Driving force behind The Keystone talks real ale, vegan beer and bringing back the 23 Club
You might not know the name yet, but if you’re a real ale fan then you’ll definitely know the location. The Keystone is the newest addition to Hope Street; formerly Bread & Butter, before that, the Clove Hitch. Go even further back and you might remember the Mexican chimichanga wagon.
Craft beer and modern real ale definitely have a more inclusive mindset now
The original sign from El Macho is still here somewhere, along with a host of other curiosities collected by long-time owner Victor Casaus. The well that’s dated 1766 isn’t exactly original, but there’s still a long history behind this Georgian house, from a gentlemen's club frequented by members of the Masonic Hall, to the original 23 Club in the 1950s. If these walls could talk.
Self-confessed beer nerd, Charlie Hardiman, is the driving force behind The Keystone. Charlie had been working at Love Lane when she heard 23 Hope Street was up for grabs. She’d worked in the industry for eight years - including the Clove Hitch, 23 Club, and Head of Steam - managed bars, done beer tasting and brewery tours, and definitely knew her beer. But it was a big dream to pursue.
A chance meeting with Terry Langton (Turncoat Distillery) and Rob Hamilton (Blackjack Beers) got the wheels in motion, and with the help of those guys, Charlie was in a position to sit down with Victor.
“Me and Victor had a big massive chinwag about Bread and Butter, because he said it was amazing. I'd never come in,” says Charlie.
“When I moved back to Liverpool, I was just so upset that the Clove Hitch and the 23 Club had closed, because that’s where I'd learned everything about beer. It was a place that served good beer and was an influence for so many people in the beer industry. It helped inspire people to open breweries and other bars in town as well. So I was like, we need this place to be that again - if not better.”
The Keystone was set to launch last August but the government’s substantial meal rule threw a spanner in the works. Not wanting to get distracted from the important stuff - the beer - they waited it out. Keystone eventually opened its doors for the first time on 12 April, with the kind of Liverpool welcome usually reserved for Primark.
“It was just such a surprise. I thought people might have been queuing up because it was the old Clove Hitch and 23 Club,” says Charlie. “But it turned out that most people were here because we had the Bootlegger pilsner on. Obviously, we had some of our old regulars in again, but that was just brilliant.”
Charlie has a raft of qualifications and is part way through a beer sommelier course, but she says you can’t beat proper hands-on experience.
“Most of the experience I got from beer was by drinking loads of it,” she laughs.
“The good thing about working at the 23 Club was that it was always a place where people who drank good beer and made good beer went. As soon as something went on the taps that was local, you could speak to the brewer directly and ask them ‘What is this?’ and they’d tell you everything about the brewing process and that particular style of beer.
“Most of it is just experience. If you don't know that a pint smelling like farts is a bad thing, then you’ve definitely got no business running a bar.
“But it’s more about actually caring about what you're selling. Anyone can put a beer on a beerline and chuck it out, but making sure that it's high quality and maintaining it is a pretty big one as well. My dad used to have a pub down in Wales. So, knowing how to look after your beer is pretty important.”
From my experience of pubs, it seems to be an industry that’s quite male-dominated. So what’s it like being a woman in beer?
“In Liverpool, I don't think it's as male led as a lot of people think it is. I think customers think it's very male led because they'll wait for a guy to come behind the bar for a recommendation and then ask the dude.
“But if you look in town now, you've got The Grapes, Hobo Kiosk, Dead Crafty, the Roscoe Head. I'm sure there are more places too, but those are just some of the most renowned places to go for a good pint. They’re places that are famous in Liverpool for having good quality beer, and they're all led by women.
“If you look around, there's so many women that are leading the way in terms of beer. Brewing is a different story. They are still trying to encourage more women to get involved in brewing beer.
“But bar wise in Liverpool, it's definitely getting better. I'm not saying that all the best places are run by women, but there's a big correlation there. Some of the maddest places to go for a drink, they're the top notch places, and they tend to be owned by women.
“You’ve also got the Ladies that Beer group led by Julie O’Grady (co-owner of Neptune Brewery.) They go around and support the local bar industry and women in beer, and there is a huge amount of them in that group.”
Sounds like the idea of a male-dominated industry is my own preconception then. But how about the people that drink beer - big beardy blokes musing over pints?
“I think craft beer and modern real ale definitely have a more inclusive mindset now. The stereotype is still very much there, but the amount of women I know that will drink a real ale, if it's good - I think the problem is quality. If you serve a good quality beer anyone will drink it. It's the same with students around here, everyone thinks that they just want the cheapest thing, but we'll have a really nice pale ale on cask and people will come back for that every single day.”
The Keystone offers an ever-changing selection of the best beers from local favourites Chapter, Neptune, Handyman, Top Rope and many more, as well as some of the city’s best gin from Turncoat Distillery. All of the cask beers are vegan, meaning that they don’t contain “eyes and glass”. Eyes and what?
“Isinglass is a protein from a sturgeon’s swim bladder and breweries very quickly found out that if you pop them into your casks, it'll drop the beer out really quickly. But it's not very nice.”
Charlie’s knowledge of beer is pretty amazing. She talks passionately about the technicalities of brewing; kegs, racking systems, widgets, growlers, ABV, IBU. It all sounds quite bamboozling to a real ale newbie like me. So, where should I start?
“We use an Untappd menu, and the beer descriptions are always written by the brewer, so the tasting notes, the description, and all that is displayed,” says Charlie.
“The absolute godsend in terms of being afraid of ordering something too strong is that thirds are a thing now. You can get a third of the cask, you can get a half cask.
“If you're not sure, just ask for a taste. Sometimes even the person behind the bar hasn't had the chance to try it yet. So when in doubt, just get a little taster.
“Normally you get someone who says they don’t drink beer, or they drink cider or sparkling wine. And the first thing I do with that is sour beers. Berliner weisse, fruity sharp things that don't necessarily taste like beer. It’s about breaking down the stereotypes of flavour profiles.
“It can be intimidating, but it's just trying to grab someone before they run away. We’ve got a wonderful world here - like a little tribe.”
Charlie lines up three different beers for me to try. We start with a classic style Brimstage Scarecrow at 3.8% which goes down nice and easy.
“You won’t get caught off guard if you accidentally drink two pints of that one,” she says, before passing me the next one, a West Coast IPA at 7.3%.
“That’s quite a strong one, to give you fair warning,” she says. “But it is Friday.”
I’ll drink to that. Finally, we taste a mild from Docklands Brewery at 3.8%. All three are a pleasant surprise, even though they’re not my usual tipple of lager.
“If someone comes in and says they don't like beer, I make it my personal mission to find them a beer by the end of the day. Before you leave you will have a beer that you like!”
As COVID-19 restrictions are lifted from 19 July, the plan is to eventually reopen the 23 Club basement bar. In addition to the local cheese and meat boards on offer at the moment, Keystone will also be hosting a series of pop-up kitchens in future, starting with Boffo Burgers. There is artwork from local creatives hung on the walls and even local musicians on the Spotify playlist.
“Everything that we have on draft - except for the Wrexham - is from Merseyside or someone that started in the Homebrew club in the basement bar. Downstairs is going to go back to the weird and wonderful. We want that to just be absolutely mad stuff, back to how it used to be.
We’ve got a wonderful world here - like a little tribe
“It would be really cool if we could support local kitchens the same way we support local beer. I had a very short stint as a chef, and very quickly came back to front of house. So I’m going to be like, ‘That's your kitchen, you do what you want with it; we can shout about you and you can shout about us.’
“I like working in restaurants and I like eating in restaurants, but I kind of just want to run a pub. And I think that's just what the street is missing at the minute. You've got the Philharmonic and you've got some lovely bars and beautiful food-led places around here. But we need another local pub.”
Charlie’s right; but Keystone is much more than just a local pub. The 29-year-old still can’t quite believe her luck to be running the bar at such an iconic venue.
“I’m still pinching myself. Seriously, every now and then, I’m like ‘I own a pub’. It still hasn’t sunk in. And I am never not gonna be grateful for the actual chance to get this place open. To see so many people returning from years ago. It's just brilliant.”
The Keystone, 23 Hope Street, Liverpool L1 9BQ
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