Bar talk: Sotano, a secret underworld of cracking craft beer

3 May 2013 @ 10.37 am
| Food & drink

Enticing you into a special subterranean world… Sotano
Enticing you into a special subterranean world… Sotano

York CAMRA’s Nick Love disappears into the depths for a taste of something different in York’s drinking scene

To say that Sotano is one of the new breed of craft ale bars may be construed as somewhat of an oblique oxymoron.

On one hand it may be doing it a disservice in so narrowly pigeonholing this subterranean drinking establishment that has a touch of speakeasy in its DNA. On the other hand, alluding to the plethora of smart new craft bars that are now breaking out throughout the UK, this may be seen as paying it a compliment.

Nothing illegal about the hooch this place serves but the Little Stonegate bar is still somewhat of a deliciously surreptitious secret within the York drinking scene. Places such as Sotano, are often (but not exclusively) characterised by architecturally clean lines, a café style layout and liberal use of exposed brickwork, gleaming metal and reclaimed timber.

What they all have in common is that they serve craft beers that have huge hoppy flavours, are heavily influenced by, or indeed imported from the US and most controversially are not real ale.

Therein lies the nub of the argument that is raging within CAMRA and indeed between CAMRA and brewers such as consummate self-publicists Brew Dog who say that the term “real ale” does not mean anything anymore whereas “craft beer” does. This is a view that is far too simplistic in my opinion as both “movements” have great credibility and do much to promote flavoursome beer brewed with love, dedication and with a lot of skill.

By definition real ale is a living product and continues to ferment in the cask. Craft is keg which can often involve killing the yeast by pasteurisation and injecting carbon dioxide into the beer to carbonate it rather than let it happen naturally through fermentation as with real ale.

The irony is that both parties seem utterly intransigent in their positions and yet both complement each other (note the spelling!) in what they offer the consumer. It is also very significant that increasingly more UK craft brewers, such as the highly successful Thornbridge and Magic Rock, don’t pasteurize or filter their keg beers.

CAMRA came into being to fight the very thing that craft technically is – keg beer. But any zythophile who knows their history can put this firmly into context. Keg beer in the days of the genesis of CAMRA was tasteless fizz designed more out of avarice than a dedication to a product infused with multi-layered flavours such passion fruit, citrus, pine or mango.

It was mass produced for maximum profit with little attention paid to what it actually tasted like. It was easier to keep, had an infinite shelf life and produced greater profit margins for pubs and breweries. I remember trying effluent such as Watney’s Red Barrel and Youngers Tartan Bitter to see what the fuss was about. Traditional cask conditioned beer took a massive hit before CAMRA came to the rescue and the rest of the story is for another day.

If you want evidence of CAMRA’s success, just look at all the great real ale that is now available in York – over 240 unique beers on offer at any one time. Then look at the massive amount of microbreweries supplying them – five of which have York postcodes. Although Yorkshire breweries such as Hop Studio, Mallinsons, Great Heck and Magic Rock owe much to CAMRA for their existence, they have also very definitely cast an eye over the pond to the US for inspiration from the massive craft beer movement that has spawned more than 2,000 breweries.

Look at the fonts on the bar at Sotano and you will see these US craft giants such as Sierra Nevada, Anchor and Brooklyn breweries. The cascade hops used in Sierra Nevada Pale Ale that Sotano sells so much of, have for instance been widely adopted by UK brewers keen to offer their drinkers the grapefruity / citrusy flavours that are proving so popular with a new breed of drinkers in the UK.

Sam Wheatley, manager of Sotano, puts the case well: “Bitter has old fashioned connotations whereas pale ale gives the product a certain chic.” This rings true – when was the last time you were in a real ale bar and heard someone ask for “a pint of bitter”? Drinkers are finding that homogenous definitions are being replaced by more adventurously titled products. They are now ordering beers such as IPA; Saison; Dubbel; Weizen; APA; Chocolate Stout; Raspberry Blonde; Helles… the list is endless and ever more eclectic.

Inside Sotano. Photograph: Nick Love
Inside Sotano. Photograph: Nick Love
A view of the beer selection from behind the bar. Photograph: Nick Love
A view of the beer selection from behind the bar. Photograph: Nick Love

The main reason Sotano offers only craft beers is logistical – space. Without the need for hefty handpumps they are able to cram eight taps on the bar to offer an extended draught beer range you wouldn’t expect to see in such a bijous establishment.

American seasonal craft beers on tap share occupancy with excellent European beers such as Lindeboom and La Trappe to emphasise Sotano’s craft beer approach is not one of sniffy exclusivity. These are supplemented by a carefully chosen world beer bottle range.

It’s not for show either as when I was last in the place I overheard one of the regular bar staff advising some customers on what flavours each beer offered to try and match their tastes. This skillset is not limited to beer though as Sotano staff exhibit a deep knowledge of wines and spirits, which is just as well to satisfy the huge demand. There’s not a slavish adherence to multinational brands though, with a policy of sourcing rare artisan products, these being much preferred as constituents of your gin, vodka or rum based cocktail.

Sam is keen to stress that their craft ethos encompasses Sotano’s total offering and the constant demand for cocktails only serves to highlight the importance of staff proficiency in this area.

Sadly many bars in the UK still don’t “get” how integral staff are as part of the overall experience. I don’t want the counterfeit politeness of some fawning automaton that masks thinly disguised contempt any more than I want a pretentious über mixologist with a degree in chemical engineering who makes me feel as though I should pass an exam just to order a drink.

Who wants to be served by someone who uses knowledge to belittle rather than to inform?

If I owned a bar, I’d want to employ assiduous individuals with a genuine empathy for what they do, who took a delight in delivering something special and had obviously spent time behind the scenes honing their craft. You get a sense of this at Sotano – there’s a tangible relaxed sincerity blended with something of the infectious zeal of the alchemist.

When you look at a life in the day of Sotano you get more of a sense of their razón de ser. You’ll get there early evening and see groups, post-work, huddled around plates of Iberico ham, patatas bravas and selected cheeses from the tapas menu, washed down with a bottle from the exclusively Spanish wine menu.

The chameleonesque character of the bar is exemplified when you pop back later on, when there’s a bustling upbeat but relaxed vibe, designed, I understand, for like-minded people who want an upmarket alternative to 120bpm thudding off night club walls dripping with adrenalin.

It’s hard to characterise a bar that wants to put an emphasis on providing quality for discerning people without hinting at exclusivity. “Upmarket” is an invidious term as it has connotations of high price and exclusivity for its own sake rather than a simple dedication to quality. Artisan alcohol in a pleasant environment shouldn’t cost the earth.

Sotano seem to have got this formula just about right though, if their footfall is anything to go by, and have carved out a niche for themselves in a notoriously fickle and competitive market where “word of mouth” is vital to success and you have to be just that bit different and a significant notch above mundanity to make it work.