Major milestone for beer pioneer

Colin Barr reflects on 40-year trade career as Bier Halle turns 20

Colin Barr brought the concept of an imported beer bar to Glasgow when he launched Bier Halle in 1999

By Gillian McKenzie

WHEN Colin Barr first opened the doors to Bier Halle on Glasgow’s Gordon Street 20 years ago, it’s fair to say the new venue raised a few eyebrows.

The man behind some of the city’s cutting-edge clubs and plush style bars had ditched the opulent interiors in favour of something altogether different.

The industrial slabs of concrete and Douglas Fir which formed the basement bar’s interior were unlike anything he had done before – or anything around at the time.

In fact, shortly after opening in November 1999, he recalls overhearing one customer say to another, ‘This is Colin Barr’s new place, I don’t think he’s got it finished yet.’

But the industrial, paired-back design, which went on to win awards, was central to his concept for a pizza and beer bar majoring in imported Belgian, Czech, German and world beers.

For Colin, it was a natural step.

“I’ve always loved beer and no one was really doing beer, imported beer, in Glasgow at the time,” he said.

“I had an idea to do a beer bar.

“I had been to the Staropramen brewery and just loved everything about it.

“I heard that a place on Gordon Street that used to be a bookies was available. I wasn’t sure at first but I walked past it all weekend and decided to go for it.

“The idea I had for a beer bar was very different to what I had done before.

“I had done clubs and style bars for 20 years and I was very much the ‘host’, but I didn’t want to be the ‘host’ of this place; it had to run if I wasn’t here, it couldn’t need my personality.

The bar’s concrete and Douglas Fir interior has stood the test of time

“I also didn’t want another style bar where you had to reinvent everything every two years. I wanted something substantial, something that we’d have forever and that would stand the test of time – concrete, industrial, hard-wearing; like a bunker.

“I wanted something really different.”

Not that Colin was a stranger to bringing new concepts to Glasgow.

Returning to the city after a season working as a PR for bars and clubs in Spain, an 18 year old Colin went to Partick job centre looking for work.

He applied for a job as an electrician but, after unsuccessfully wiring a circuit board as part of the interview process, went for the role of bartender at the then Broadway Hotel on Glassford Street instead, where boss John Lorimer tasked him with creating a cocktail list for the hotel’s bar.

“This was 1979 so I went to the library to find a book about cocktails,” said Colin.

“They had one book – that famous old Savoy cocktail book – so I looked through that and could see ones that I knew from Spain: Pina Colada – I thought, ‘that one’s good, I’ll go with that’; Sex on the Beach; a Margarita; a Screwdriver. John liked the list.”

Colin’s cocktail menu marked the start of a five-year stint working with John, during which time he established Bennett’s, the hotel’s club, as Glasgow’s first gay club.

A season working in Marbella and Puerto Banus followed before Colin returned to Glasgow.

From there he went on to launch – and DJ at – club night Fresh at Joe Paparazzi’s on Sauchiehall Street, which quickly expanded to other venues in the city.

The trade has changed but the Bier Halle formula remains the same.

The success of Fresh only fuelled Colin’s ambition to have his own club; so when the opportunity arose to take on the lease of the former Pizzazz club he jumped at it, opening Choice in 1989.

“It was great; we had 300 people in and we were having to turn away another 300,” said Colin. “I thought, ‘we’re going to need a bigger club’.”

A bigger club soon followed – the 1000-capacity Tunnel on Mitchell Street, which lays claim to being Glasgow’s first super-club, which he opened in 1990 with Mark Woodhouse and Ron McCulloch.

Colin went on to launch a string of clubs and style bars, including Volcano, Cul de Sac and The Living Room in the west end and The Lounge and private members’ club The Apartment in the city centre; and, of course, Bier Halle in November 1999.

Since then, he has expanded and streamlined his portfolio down the years; but the original Bier Halle, with its range of 12 draught beers and between 80 and 100 bottled brews, has remained at the heart of it.

And, last month – 600,000 beers, 1.3 million pizzas and 78,000 hot dogs later – the basement bar celebrated its 20th birthday.

It was a special milestone for Colin and his son Josh, who worked in the bar for over a decade before launching his own venture, The Locale; as well as Colin’s sister Liz and nieces Erin and Simone, who are also involved in Bier Halle, and the team.

And it was a double celebration as Colin chalked up 40 years in the trade.

“It’s a true testament to the ethos of Bier Halle and the hard work of my team that we are still as popular today as we were 20 years ago,” he said.

“I’ve been a publican since I was 18 and I have seen the landscape of the food and drink industry change dramatically time and time again. But the formula of the Bier Halle has never changed – great beer, great pizza and brilliant customers is our recipe for success. We set out our stall at the start and we stick to it.

“I love my job, I love this trade. And I’m proud of Bier Halle – proud that it’s recognised as an institution.”