Chatting Beer over Breakfast with Trevor Gulliver and Will Bucknall
For whatever occasion, whether it’s for a convivial lunch, hedonistic supper or just a post-work pint, it’s always a pleasure to visit the original St. John restaurant in London’s Smithfield Market. It’s been here since it was founded by Trevor Gulliver and Fergus Henderson in 1994. On this particular morning I’m here to meet Trevor, along with Will Bucknall, sales director at beer distribution company, Kicking Horse.
Will’s business specialises in getting great beer into excellent restaurants. Its client list includes, among others, Blacklock, Smoking Goat, Brigadiers, Hawksmoor and, of course, St. John. Previously working in wine sales has given Will something of an edge in his field. The beer industry and the restaurant business don’t always speak the same language, which has often left me frustrated when dining in top-end restaurants that simply don’t seem to understand good beer.
By applying experience from the wine trade, Kicking Horse has found an in, allowing the brands it distributes—including Harbour, Thornbridge, Burning Sky and Magic Rock to name a few—to sit alongside wine in a restaurant setting where it might not ordinarily do so.
Trevor Gulliver was responsible for the creation of successful Waterloo gastropub, The Fire Station—the sale of which, in 1993, allowed the purchase of St. John’s Smithfield site. He established the import business St. John Wines in 1996, which eventually released its own vintage for the first time in 2008. He also established Brew Wharf—one of London’s early microbreweries of the modern era—although this is now closed.
What’s immediately evident from just a few minutes with Trevor is that he’s not merely a wine person. Beer flows through his veins just like Fernet Branca flows in the St. John kitchens at the end of a busy service. And he’s not altogether content with how things are panning out in the London brewing scene. But then, being content with anything robs you of the ability to become meaningful—just like St. John has become in the gastronomic world over its 25 year history.
Matthew Curtis: How did Kicking Horse get started?
Will Bucknall: We started just over four years ago. Myself and my best friend were both at a point in our career where we either carried on working for a big company or we actually set up and did something on our own. We were actually looking at setting up a restaurant and we wanted beer to be a massive focus of it.
Beer has always been something of an add-on to a menu. I’d worked for [wine distributor] Bibendum for about eight years, and I thought there must be something better that we can do. I’d spend three months with a restaurant putting a wine list together, the list would go live and you’d have Peroni or Heineken shoved onto the end of it. There was no pull-through, no driver in terms of beer. And so we thought there must be a better way. So we set up Kicking Horse—in a stable.
MC: So that’s where the name comes from, I take it?
WB: No! I was actually a ski instructor for a bit and I taught out in Banff, Canada. One of the most amazing ski resorts next to it is Kicking Horse—which is what we took our name from.
We did our first delivery to Hawksmoor Spitalfields two weeks after we had set up. I spoke to a mate that I knew there and said, “you’ve got to take some of this beer, we’ve got a huge amount of it.” Tom [Higginson], my business partner, pulled up in his old, beat-up VW Beetle, got some beer out the back and it kind of went from there really.
MC: What beer was that?
WB: It was Thornbridge Tzara and Jaipur in 500ml bottles. And they took a couple of cases of Wild Beer Co. Modus Operandi.
MC: Getting beer into Hawksmoor, that’s a huge deal right?
WB: Hawksmoor is a great case study in terms of what we’ve done. It was only just yesterday one of them rang me up and was asking for a lactose sour IPA! It’s amazing within four years the progression we’ve seen there.
MC: I wouldn’t drink that with steak if I’m being honest.
WB: I wouldn’t personally either. But the great thing is all of the Hawksmoors have particular things that they’re very good at. You’ve got Air Street which is slightly more fish orientated, you’ve got Guildhall with their breakfasts. So there’s loads of things you can play around with. The lactose IPA was for the fish.
MC: How did you go about getting beer into St. John?
WB: We were introduced to Trevor and Fergus—Trevor is incredibly knowledgeable about the drinks side of the business and beer is one of his passions. We told them about our aims within the restaurant trade. To give people beers that they could be as proud of as their wine list.
St. John import all of their own wines, so we knew how influential they were, not only in the restaurant but also in the wine trade. We spoke to them about doing something a little bit different. Luckily we were all on the same page, so we came to them with the idea of not only changing the beers, but the aesthetics of the bar as well. We wanted to put something in and have it fit with the environment that you were drinking in and the people that drink there.
MC: How do you overcome the challenge of not only getting good beer into great restaurants, but ensure that the staff know how to sell it?
WB: If we put in one beer or 20 beers into a restaurant, they have to have training from us. It’s non-negotiable. We’re coming in and we’re going to sit down with your team for 45 minutes. We’ll talk you through service, pour, brewing process and then go into a little bit about all of the beers you have on. Get you tasting them, get you enthused about where they’re coming from and the people who brew these beers.
That’s why I loved working in wine. Because every single winery that you work with has an amazing story behind it, and beer is exactly the same.
At this point Trevor arrives and joins us at our table in the bar at St. John. Meanwhile, staff whizz around us preparing the restaurant for its lunchtime service, while Fergus sits quietly on the table next to us, scribbling into a notebook.
MC: Trevor, how does beer fit into what you do at St. John?
Trevor Gulliver: Lets wind back. I did The Fire Station in Waterloo 25 years ago. The world was far different back then, there was no food revolution, however The Fire Station was seen to be seminal.
It was a recession, The Old Vic [Theatre] was going bust, and at that point, apart from Alastair Little, Simon Hopkinson and a couple of others, there wasn’t a lot going on. The Campaign for Real Ale [CAMRA] revolution was sort of there but in a way it had kind of faltered, as it tends to. At that time I remember someone saying to me, “you can’t do a bar with a restaurant.”
MC: Why not?
TG: No one had tried. Beer at that point was headed into the doldrums before Freedom, Meantime and people like Oliver Peyton with Mash and Air in Manchester arrived. We called [our place] The Fire Station because it was a large fire station. It was really simple and the most important thing was that it had good beer and that we had a good chef. We became Young’s biggest free trade account outside of Twickenham [Rugby Stadium].
[Beer] was always instrumental in what we did. Beer is food, if you treat it correctly. I bemoaned Young’s because there were no London brewers (Young’s moved its brewing operation outside London in 2006). None of the new brewers are London brewers. If they were restaurants they’d be the equivalent of Tex-Mex meets every other chain—that’s what beer is now.
MC: What about Fuller’s?
TG: Fuller’s is a market garden brewer, always was. Came down the river. Their beer is red or brown, it’s not London bitter. It just stuns me that people don’t know what London bitter is. [London bitter] should be so bitter that we can do that joke about how it makes a young child look like a bulldog chewing a wasp.
That’s kind of where we started with Will. [Beer writer] Melissa Cole actually showed me around some London breweries and I told her I can’t keep up with all of this, and that some of it was quite ridiculous. I found myself standing in a railway arch in Hackney and thinking: “this is not very good.”
There is a gift towards brewing. Just like some people can cook and some people think they can. But most people can’t. Just because you’re in a railway arch and you’ve got four ingredients doesn’t mean you’re a brewer. Bermondsey is going to implode. Our rent at our bakery there has doubled and Network Rail promised they wouldn’t do that. That’s a bubble that’s going to burst. A lot of the beer is not very good and [the brewers] are not set in their environment.
At this point Trevor apologises for changing the subject but insists he will carry on anyway.
TG: So when it came to us at St. John, Melissa told me to speak to Will. So I invited him over for lunch—always an easy ticket that one. [Will laughs in the background] I said to Will: “this is how it works.” You will sort out, choose, select and interact with all beers in our three locations. You will change them every season, they will be interesting and you will charge us the best prices. Basically he’s become the conduit that ensures we always have the best beer.
We do also have Guinness, but we only have that at this site because I really don’t appreciate Diageo and the way that they charge for that beer. But there are some people here that want it and that’s fine.
MC: What do you think happens next for beer in London?
TG: There’s no beer revolution. What’s going to happen is there’s going to be a beer devolution. What’s happening is not sustainable, there’s a shakeout due. It’s great, though, that we have someone like Will as a filter. Whether or not you get good beer into more good restaurants? I think you’ll just have to be patient. In a way, we’ve been doing it for 25 years. Our selection is much better now, of course.
This interview is an excerpt. The full version will be aired in the first series of our new podcast, launching summer 2019.