor space and as you step inside your feet find wooden floorboards which add a softness to the urban surroundings. There are similar tables inside with chairs that look like they've been teleported from a 1970's classroom and right at the front are old oak barrels turned upright and surrounded by tall stools which are ideal for smaller parties. It's not the modest furnishings that your eyes are drawn to though as on your left are 6 huge fridges, gleaming with the multicoloured labels of beers from around the world and on top of these sit the kind of Belgian beer crates you wish you had at home for storing your own stash.
When you finally reach the bar at the back of the arch you're confronted by 23 minimalist taps. Cask is omitted from the selection which doesn't bother me personally and with at least 19 draught beers and ciders plus what must be a selection of at least 150 different bottles there's definitely something here for everyone, wine and spirit fans included. Even the selection of soft drinks from amongst others London's Square Root is well thought out. The taps are mostly dedicated to British breweries such as Magic Rock, Weird Beard and Siren but you also see some gems from overseas such as Evil Twin Falco IPA and rarities such as Schlenkerla Urbock. The bottles (and cans) available range from locals like Beavertown and Kernel right through to foreign gems from Cantillon, Schneider and Flying Dog, in fact on each of my visits I have struggled to find a genre of beer that has been poorly represented.
All of this is to be expected in any good pub but it's the little touches that push Mother Kelly's into the premier league. The staff are friendly and knowledgable as should be expected. Each table has a small flower arrangement next to which is a bottle of sparkling water (they carbonate it in house) and a stack of tumblers. Giving customers water without them having to ask for it is something far more pubs that sell very strong beer need to do. There's no kitchen but they still manage to prepare plates of fine cheese, charcuterie and fabulous pork pies. The unisex toilets are not only immaculate but the taps are the same as those behind the bar, a lovely little touch. They're not just a sit in pub either, a hefty discount is available for take out which is just another reason for you to keep going back.
I've visited Mother Kelly's in the daytime when it's quiet and lazy and in the evening when it's lively and energetic and I love it when it's in both of these states. The bright graffitied mural of a New York street on the wall opposite the fridges almost evokes the feel of the Brooklyn craft beer scene and with London's East End being similar in vibe to the New York borough this feels appropriate. On my most recent visit I ordered a bottle of Cantillon Iris, the fresh hopped version of their Gueuze and asked for four glasses. When the server disappeared into the back and returned with four branded Cantillon tumblers I was taken back, this represented that x factor that makes this pub a truly excellent place to be. Long may it continue to be just so.