The following account is fictional.
In a regular mid-terrace house in the Roath district of Cardiff, a short walk from the city centre, “Sam Brewer” and “Dai Landlord” are setting up a pop-up bar. It’s an unlikely set of pseudonyms for an unlikely pair. “Sam Brewer” is a tall, willowy man with curly brown hair and a thick Valleys accent; he could be anywhere from mid-twenties to mid-thirties. There isn’t a line or hair on his face, but his eyes are cold and serious, giving years of hard-earned wisdom to his expression. Also he never, ever smiles. In contrast, “Dai Landlord” is a young, stylish 20-something with an instantly recognisable regional English accent; he is slightly overweight and bounces around like a happy puppy, forever joking and smiling. In case they may be identified, that’s as much as I can say about them.
Together they’ve just unloaded several chairs and tables from their van and put them in the front room. It appears they had already set up two Cornelius kegs and a cask on stillage the previous night, to allow time for the contents to settle. Sam pushes the furniture around the ordinary looking lounge, making space for the temporary tables and chairs.
The owner of the house, Jan (another pseudonym), comes downstairs to check on her food in the kitchen. She’s only out of sight for a moment before she returns to help Sam with the seating arrangement. It’s a tricky layout in the modest space but they manage to create a beer hall vibe, with chairs facing inward toward each other, with as few insular pockets as possible.
“How many people are you expecting?” I ask.
Sam shrugs. “We’re never exactly sure. Usually around twenty people. Fourteen is the least we’ve ever had, thirty-one the most. We almost turned people away that time.”
I take in the modest lounge again. It’s an open plan lounge and dining room, and looks like it could hold a very cosy 20 people, but 31 is impossible to imagine. “Where did you put them all?”
Jan laughs warmly, “That wasn’t here, that was over at…” she almost says a name, pauses, continues,”…a different house. I love these nights but I have a manic work schedule; there’s no way I could do it every month, so we rotate. There’s five places, all said.”
I don’t know how to place Jan. She’s probably mid-to-late thirties, looks and acts younger, has a husband but no kids or pets. In the short time I’ve known her since arriving at the house she’s been incredibly polite and friendly, her only insistence being that I don’t take any pictures.
“Where else do you hold the event? Is it all in houses?”
There’s a knock on the door. Jan excuses herself and Sam picks up the question. “Yeah. There are two in Roath, one in Splott, Canton, Llandaff and we might be adding a place in Ely to the list soon. We’d like to do it in the Bay but those flats aren’t really practical for this sort of thing.”
It turns out ‘this sort of thing’ is a modest way of describing what they do. Sam Brewer and Dai Landlord operate a monthly underground drinking club – it has no official name, but later I was told that most of the people who turn up call it ‘Sam’s Speakeasy’, in honour of the man who made it all come together.
Three newcomers enter the lounge. All three are men and look they’ve come straight from work – their ties are loosened, laptop bags are underarm and there’s a palpable relief in their eyes at the sight of the bar. They nod to me cordially amid their own post-work chatter. In a matter of moments they’ve exchanged pleasantries with Dai, each been handed a full pint glass of beer and have collapsed into the chairs.
“So how does it work? Can anyone just turn up?” I ask Sam.
“No. It’s invite only, really. We don’t hold secret committees to decide who can come in, we just trust and expect our guests to invite the right people.”
Dai Landlord laughs, “Yeah, no police or fucking tax men.”
“Is this illegal?”
Dai Landlord smiles and goes about preparing drinks for more arrivals. Sam maintains his cold glare which I’ve come to accept is his default expression. “No. We don’t think so. It might exist in a grey area, but we’re sure it’s legal.”
“So why the secrecy?”
Sam shrugs, another common habit. “We just don’t want the hassle, or questions. We just want to do what we do and do it.”
Sam is not the easiest subject to interview and by now Dai is in full work mode. In the space of ten minutes another six people have turned up, a group of four and a couple. They came separately, minutes apart, but greet each other with easy familiarity. The group is made up of three lads and a girl, possibly students or recent graduates, while the couple have the thousand-yard stare of new parents.
Sam leaves to fetch a crate of bottled beers from the van. Jan emerges from the kitchen and puts out a platter of hot roast pork sandwiches, cheese sandwiches, and packets of crisps. “Do you always serve food at these events?” I ask Jan while eyeing up the hot pork rolls.
“Yes. Sandwiches is about the limit of my cooking skills,” she laughs, “I’m jealous of [name omitted], he always lays out a feast of some sort. Whoever hosts gets to choose what food goes out. It’s just to soak up the beer, it’s not about the food. Fortunately for me! I’d be rubbish at Come Dine With Me.” She laughs and heads off to open the front door.
Dai winks at me, produces a glass and fills it to the brim with beer from one of the Corny kegs. I sip it and find it to be crisp, cool and hopped to high heaven. It also has a strong, malty backbone. The style is instantly familiar. Dai speaks my thoughts out loud.
“Right?” he grins, “Just like the sort of American IPAs coming out of Colorado right now.”
“It’s excellent. How much do you charge people for this?”
“We don’t,” says Sam, abruptly dropping a crate of beers onto the bar. “That would be illegal.”
“So you’re just giving this away?!” I swirl the beer, wondering at the cost of the hops that went into it.
“No. We expect donations. But it’s not mandatory. For a full night of drinking, we hope people put in a tenner. If they’re just here for a couple of drinks, a fiver. But whatever, really. See that guy,” Sam singles out one of the office workers in the room, “he puts in twenty every time, but he walks out with his pockets full of bottles.”
For the first time I acknowledge the ashtray on the bar top. By now it contains a sheaf of ten pound notes, two fivers, a fistful of pound coins and, near the bottom, a single twenty. “So for a tenner I could knock back eight pints of this stuff and you’d happy?”
“It’s 6.5% so I doubt you’d make it to eight pints, but sure.”
“Are you guys making any profit out of this?”
“That’s another word we don’t use. We don’t make a profit. The money raised goes toward ingredients, petrol costs, glassware, food.”
“Is there anything left over after all that?”
“Yeah. Not enough to make a living off though.”
“What’s your day job?”
“I work in an office,” Sam replies, offering no more than that. Typically, Dai is more outgoing. “I’m an assistant manager in a nightclub in the city centre. My manager is a lazy cunt so basically I do all the paperwork. It’s actually nice coming here once a month, even though I’m working it’s not like real barwork, I’m not fisting toilet bowls,” he jokes, referring to the recent Pete Brown article that highlights publicans are amongst the unhappiest workers in the land.
The concept excites me, perhaps because of the is-it isn’t-it legal status harking back to America’s speakeasies or the shebeens of Cardiff docks long ago, but there’s an uncomfortable undercurrent, one that I finally air, “Isn’t this taking business away from real pubs? It’s hard enough for them as it is without facing black market competition.”
Sam takes my nearly finished glass of beer from me, leans over the bar and refills it. He holds it out in front of all three of us. “Let’s say this costs £3. Of your money, this much is VAT,” he holds two figures against the glass, “and this much is excise duty,” he holds another two fingers against it, covering a third of the glass. “The brewer puts in all the hard work making the beer, he gets one share, the publican stores and sells the beer in his pub, he gets one share, the government does fuck all they but they also get one share.”
“Yes, but what about…”
“We hold our sessions on the last Thursday of the month, which is typically when people have no money left and are coasting through to payday. The people here tonight aren’t choosing whether to come here or go to the pub – they’re choosing whether to come here or stay home. We aren’t stealing pub custom because it’s already been decimated by this,” he taps the imaginary tax locked inside the pint of beer. “A man could buy four pints of beer with change from a tenner if tax was significantly dropped; that would save pubs. Instead he has to break a twenty.”
The room is almost full now, easily fifteen or more people sat drinking and talking. There’s faint music coming from the kitchen. In spite of the hubbub of conversation, a silent pocket somehow wraps itself around us three. Dai smiles apologetically. Sam puts the pint on the bar. I’ve never worked in a pub before so I’m struggling to counter Sam’s argument. I know a few of the barstaff and publicans of Cardiff and I wished then I could pull one of them out of my pocket and set them against Sam to see if they agreed or disagreed. For lack of anything else to say amid our awkward silence a weak reply comes to mind, “But what if everyone started up one of these drinking clubs? Then pubs would be in trouble.”
Sam shrugs. “In which case everything changes. Then the Government would have to cut tax or lose their revenue stream entirely.”
Dai Landlord greets one of the drinkers. He leans against the bar, a cigarette trailing smoke toward the ceiling as he contemplates the range of bottles. He picks one out, Dai pops the cap and hands it to him along with a clean glass. The smoke suddenly strikes me as an odd sight against the backdrop of cask and keg fonts. “Can I smoke here?” I ask.
“Sure,” Dai nods.
There’s a pause while we stare each other. I realise my mistake. “Sorry, I meant is it okay for people to smoke here, at the drinking club?”
“Yeah, mostly. House rules, y’know. Depends on where we are. I’d say it’s what… a 50/50 split.”
“More like 60/40,” Sam corrects.
“Right, yeah. At the house in Llandaff we run it in the lounge and kitchen. You can smoke in the kitchen but not the lounge.” There’s a momentary silence while that sinks in. I take another drink, one of many. At some point in the night I remember to put a tenner in the ashtray.
Sam’s Speakeasy officially opened at 6pm. The first three office workers came in around 6.20pm and by 7.30pm we had hit the fifteen mark. A little after 8 (8.15pm, I think) we’d more or less reached our full capacity of nineteen, though two guys came in around 9pm, threw in a fiver each, had a half at the bar and quickly left with a few bottles.
I stay to the end. By quarter to eleven it’s all over. I suspect there is appetite to keep going from a couple of the patrons but there is an ingrained sense of respect for the owner of the house. Jan clears away the empty plates of food while I help Sam and Dai dismantle the bar, tables and chairs and load them into the van.
Sam hops into the van, guns the engine and drives off without a goodbye. I look at Dai with a raised eyebrow. Dai smiles. “He’s alright once you get to know him.”
I nod. “So, am I okay to blog about this?”
“That’s why we asked you to come over, mate.”
“Seems a bit odd, you trying to keep this secret while asking me to tell the world.”
“Sam didn’t want you here but I convinced him. I’m more on the people side. This whole thing is a good idea, y’know. Be a shame not to spread it. We’ve got more regulars than we can handle now so maybe someone else out can start their own club or whatever you wanna call it. So tell ‘em about the idea, just don’t tell ‘em where to find us.”
Dai Landlord grins, shakes my hand and disappears into the sprawling side streets of Cardiff. I look around at the unfamiliar terrace, my head buzzing from a little too much good beer, and realise getting home would be a small miracle, let alone finding the place again.