A Rock in a Hard Place — Kwas Wine Shop & Bar in Huddersfield, Yorkshire
Huddersfield is a beer town. It’s home to several breweries, including local champions, Mallinson’s, alongside modern British beer pioneers Magic Rock. Over the past few years, breweries like these have grown to form part of the heart that drives Huddersfield’s community.
Also at the centre of this community is the town’s pubs. Locals like The Sportsman and The Grove are regarded by many as some of the best places to drink beer in the country. Thanks to all of the above, this West Yorkshire town has become a must-visit destination for travelling beer lovers.
However, take a left out of the train station and the first bar you encounter will not be able to serve you a perfectly conditioned and cellar cool pint of cask ale. (Although fear not, plenty of that is available elsewhere, should it be your hearts desire.)
That bar is Kwas, a shop and bar specialising in natural wine. Pronounced “kvass”, it takes its name from the Polish word for acid or sour. Fitting, as Poland is where one of its co-founders, Ola Dabrowska, is originally from. She and her partner, Duncan Sime, established Kwas in December 2018, giving Huddersfield its first taste of natural wine in the process.
It would, perhaps, have been easier to open their shop in a larger, more cosmopolitan location nearby, such as Leeds or Manchester. You could drop Kwas into any major metropolitan city’s drinks culture and it would fit right in. Inside, the bar is cosy and welcoming, while at the same time feeling sleek and very much of this moment. The shelves are stacked with some of the natural wine world’s hype beasts also, from Spain’s Partida Creus to the UK’s Tillingham.
Huddersfield, however, is Ola and Duncan’s home (Duncan also happens to work as events and media manager at Magic Rock) and so it’s here that they would set their stall. While we were in town for Magic Rock’s annual Seshfest beer festival last month, it felt like a great time to catch up with the couple and discuss why they decided to bring natural wine to a town better known for its beer.
Matthew Curtis: Why did you decide to open a natural wine bar in Huddersfield?
Duncan Sime: One of the reasons was living here. We’re also drawn to this area through various work projects. And then the main reason was to make [natural wine] a little more accessible. We struggled in supermarkets and in other wine shops to find vegan wines.
MC: Are you both vegan yourselves?
DS: Yes. We would spend a good half hour in supermarkets looking at Barnivore, which lists if alcoholic drinks are vegan. We would be scrolling through, looking like idiots, and we couldn’t find anything.
Ola Dabrowska: The other reason is that we want to live a lifestyle that’s as natural as possible. This means using as many natural products where we can, and eat good, homemade food, made with organic vegetables. And I don’t mean that in a snobby way—there’s a lot of shit around! In our food, drink, in the household, all of our lives. I really want to reduce that.
MC: So you opened the shop to enable your own drinking?
Both of them erupt with laughter.
OD: The idea of having [our own shop] is being able to show people what you drink can be good and can be simple. It’s just grape juice, after all, made [into wine] by someone with passion.
MC: Kwas is Polish for acid. Why did you decide on that as the name for your shop?
OD: We like the term acid because we need more acid in life. I’ve been very interested in modern lifestyles and why people get sick, things like that. One of the aspects of this is that our diet needs more acid to promote wellbeing. I want that name to be seen as a positive, not negative acid.
DS: Not negative as in LSD.
OD: No, that’s a positive acid!
They burst out laughing once again.
DS: We just wanted something short, snappy, Polish, and different. And something that’s relevant. Our name circles around the edges of wine and brings it back together in the middle, if that makes sense.
MC: You’ve been open for almost six months now, how did the town respond to you opening?
DS: Huddersfield is becoming more receptive to what we do, definitely. The reaction has been really positive. It’s a drinking town—and I mean that in a good way—it’s a destination town for people who love beer.
MC: It’s a beautiful town too, nestled right here in the Pennines.
DS: I’m originally from Blackburn where you’re also surrounded by edges of the countryside that you have easy access to, and it’s similar to where Ola is from too. Being surrounded by greenery is important to us, to give us a bit of an escape.
OD: Huddersfield is not too big and not too small. We’ve got access to everywhere, and the people here are very curious and excited about us. That tends to be the only sort of reaction I see.
DS: In the past six months there’s only been one occasion where someone has told us, “I don’t like that,” and they didn’t want to drink anything. We’re not doing this in a patronising manner or looking down our noses at people. We’re new to this experience as well. This shop is our journey, and it’s only the start. We want to involve more art, and more music. Coming here should feel like hanging out in our living room, that’s what we wanted it to be.
OD: People will visit for the first time, sit down with me and instantly start up a conversation. It’s amazing. When it’s busy you have people sitting in the window and at the bar, but because they’re so close they’ll immediately start chatting to each other, and we really like that. My aim was to bring people together and in this small space it’s impossible to be private!
MC: How have the local pubs reacted to you opening?
DS: Ian [Hayes, owner of The Grove] has been in here with his family and they loved it. They were really inquisitive about what was going on. The Grove has been such an influence on so many places that popped up over in Manchester. People came to Huddersfield and thought “I can do this,” and that’s kind of how the scene in Leeds has influenced us, with places like Wayward Wines. Their place is only three-quarters the size of ours and they make it work amazingly. Those guys were a big influence, we didn’t want to copy them but we saw what they were doing and felt we could make something like it work in Huddersfield.
MC: I was in Liverpool recently and went to Bunch, another great space. It feels like great wine spots are popping up all over.
DS: Those guys have visited actually. They import the Yetti and the Kokonut wines [from South Australia] so we did a tasting with Bunch here. There on a similar level to us, I think they’ve been open a bit longer but not by much. It’s really interesting to see these little places pop up around the country.
MC: Do you see any parity with what’s happened in beer over the past few years or is wine on a completely different trajectory?
DS: I think it’s different and the same. [He laughs.]
OD: We opened Kwas as an experiment, especially in a place like Huddersfield. People ask us why we didn’t open in a place like Manchester, and the answer is there was no reason to. It has everything already. We need to bring new stuff to other people who maybe don’t want to travel. I think natural wine in the UK will grow in little steps like this and maybe, actually, yeah, it will be the new craft beer.
MC: Your typical flat cap wearing, bitter drinking Yorkshireman probably isn’t going to be popping in for a glass of pét-nat anytime soon, so how will you integrate into the community here?
OD: I never focus on integrating. I was thinking—and not in a cocky way—that I do what I feel and see how people respond. I think what we’re doing is new and a bit different and people need this kind of fresh vibe. Being from Poland my European roots have really influenced this place and how it feels. We actually went to Paris a few weeks ago to do some research.
DS: La Buvette was the main wine place we wanted to visit. It’s by no means an unusual setup but it is a little different. There’s no music, an open kitchen only serving cold plates and you have to order food if you want some wine.
OD: They don’t have a license to serve only wine, but it works, it was full!
DS: A lot of other bars [in Paris] have that element to them as well. The chef was serving up simple plates like white beans with grated lemon zest, salt and oil, and that was it on the plate.
OD: We went to a few places and, if I’m being honest, it made me feel confident. I’m not saying we’re similar to somewhere like La Buvette, but we’re bringing that kind of European vibe to Yorkshire. It’s kind of rebellious, and that’s what people need.
But many beer drinkers, well, you’d be surprised. They come in and say they “only drink beer.” So I’ll say “try this.” Beer drinkers really like orange wine. Maybe one day they’ll be on the same level, whether it’s craft beer or funky wine. It’ll be more a case of asking “what do I want to drink today?”
MC: It’s really interesting to see these worlds coming together.
DS: There’s definitely a big crossover. One of our original reasons for setting up was that we were meeting in the middle really, with my beer background and Ola’s love of wine we found some bits in the middle that were quite similar.
MC: We’re drinking an incredible bottle of Spanish red pét-nat simply called “Juicy” from Vinyes de la Tortuga right now. What wines have you been enjoying recently?
DS: We’ve been pleasantly surprised by Spanish wines like this and from other producers like Partida Creus. Some of the Czech wines have been great too, some with grape varieties that we aren’t used to. We’ve been blown away by those. As a result we try and keep a good rotating stock of Spanish and Czech wines. At first it was maybe 50% French, which happened by accident really. Now I couldn’t tell you what the main thing here is [he looks around the shop] I guess a lot of it is still French actually!
MC: What’s selling really well for you?
OD: Most of the wines we sell are ones that people don’t really know yet, so they ask us for recommendations based on what they like already. It doesn’t matter where it’s from, I try to match something with their particular taste. This has worked well for us so far, nobody’s complained! The wines we sell the most are the wines we like to drink because we’re excited about them. We do sell quite a lot of Spanish wine. English wine does very well because it’s quite rare.
MC: I see you stock Tillingham. They’re incredibly popular are the moment aren’t they?
OD: They are, and we only get a small allocation, maybe one case of each? If you go online you’ll often see messages that say “sorry, only one bottle per customer.” We’ve had to do the same here. There’s always a bottle for us, of course, then the rest for the customers!
DS: It’s probably quite important for us to keep a staple of English wines, in case people do ask. Most customers aren’t specifically going by country when they ask what we have. It’s like Ola said, we ask them what they like and we find that wine for them.
OD: People are amazing and create so many different situations for us. I had this one guy come in and say “do you know the kind of wine that smells really bad but tastes really good?” I said yes and he said “give me one of those!”
MC: Honestly, I had a wine recently that smelled like rotting meat but tasted like fresh strawberries, it was amazing.
OD: We had one wine from Australia where my description of the aroma was “like a very bad public urinal” but it was still a delicious wine! Just not so pleasant on the nose.
MC: Has this been a barrier to customers who are new to natural wine? How do you overcome a negative reaction?
DS: By loosening it up and making it funny by saying it smells like feet or a urinal we find that people are laughing with us. They’ll still try it. We’re not going for the usual tastes or smells, we’re telling people how it is. It puts down the barriers really.
OD: If you’re natural and spontaneous about wine then people will get it. People are really interested in the story of the wines we sell. It makes me happy!
This interview is an excerpt. The full version will be aired in the first series of our new podcast, launching summer 2019.