New Year, New Beer: Interview with Nigel Owen, Owner of Mother Kelly’s
This week continues our discussion of what’s coming down the line this year in beer – this time, from the perspective of a bar owner in London.
Nigel Owen, 34, is the owner of Mother Kelly’s tap room and bottle shop in East London, along with two pubs, The Queen’s Head (WC1) and Simon the Tanner (SE1).
Mother Kelly’s is widely considered to be one of the best craft beer bars in London – known for stocking an incredible selection, that rotates often, and is served up by helpful staff.
We discussed the bars he owns, the beers they stock, the customers they serve, along with his views on how the London beer scene has changed and what he sees coming next for beer here in London and across the UK.
Here’s Nigel in his own words:
Tell me a little bit about each of the locations you own.
The Queen’s Head is a small little Victorian boozer in King’s Cross that we reopened. It had been closed for quite a while, so we reopened it in 2010 with the view that a good pub should just be stocking good beer, have nice staff, and be a nice place to spend time.
Simon the Tanner is a little neighborhood pub – really small, really cute little pub. Again, with good beer and good food.
Then we’ve got Mother Kelly’s which is a beer bar in Bethnal Green and Mother Kelly’s Bottle Shop in Homerton which sells loads of beers to take away in bottles and growlers.
How does Mother Kelly’s differ from the other two locations? It definitely feels more like a bar than a pub.
Mother Kelly’s is quite different from the other two because, like you said, it’s a bar. And it’s in a railway arch, because it’s in East London, and whatever you do in East London needs to be in a railway arch, apparently. I think it’s just a little bit more contemporary really, as opposed to that classic English/British pub.
I also think pubs are stand alone entities, whereas with Mother Kelly’s – obviously we’re trying to do what we do in terms of serving great beer – but I also think of it in terms of a brand, as well. It’s a little bit more branded than the pubs.
What was the inspiration for Mother Kelly’s?
The inspiration was a trip to New York and just seeing how readily available good beer is in New York, where it kind of it isn’t in London. Obviously you can go to places [in London] and get great beer, but it’s not in corner shops or wherever you’re just going to go.
So we wanted somewhere that has a great tap list and also has a good range of bottles that people can buy and take away – we do 25% off all bottles to take away – and we wanted to work really hard at making sure we stock the best beer that we can get hold of. I think that was the main inspiration behind it; we just wanted to make sure it was really good.
Since 2010, how have you seen the London beer scene change?
A. There are loads of breweries. B. There is loads of mediocre beer coming out of those breweries and a lot of inconsistency. I think a lot of people think making beer is really easy – I suppose fundamentally making beer is really easy – but making good beer is difficult and making consistently good beer is really hard.
A lot of places are getting into good beer or craft beer, whatever you call it, but don’t even know anything about the beer – how to store it, how to look after it, making sure it’s good – and I think a lot of that is because it’s seen as a quick buck in some places right now.
Also, I think some places have become almost a bit elitist.You go to some of these places and if you ask for a lager, they can be quite snobby about it. Here at Mother Kelly’s we make sure it’s really accessible. If you want to come in and have a pint of lager, you can come and have a pint of lager.
Overall, I think the biggest change is just the choice of beer – so much beer. Some of it ropey, some of it good.
What are some changes in terms of what you were sourcing five years ago compared to now – styles, breweries, etc.?
Compared to what we did five years ago, not a huge amount has changed, really. It’s still pale ale and IPA heavy; it’s what people still want to drink. But in terms of different pale ales and IPAs from all over the world, there’s just so much more access to it now. We import beer from the States all the time or from Europe directly, but the thought of doing that five years ago, we just couldn’t do that.
In terms of styles, we’re seeing goses and more of sour stuff coming in. It’s a lot easier to get – more breweries are doing it, there are more places stocking them, and there are more people are drinking them.
I think that’s the main change really, there are just a lot more different styles kicking around, especially the sour stuff. We wouldn’t have even contemplated that five years ago. It’s not so much IPA and pale ale heavy as it was; it’s still IPA and pale ale heavy, but people are willing to try other things and they’re not put off by whatever it’s called now, what style of beer it is. There are a lot more people just willing to give it a go now which I think is great. I think that’s really good for the industry.
How have your customers changed and how do they vary at the different pubs and bars that you own?
In terms of the guests we get in, they don’t really change. There’s not too much difference between each [bar] really. In terms of what people are drinking, they’re just a lot more willing to try different stuff. And I think they’re a lot more willing to spend more money on better products. Or maybe not drink as much, but drink better. I think that’s the real change; that’s a big, big change.
There hasn’t been some educational change. I just think more people are willing to engage in it, they’re a little more interested. I think a lot of people big it up as being this revolution in what people are drinking – but they’re still just going out drinking beer, they just want to drink slightly better beer, really.
What breweries in London or elsewhere do you like or do you think that your customers gravitate to?
London-wise, The Kernel, obviously. I remember getting beer off Evin [O’Riordan, The Kernel’s founder] five years ago and having to taxi it up to the pub because he just didn’t deliver it. So you’d go down there, have a beer and a chat, put it in the back of a car and drive it up to The Queen’s Head.
I think The Kernel is the most recognizable brand – the branding is amazing – but the beer is really good. It’s consistently really good. I think the Table Beer has gotten better and better, and at 3% abv, it’s really accessible.
I’m a big fan of Pressure Drop. They’re very recognizable; we get a lot of people coming in and asking for them. Five Points and Beavertown, as well. And I really like what the guys at Redchurch are doing – they have their core range of beers, but I think their wild fermentation stuff is really interesting.
If there could be one brewery I think is my favorite brewery in London, it’s still Redemption. They’re making cracking beer. Consistently, as well. I think because they generally just do cask and bottle, they’ve kind of gone under the radar a little bit, but the beer they’re making is properly good. And Andy [Moffat, Redemption’s founder] is a great guy.
At Mother Kelly’s, we really wanted to get some cask lines in, but we just didn’t get the space for it, which I still kind of regret because it means we’re not stocking [Redemption] Big Chief, which is a shame. It wasn’t that we just wanted to do keg or because we think that keg is better – there is some great cask beer – it’s literally space.
When you mentioned some of the breweries, you talked about the people that work there. How important is it to you to work with people that care?
It’s really important, I don’t want to spend any money with anyone that’s a dick. I’ve got no interest in that. A lot of these [breweries] are small businesses and we want to support small businesses that are run by people spending their time doing what they want to do. People are really important, as they are in any business. People are key.
Do you actively choose not to stock from larger, multi-national owned breweries, as you mentioned how supporting smaller business is important to you?
We don’t need to stock them. We don’t do enough volume to make them any difference. We go for the smaller breweries that do more interesting stuff and that we have a face-to-face relationship with. I wouldn’t say it’s a conscious decision; it’s just that some of the beer isn’t good enough. I think we can work harder at getting better beer in.
What do you see coming next for the London/UK beer scene?
In terms of beer in London, what I’d like to see coming next is more consistency in what people are doing. Consistency and better quality coming out of some breweries, and them accepting that they’ve made some shit beer.
I think more places are going to open. More established places, that may have been trading for 7, 8 years already, that aren’t maybe stocking good beer, will start getting more beer in. I think good beer will be more accessible throughout London.
For the UK, I think we’re probably going to see a lot of big buyouts and breweries being sold this year. Meantime and Camden have started that ball rolling, and I think that ball is going to carry on rolling.
I think some more sour stuff will come out and that breweries will be more willing to brew braggots and whatever – whether that’s a good thing or not though, I’m not so sure!
And what’s next for Mother Kelly’s?
I think we’re just going to work really, really hard at getting the best beer in that we can. And have it not be about what distributors have got who or what, it’s about how do we get great beer in. We’ve already imported quite a lot of stuff from all over the world; we’re going to carry on doing that. We’ll just carry on selling great beer, that’s all I want to do. I just want to work really hard at that.
Mother Kelly’s is located at 251 Paradise Row, Bethnal Green, London E2 9LE. Opening hours and more information can be found here.
Image source: Mother Kelly’s Instagram