Birmingham Rising: Interview with Katie Rouse of Couch in Stirchley

Birmingham Is Blooming

Katie Rouse

I’ve been travelling around the UK judging cocktail competitions in recent months, and while chatting to bartenders in various cities about bars they have loved or are keen to visit, two venues kept popping up: Passing Fancies in Birmingham, and Couch in Stirchley, which is just outside Brum.

It’s been clear for a while that something interesting is happening to the cocktail scene in Birmingham, one only need to look at World Class this year for confirmation – Couch bartenders Katie Rouse and Jacob Clarke both made it to the GB final, which was ultimately won by Matt Arnold of Passing Fancies. I interviewed Tommy Matthews, co-owner of Passing Fancies a few weeks ago, and was struck by the enthusiasm and passion he had for hospitality in the city. Tommy had great things to say about Couch, as has everyone I have spoken to about the bar, so it seemed important to interview Katie Rouse, co-owner of Couch, to find out what makes Couch great, and why great things are happening in Birmingham’s bar scene.

BLUK: Hello Katie. Before we talk about Couch and Birmingham, can you tell us bit of your bartending backstory? 
KR: I started in bars when I first turned 18, mainly pub work, I started off in an O’Neill’s, drawing shamrocks on Guinness. Cocktails started for me when I started with the Bitters and Twisted group, we had a whisky bar, a gin parlour, and a tiki bar. This was about 12 years ago, but as most Brummies know, we had one group that specialised in cocktails and everything else was the usual chains, so there wasn’t much mentorship available in Birmingham then. After a lot of restaurants and little cocktail bars, I started a sales and marketing company called Crushed And Cubed, so I could bring new brands to market in the Birmingham and Midlands scene, and that’s where my cocktail knowledge grew as I got to meet the most incredible people who knew what they were doing. And after that, me and Jacob Clarke decided to start Couch, and that will be four years ago in November.

BLUK: Tell us about Couch, what sort of bar is it?
KR: The idea behind Couch was to create a neighbourhood bar that does neighbourhood bar correctly. So although we do cocktail competitions and try and get ourselves out there as much as possible, our primary is our community and making sure they are looked after.

BLUK: Is that what you mean by doing neighbourhood bar correctly?
KR: Yes, actually putting your neighbourhood first. We’ve got this saying that ‘if you want to work globally you’ve got to think locally’, so no matter how far you want to go in your career and whatever you want to do creatively, you still need to work with your neighbours and understand what your clientele want and need, what excited them, and what you can bring to that neighbourhood.

BLUK: And what is the actual venue like, what do your guests experience when they visit Couch?
KR: Think ‘Cheers’ but with cocktails, you walk in and everyone knows your name. That sort of vibe. We put loads of work into the playlists and lighting, the seating. Even if you come in on your own, hopefully you will know everyone by the time you leave. But there are also cosy little areas where you can hide away. The capacity is 20 inside, 10 of those seats are around the bar, and we have developed the garden space so we have another 20 seats outside. So although we are in a neighbourhood and close to a main road, when you go into the garden it’s a little bit more tranquil and you don’t feel like you are anywhere noisy.

BLUK: What is your cocktail list like, does it change regularly?
KR: We’ve just started doing more seasonal menus, so for the first 3 years… it was supposed to be a year of pop culture, but it turned into 3 years of pop culture, because of lockdown and everything that happened. So we started off with a music menu, as music is so important to the vibe of the place and something we’re really interested in, but after that we did films, TV series, and a special women in music edition, before we moved into seasonal menus which change every three months.

BLUK: So you have a Summer menu available, what’s on it?
KR: Even though I am saying seasonal, it’s not like a Spring menu then a Summer menu, we’re trying to keep it to what’s available from our grocer, what we can forage, and what’s available during those months.

BLUK: What’s you ‘big seller’ drink at the moment?
KR: They’re so split at the moment, which is the first time that’s happened. We took coffee cocktails off the latest menu because if you do a twist on an Espresso Martini it’s always the biggest seller, we know people love them, I love them too. But you can order a classic any time. Our miso pear Old Fashioned twist is probably the biggest seller, it’s rich and sticks to the classic the way it’s supposed to be, but as a much lighter version, with a little umami tone. The other is one of Courtney Francis’ drinks, which I absolutely adore, the Tonka Toreador, lots of spicy vanilla notes and an element of peach, in a mirror margarita style but with a bit more to it.

BLUK: You said earlier that in the past, there was a lack of mentorship in Birmingham. Something has definitely changed, because you and Jacob Clarke were both in the World Class GB final, Matt Arnold from Passing Fancies in Birmingham won that final, and Courtney Francis, also a Couch bartender, got through to the Love Drinks mezcal final. Can you describe what’s happening within the Birmingham bar community?
KR: Birmingham has always had an incredible beer and food scene, it’s just that cocktails were far behind, even the great bartenders who have been here that did specialise in cocktails moved on to a new city that had a bigger scene. But UK-wide, because bartenders are opening their own bars and becoming mentors, I think that’s what has changed things so dramatically in the last three years.

BLUK: Bars got clobbered by the pandemic, which has been followed by a cost of living crisis. Have you seen a change in what guests want or can afford in recent times?
KR: We opened 4 months before the first lockdown, so we’ve had quite a ride already, and it feels a bit easier to run a business now than it did when we started. To be honest, the house prices around Stirchley have gone up a lot, along with energy prices and everything else, so we are within that economic crisis, but because we’ve had the time to show off what we do, even when people are worried about money and their bills, they use Couch as escapism. So thankfully we haven’t seen an impact too much, but it’s harder for city-center bars, neighbourhood bars have lower rates, lower rents. And being local, we have people say ‘we can have one more drink because we don’t have to get a taxi’.

BLUK: What aspect of Couch are you most proud of?
KR: The team. 100 per-cent. We’ve never rushed hiring anyone. Tommy Matthews (Passing Fancies co-owner) was part of our opening team, and he joined us because he wanted to open his own place, so he wanted to learn and experience what we went through, what we did right, what we did wrong, so he could start building his business plan. And I couldn’t be more chuffed that he did it with Matt Arnold, because they are such powerhouses, so talented. When Tommy left we hired Matt Birks, and we knew he wanted to move to London, and after 6 months he got the opportunity to work at Seed Library. I think what’s important about us as employers is we find out what they want before they start here, and we drive them to that goal… if it was someone who wanted to do something in a couple of years and I didn’t think I could help them with it, I wouldn’t want to be their mentor, I’d want them to find the perfect one.

BLUK: If a bartender reading this is on the cusp of opening their own bar, is there something about the process of opening Couch you would like to pass on?
KR: No matter how ready you think you are to open, you are not (laughs), but enjoy every moment of it, even the stressful bits. We had a couple of very bad traders when we were building, sometimes you just run into these things and you just have to accept it and fix it, and if you have a good team with you, that will fix it. Because atmosphere and service is what makes a bar.

BLUK: If the team is the most important thing, what’s your approach for finding the right people?
KR: Don’t ask them about drinks, ask them abut their life, what they enjoy, their hobbies. The most important thing is how we feel in their company, we like to ask a lot of pop culture interview questions, because that’s where our menus began: what’s your favourite film and why, who is your favourite actor and why, just getting an idea of how they communicate with people. We want confidence over cockiness.

BLUK: Is there anything you would like to say that I haven’t asked a question about?
KR: We did at talk at Lab 22 (Cardiff) not that long ago, with Top 50 Cocktail Bars UK, and it was all based around takeovers, because we know that if we market ourselves in different cities we have a chance of moving up the list and being well-known. But I just want people to know that you have to balance those extra curriculars and competitions, they should be seen as something that helps your bar, but it’s for yourself. Enter things that are going to help you learn and develop, and get your name out there. And when you are doing takeovers, don’t rush them. Remember that you are still hosting people, and if you do them well you have at least two bartenders from another city walking away and saying ‘I love that place’.