The glowering head hangs from the pike giving me the impression it saw me coming first. I avoid eye contact so as not to provoke…..
This new venue is the first of Mad Squirrel’s tap rooms to open with the ‘Mad’ as opposed to the ‘Red’ of its previous branding. Mad Squirrel is the only brewery I know that shed its old identity completely in favour of its craft alter-ego. It evolved into another creature.
Low tables and stools near the entrance take me back to primary school. Further in are high tables, posing stools and fixed-table seating booths with red leather upholstery. Corners actually have the feel of an American diner – or how I imagine them from the big screen.
Cans recycled as cactï/flower pots decorate the surfaces. Chillers are stocked with cans and bottles to drink in or take away. The presence of long-filament lightbulbs means there’s good keg beer on tap – these two phenomena are always conjoined for some reason.
What I’d normally refer to as the bar I’m inclined instead to call the servery. It’s open, bright, clean and quite ‘unpubby’. This appeals to me as it dipenses with one of my gripes with many pubs – the large self-unaware primates who sit at the bar obscuring the offerings.
The metal lustre also recalls the clinical gleam of brewery paraphenalia – the kettles, racking and fermenters. Three top-lit shelves hold glasses of descending size: the pint, two-thirds and third ‘Tekus’. The taps are sunken into a metal backplate on naked brick. Left to right describes keg to cask with a cider at the far end.
There are regularly updated beer menus – these will be familiar to anyone who’s been to popular chains in London such as the Craft Beer Co or the Barworks pubs.
The food is also simple and geared towards beer. It serves sliders (mini burgers in convoy) and cheese or meat boards. Production is straightforward and the kitchen looks to have successfully landed running.
This light, roomy, unbesmirched space is above all functional.
So far after three visits to this tap, I’ve had Flying Squirrel (the standard Pilsner), a Münich Helles and a rye Bock. I had a glass of the Quipsters Belgian Wit and another of Burning Effigy – a smoked porter. On cask I took in the Resolution Golden Ale and of course the London Porter. I savoured the Amerian pale $umo and the Roadkill IPA. I sipped the Hold Your Nerve DIPA as a dessert.
Across the road sits the Cross Keys public house. Over the years, it’s the only other bar I’ve headed out to in Harpenden. On a Friday, you can peer in from the pavement to see a mass of bodies. The gurgle of chatter seeps through the whitewashed bricks like osmosis. Condensation streams down the latticed windows – a sign of respiratory life within.
The tumescence of the roof betrays this building’s age. The flower baskets hang dripping from their brackets as they have for generations. The walls are warped and sag as if melting slowly back into the bedrock; you can see the patress plates imbedded in them like staples in a corset straining to restrain the bulge.
As evenings draw in, the inside takes on the soul of the cave with its sanctum pierced by quivering candle flame. One of the things that makes an old pub such a spritual place is how it’s a rudimentary shelter from the cold. A raging hearth – now technologically obsolete – is human dissent in defiance of encroaching Winter.
The heavy wooden door might originally have been built to protect against Royalist musket fire. I heave it open. The bar is a senate, at times rudely interrupted by interlopers like me ordering beer.
The Cross Keys is the Ying to Mad Squirrel’s Yang. The two bars exist at divergent points in beer culture. It’s good to have this contrast between the traditional and the new just as it’s necessary to exploit the strengths of each. Where to go to drink can be as much decided by mood as beer choice.
Returning to the Craft Beer Co and Barworks, their ‘bespoke’ décor comes straight off their corporate peg. The ‘subverted’ Magritte-style artworks that appear unique basically come off a conveyor belt for their fifteen-odd venues – a far shout from the accumulation of haphazard tat that adds reassuring ground-in grot to the nation’s freehouses.
Mad Squirrel Harpenden hasn’t been festooned with those chain curios, though. The painted squirrel faces do peer from each menu, fridge and cranny, but there’s alot of empty space here.
Harpenden’s new tap is an establishment that is only just bedding in. Character, wear and quirk are things that develop over time. Harpendonians need a honeymoon to imprint themselves on this tap room and fill in the pillars’ and walls’ empty swathes. A signed photograph of Eric Morecambe or John Motson, perhaps? There’s the local football and rugby clubs, National Children’s Home, Great Northern Railway, bare-knuckle fighter Simon Byrne, Dick Turpin and the highland games (seriously!).
Give it a chance – the paint’s still drying.
For disinterested souls who trailed in with their friends, this might be the evening that puts them onto beer. This is also a respite for people that find pubs stuffy, dark or over-social. For the drinker that knows only Guinness, the London Porter might re-activate senses and nurture discernment. It’s a potential game changer.
Mad Squirrel boasts a head brewer with a brewing degree from Weihenstephan and has enlisted a second with a degree from Dortmund. Add to that roster an experienced British distiller and you get some serious talent.
The brewery’s trumpcard is the quality and consistency of the beers in its range. It holds this advantage over nearby pubs – the cask ale lottery is something it has risen proud of and as such, in Harpenden it’s an oasis of great beer in a comparative desert.
sciurus non compos mentis de Harpendene – visit!