A small beige room about the size of the Euston Tap, or maybe a smidgen bigger, in a side street near busy Leeds Station and just off the main drag, Friends of Ham doesn't look like a bar from the outside. Despite knowing the area fairly well, I nearly walked past it. It is one o'clock and the place is empty. Well it is upstairs where the bar is. I understand there is more downstairs, but I didn't visit as I 'd have felt a tad conspicuous in doing so. The place is a vista (OK - a small vista) of shades of beige. Beige floor, beige walls, beige bar and stools and light brown rolls of hanging paper which act as wine lists and menus. It would be quite at home in Stockholm or Oslo, but counter intuitively, it works, though a splash of colour here and there wouldn't go amiss.
I am greeted cheerily by the inevitable neatly bearded barman and scan the pumps. It is my first drink of this sunny Saturday and I order Roosters Leghorn. I look round and when my gaze returns to the bar, perplexingly I am confronted by a dimpled pint mug full of beer. I remark that I would have asked for a straight glass had I known, but I demur when offered an exchange, remarking that I'll just have it in the old fashioned glass. A jaw drops in this achingly trendy little bar. Have I committed a cardinal sin of implying untrendiness? I hastily offer the explanation that I remember these the first time round, but he doesn't look convinced. Is he unaware that there was a first time, or, more likely, should I clearly know that this is a retro touch?
This pointlessly worries me as I retreat to the most uncomfortable stool ever; it is a tiny rectangle of sharp corners that bit into my well padded arse, but they look good. Style over substance, but in there I have to say they are perfect. Young women in matching aprons fuss about filling the tiniest saucers ever with a precarious (small) heap of olives for £1.60 a pop and bringing "sharing bottles" to the stand up fridge. The choice of beer is thoughtful and wide ranging. The bottle fridge is interesting, diverse and representative. Is there a price list somewhere? I don't know. The craft keg offer is well thought out, seems par for the course pricewise and is offered in thirds, halves and two thirds. Three handpumps offer a balanced range. My Roosters is good. Very good, so I order another half. A young couple come in, order beer and disappear downstairs. I would love a look there but somehow don't do it, though I know this is the part of the bar that gets a lot of plaudits. I am missing out here, but drink up and go and am given a cheery goodbye.
So what do I think? I really need to visit again, preferably with my lass to tell you. It isn't a place to go on your own, if like me you like to watch what is going on at the bar. In fact it probably isn't a place to go on your own at all. I have no reservations whatever on service which is helpful and friendly, beer choice which is pretty near perfect, or popularity, but I can tell I am not the target audience. It is for trendy 25 to 35 years olds and no worse for that. Friends of Ham know who it is aiming at and judging by the on-line reviews, it does it very well indeed, but somehow I am guessing that there would be few occasions when it would be my first choice.
That is probably how it should be. They have a niche that works for them and that is a very good thing.
I am guessing too, that it would be very uncomfortable when busy. But younger folks like that and busy is always good for a pub or bar.
A bit of a CV. Tandleman is a veteran beer lover, local CAMRA Chairman and activist, beer author, beer reviewer and pursuer of all things good in beer. He lives in the North West of England and London. Despite his CAMRA membership, he does not limit himself to cask conditioned beer, though he believes that cask conditioning, when done correctly and appropriately, brings a quality to beer that is hard to equal by any other kind of presentation. He is a strong supporter of Northern methods of beer dispense and avidly detests poorly presented beer and dislikes pasteurisation. He regularly visits Germany, has conducted corporate British and German beer tastings for CAMRA at the Great British Beer Festival where he has worked for years on Biere Sans Frontieres and was Deputy Organiser at CAMRA's very successful National Winter Ales Festival in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012. He admires good brewers wherever they are and has travelled extensively in pursuit of good beer to drink.
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