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Matt Eley: Sampling life on the other side of the bar

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‘So he always has his cider in that oversized glass. And he likes a pint in the straight glass with the Manchester United badge on it. And he likes a large red wine in a pint glass, with ice, topped-up with soda water. But he will have something different after that.’
Locals. They can be a particular lot, can’t they?

The above were among the instructions I received from my brilliant trainer/manager/guide/bodyguard Sally, as I stood behind the bar for the first time at The Grove Tavern in Tunbridge Wells, Kent.

A while ago, after a drink, it has to be said, I thought it might be an idea to work a few shifts at pubs to get a more practical insight into a subject that I write about on a daily basis.

Landlord Steve was one of the first to get back to me on Twitter and, as his buzzy community local is only a few miles from my home, it seemed like a good place to start.

About 20 minutes into my first shift with a lively group of lads ordering Jager Bombs (at 5.30pm!) I was beginning question my wisdom.

The lads were regulars and they were, good-humouredly, putting me to the test.  

I actually took a strange delight in creating the Jager Bombs, and making sure that the energy drink filled neatly around the shot glass, without the two liquids mixing. Not every drink made me smile though.

Surely lager would be easy, but I began to dread it every time someone ordered a Beck’s Vier. My initial attempts (and ‘it happens to everyone’ Sally kindly reassured me) resulted in half pints of head sitting on a half of lager.

‘It’s how they like it on the continent?’ I tried.

‘Not in here son,’ someone replied.

The trick, I eventually discovered but never really mastered, was to hold the glass in an almost horizontal position before gently changing the angle as the liquid was nearing the top. Sounds simple, but with a small crowd gathering and waiting for their drinks, I felt nervous about getting it right and not pouring away Steve’s profits.

‘Pint of Mother-in-Law please?’

‘You what?’

‘Pint of Mother-in-Law. Dark and bitter.’

That was an unexpectedly popular choice, but one I will probably avoid this weekend. Real ale was popular here, and must have outsold lager five to one. I even earned my ‘changing a barrel’ badge.

As well as Sally’s guidance, the locals were also on hand to give me useful pointers.

‘Stop asking people if they want a fresh glass. It’s annoying. If they do they’ll ask you,’ one chap explained, after I put that question to him for about the third time.

‘If you pour over the spot on the glass where you have your thumb, you’ll get less head,’ said another.’

‘Keep the pump in the pint as you pour, just twist the glass and bring it out at the end,’ someone else chipped in.

I looked a bit cack-handed doing it but it seemed to work.

Serving the drinks was one thing, remembering names was another.

Virtually everyone in the pub was a local and they were all calling me Matt (or Max, which is close enough) within minutes of my arrival. I, on the other hand, felt dreadful about not returning the compliment.

‘So this is Pete, that’s John, Kevin, Sam’s over know Steve and met Richard earlier,’ Sally said, before reeling off another 20 names, including two dogs.

‘You lost me at Pete,’ I confessed.

And this, I think, is probably the key and a point that Sally impressed on me. While most people can learn to pull a pint and pour a glass of wine, at a community local it is imperative to be able to get on with the customers. And get their orders right.

In fairness, the crew at the Grove treated me brilliantly. They knew I was on work experience, and while I was put to the test they were always forgiving of my mistakes.

The one time anyone was vaguely rude (I was told to ‘top that pint up. Boy.’) Sally stepped in and had a quiet word. My raised eyebrow and deadpan stare clearly hadn’t earned enough respect to get the same result.

As a man who uses words more than numbers the till was another area of concern. Thankfully Steve is an IT whizz and he has made an electronic system that even I managed to work out fairly quickly. Only once did it tell me that I had to give a customer £350 change for the £10 he handed over.

I suspect that was probably an error on my part.

Other than that, and a little bit of wasted liquid, I was grateful to get through without any major incidents.

So while I enjoyed being behind the bar for a change and getting some practical experience I am still in absolutely no doubt about which side of things I feel most comfortable on.

And the pint that a customer kindly bought me at the end of the night as my shift came to an end, certainly tasted all the sweeter for feeling that it had been earned.

Matt Eley is the Inapub editor. Follow him on Twitter @mattheweley