View PintShop in a larger map
I have long bemoaned the lack of a good “craft beer” venue in Cambridge. The terminology is contentious – but what the hell, “craft” is a movement and a vibe and essentially undefinable. Maybe I should pointlessly write about what “craft” means to me some time, or maybe not. Anyway – what it isn’t is something we have in Cambridge. Perhaps until now…
Do not read me wrong – we have some excellent pubs serving excellent beer, some have even made a foray into having a bit of a “craft” note to their beer lineup. But none of them are “craft” at their core – and they don’t need to be, I love them as they are. I don’t want the places we have to change – I want something new brought into the mix. It is an ineffable feel combining time and place that embodies my experience of craft. Cambridge’s collective diverse-beer loving hearts were raised as the news of a “Cambridge Tap” some time ago, but those plans were never to come to fruition resulting in a collective *sigh*. We have had some small hopes for other venues that turned out to be … not quite right, though respectable in their own ways. I’m not besmirching our local breweries either – I feel some of them would be right at home in the context of a craft venue, which in my mind should be accepting of good beer regardless of style or form.
View PintShop in a larger map
Now, however – an introduction to PintShop. It appears to me that we may finally have our first modern/new-wave/craft beer venue in Cambridge. On the 31st of October Kat, Colin, and myself attended the PintShop pre-opening gig. Free beer and nibbles – who’d turn that down? The site is central, in a foodie area that lacks a decent pub. Neighbours include your typical McHighstreet chain joints: Zizi, Carluccio’s, Jamie’s plus some local gems like the Cambridge Chop House and of course the retail Mecca of the McGrandArcade. Nearly all places I have no interest in, this is a part of town I walk through to get to places, rarely do I linger. Also nearby are excellent arts venues – the Corn Exchange and Arts Theatre – places I sadly don’t know well, but feel I should make the time to know better. In essence: location is spot-on, a much needed indy addition to the food & drink options in the immediate vicinity.
There are decent pubs, by my reckoning, within a 10 minute walk: The Mill, The Maypole, and The Cambridge Brew House. All good places that were on my North Herts CAMRA Cambridge Pub Ramble. Check that map, note the void that is the town centre. PintShop would have fit into this neatly between the Mill and the Maypole.
So – location is all very well, what about the venue. Compared to any other drinking venue I frequent it is a right rabbit warren, and I love it. Walk in the front door and you’re greeted by a passage – signposted forward for dining and left for the bar. At the far end of the passage: stairs. Turn left into the bar, of course. Decoration is minimalist and chunky, exposed black electrics on pale shades of cream and green, varnished parquetry flooring. A crackled enamel bar top with industrial looking bronze keg fonts and a prominent beer-list blackboard with all the details you need to decide on a drink. The fonts themselves have no place for badges – I don’t know if this’ll be a permanent arrangement, but if it is I think I like it. (Breweries with snazzy branding might be less enamoured – and customers may be initially befuddled.) Cask hand-pumps are not immediately in evidence as they are tucked around the other side of a pillar in a snug little back-bar area that I can see myself taking up residence in. Anyway, cask junkies need not fret – both styles of beer dispense are well catered for.
Moving through the cask bar and out of the bar area, turning left down the passage takes you to a dining area on the right, a retro-chic layout of tables and seating, opposite all this a service room. Look and feel is consistent throughout – stark black lines of electrical fittings standing out. The service area houses shiny stainless dumb-waiter hatches, appliances and coffee paraphernalia, bags of HasBean in evidence – hurrah! The passage continues past these and hooks a right to lead to the rear patio. A newly paved space surrounded by high building walls with sky overhead. I hope there are some summer barbecue plans in mind.
Heading back inside to those stairs – these lead up to toilets, another dining room at the front, and a well equipped kitchen at the rear (entirely too relaxed to feel right, but I’m sure that won’t be the case come opening). The central stair area highlights the wonderful feature of the core curved wall that separates the bar from the passage. You have to see it really – I like building features like this, I love this wall. They’ve been really lucky with the site, there’s loads of detail and history on the The Real Cambridge and Pints & Pubs blogs. Some of the atmosphere of the place is captured in Matthew Harris’s flicker photo set from the night.
In reality food and beer have yet to really prove themselves at PintShop – this is a pre-view not a re-view. That said, the sample we have had is promising. They have stolen some prime kitchen talent from Cambridge establishments (the talent came to them I hear, such is the excitement and expectation for what PintShop is bringing to town). We had a quick talk from the butchers supplying PintShop, Barker Brothers of Shelford, who are very much “proper” in my estimation. It was great to have both the old and the new generations of family butchers talking to us – refreshing to see the young generation picking up the trade as well in an era where butchers we know all too often close with nobody to take up the reins. We tried samples of porterhouse steak, excellent flavour, and a cut (the name of which escapes my mind) which was perfectly and surprisingly juicy and tender. These I tried as well as rabbit pasty in a melt-in-the-mouth crust, all good indicators. The fennel seeded pork scratchings are made on-site – dry and crisp, but in need of more fennel and salt for me! A dusting of salt and ground fennel seeds perhaps? But fennel is a love/hate flavour so perhaps subtle is for the better. Maybe have a salt-shaker of fennel-salt so you can go wild if desired?
BEER! Pre-opening line-up was: Keg: Adnams Dry Hop Lager, Kernel Table Beer, Rogue Dead Guy (a timely Halloween pick); Cask: Oakham Asylum, Adnams Old Ale, Marble Pint. We had pints of Pint in PintShop – haha! What this list needs is a few more hops… this will come, I know PintShop have received entire pallets of Magic Rock and Buxton – for starters. Personally, I was mostly very happy with pints of Table Beer – light, clean, zesty and not too intoxicating. I had a bit of every beer on offer, all good – though some not to my taste. As with the food – time is required before a real judgement can be determined, but based on this sample: looking good. I simply cannot wait to see that beer-board fully populated. My mouth waters at the thought. Gin is also a highlight, with a list of 40 gins at launch I think I heard. We also attended a session upstairs where Cambridge Distillery (the UK’s only “nano-distillery”?) told us of their modus operandi and successes. A shot, or maybe a double, of science – the challenge of using peas as a botanical for PintShop’s “P” gin didn’t faze them, having already had to use ants (yes, ants) for Noma. We tasted a pure pea distillate – and now I really want one of their 2 litre vacuum distillation units in my kitchen.
I haven’t had much of a chance to chat with Rich and Benny, the guys behind PintShop – but they certainly seem to have the experience and motivation to get this right (by my own definition of “right”). I spoke to some of the staff who all seem overjoyed to be working there. One, newly moved to Cambridge, exhibited the same pride and joy at this opportunity that I see in most of the BrewDog bar staff I meet. They’re really getting into it. The pre-opening gig had a hugely positive vibe.
So – that’s where I stand. Positive. Having watched the build-up of PintShop – a truely massive task that has taken the guys 3 years to reach doors-open – I’m pleased to see things taking shape in “the right” direction. I think PintShop is going to tick the “craft beer” box for me and be a much-needed addition to the Cambridge beer scene, adding a missing piece to the beer diversity puzzle. It isn’t all about the beer however – and it is going to be interesting to see how the food element, which will be very important to the business, mixes in with the beer side. I hope it all gets along famously. I see a good bit of potential for my favourite subjects here too: beer with food, and beer in food.
PintShop opens on the 4th of November… see you at the bar?