What’s Happening In Birmingham? With Tommy Matthews

In the second stop of our interview tour of the UK we speak to Tommy Matthews, owner of Passing Fancies, who gives us the scoop on the Birmingham bar scene

BarLifeUK’s last proper Birmingham bar tour was way back in 2014 and our knowledge of the city’s cocktail scene is criminally out of date, which explains why Simon Webster’s first words to me upon returning from a Whistlepig judging session last year were: “Blimey, Birmingham has changed.” Fortunately, Tommy Matthews volunteered his time to educate us about Birmingham’s blossoming bar community…

BLUK: Tell us your bartending backstory – how did you get into the industry and where have you worked?

Tommy Matthews

TM: I came to bartending quite late, my background is in accounting when I was at school, and then I went travelling when I was 21, I went to Australia which is where I picked up bartending. I started working in Perth on the West Coast, in a bar called Flower Factory and a bar called Lafayette. They were both wonderful independent bars… I would say that was 2015. So I started bartending when I was 24 and just loved the community element of it, the constant human interaction, because I’d spent years behind a computer which was driving me a bit crazy. I’m from Hull, and when I came home, there isn’t really a food and drink scene in Hull unfortunately, so I had a friend who lived in Birmingham and I came and stayed on his sofa, and for the first six months I was back in the UK I worked for the Botanist group, and then saw the opportunity to work at The Edgebaston… Then I went on to open Couch (Stirchley) with Katie Rouse and Jacob Clarke. I worked for them through the pandemic, and I opened my own place which is called Passing Fancies, in September 2022.

BLUK: What kind of joint is Passing Fancies?

TM: It’s a community-led space. No matter what your goal is for the evening, we want people to come to Passing Fancies and be able to enjoy every element of being out, whether you want a great beer, great wine, or great cocktail. We feel sometimes you go to bars and the experience is too focused on one ingredient or experience. We are super cocktail nerds, we have a rotovap and a centrifuge, but at the end of the day we want people to come to Passing Fancies whether it’s for a glass of wine or a cocktail. We also have a full kitchen so the idea is you can come to us for an evening and get whatever you want, and it will be good quality.

BLUK: For someone who hasn’t been to Birmingham for a while, can you describe the city and how the cocktail scene sits within it.

TM: It’s super-vibrant at the moment. There is such a good offering. I think after Covid a lot of cities have struggled, but we’ve come out of it with a bunch of new great bars. People have to understand that Birmingham is a huge city, it’s not like Cardiff or Bristol or Leeds, where everything can be found quite central, it’s a sprawling city. You have the city center which has wonderful bars like Fox and Chance, which is a great independent bar, but you also have places like Albert’s Schloss and Dishoom. And then you have suburbs around the city which are really vibrant like Digbeth, which is where Passing Fancies is, which is called the Creative Quarter. There’s a lot of experience-led stuff there, my next door neighbour is Crazy Pedro’s, and we’ve got a Gold Fang down there, and Roxy Ballroom. It’s this beautiful industrial area 10 minutes walk from New Street Station… And then on the other side of the city but still 10 minutes from New Street is the Jewellery Quarter which is popping off at the moment, it’s where 40 St Pauls is, which won best gin bar in the world a couple of years ago, and then we’ve got Rob Wood’s new place, Atelier, which is a beautiful curated experience. And there are lots of wicked restaurant bars, there’s a place called Tierra Tacos which do a great mixed drink list. You can sit there and drink Tommy’s all night and have some tacos.

BLUK: The last time we did a bar tour in Birmingham was about ten years ago, it sounds as though a lot has changed since then.

TM: It’s really starting to flourish. It struck me when I first moved here that it was a scene that was about to start growing… We’ve had a great food scene for many years. There are 6 Michelin stars in Birmingham, which is more than any (UK) city outside of London, and over the last seven years I been here, I’ve seen the bartenders who were on the come-up are now of the age, I’ve just turned 32, where we can start thinking about business plans and proposals. We’re maturing as bartenders and operators to the point the talent that was in the city 5, 7 years ago is now able to open their own bars and the scene is just exploding at the moment.

BLUK: Does this expansion of the cocktail scene make it easier to retain good bartenders who would otherwise have left to develop their career in a different city?

TM: I would 100% say that, yeah. Even looking at my team of seven people, I have one bartender from Romania, but everyone else is a UK Brummie. You can’t say that in a lot of London bars. It was frustrating at times, you would get great bartenders and they would end up going to London in 2017, 2018, because there weren’t that many independent places to work, whereas now there is so much movement around the city.

BLUK: In Digbeth, your patch as it were, are there any obvious drink trends? Are the people ordering things they’ve seen on social media, or are other things driving the trends there?

TM: I would personally say a good chunk of people are moving away from consuming drinks based on social media. Pre-pandemic we used the statement ‘Instagrammable’ quite a lot when were going through the creative process of making drinks, whereas I think we are moving away from that a little bit… After a hard time in the pandemic I think people are putting their phones down and coming together and enjoying the experience of being out in a bar and drinking with their friends… Accessible luxury is the other thing, getting good cocktails into people’s hands, from £9 to £11 is helping get more into the industry. The barrier to entry is getting lower, no-one wants to speak to arrogant, condescending cocktail bartenders, they want to come in and have a good time. I think people are putting their phones down, talking to people, and they want that accessible luxury.

BLUK: Times are tight at the moment, do you think customers are now more interested in going out just once or twice a month and going for quality, over multiple cheap nights?

TM: 100%. People are not going out three times a week to one place, they might go out once a fortnight now. So the way we have built the programme at Passing Fancies, when our guests come in, if money is tight, when they come again in four weeks time there will be new things for them to get involved with. These bars that have six-monthly or yearly menus might start to suffer because people want to go back to a place where they love the environment and the service, but come back with something new to try. We try and lean into the fact that people are being more picky about where they go, we want them to be excited when they think about coming back. I genuinely think guests are more educated now, and they will drink in brands and bars that they align with. People are buying into ethos more and more these days, I think.

BLUK: What are your thoughts on low and no ABV drinks? Are you seeing more guests ordering them?

TM: Birmingham is a tough place to get a read on that. Outside of London I think we have the second largest Muslim population and we have four universities in the city and a lot of students aren’t drinking these days, so we do a lot of non-alcoholics. An abnormal amount when I talk to people from other cities, who say ‘we do non-alchs and no-one buys them’. But we can be trucking through dozens and dozens in an evening because we have a demographic that suits it… But then on the other hand, I do think the non-alcoholic brands are milking it a lot. Especially when they advertise these brands that are so expensive… We don’t necessarily use the non-alcoholic spirits because of the price. We can create a blend of teas, clear juices, acid solutions, working with salt or different kinds of sugars. We can create delicious non-alcoholic drinks that are a bit cheaper for us to produce, and we can pass that value for money on to the guest.

BLUK: Say you have a bartender friend coming into Birmingham for one night, and they want to experience the full range of venues on offer, where would you take them?

TM: First of all I would go to Tierra Tacos for some food and Margaritas to line the stomach, I love the food, and the restaurant-bar vibe they’ve got there. Then I would hop in an Uber and go down to Couch, because even thought it’s a little bit on the outskirts of Birmingham, it is such a wonderful bar and experience, and their drinks are delicious. Then I would jump in another Uber and head back into town and visit Fox and Chance for sure. They are incredible, owned by three of the nicest people in the Birmingham industry, and their drinks programme is going from strength to strength. Then we would go to see Rob at Atelier, and after that go to Passing Fancies for more drinks and a few plates, and we would end up at an iconic Birmingham pub called The Church. They have a mixed drinks list, their wine is good. Their beer is local, delicious, cold, and fizzy.

BLUK: Birmingham is famous for its curry restaurants, which one of them gets your vote?

TM: I have to say Hen and Chickens by a country mile. We have this phrase in Birmingham, Desi Pubs. It’s this idea that you look at it and it’s just a boozer. There’s the football on the telly, there’s lads in there in high-vis after work, there’s Carling on draft. There is nothing fancy about it. But then you walk in to Hen and Chickens and you just get this waft of mixed grills, butter chicken, the vindaloo. It’s phenomenal.

BLUK: Is there anything about Birmingham as a bartending community you would like to describe that my questions have missed?

TM: I feel like Birmingham, in every competition I’ve ever been to, has always been the butt of jokes. It’s always been ‘there’s nothing in Birmingham’. But we have this beautiful, blossoming scene at the moment, people have got to visit Birmingham. I genuinely think there is more interesting stuff going on with food and drink in Birmingham than anywhere else. We are a tight community, I don’t care where you work, if you tend bar you are part of the community. You are one of us. We are inclusive, we share training, we are a community-led city and we don’t want that to change. We push forward as one city, one team, one industry and one community.

If you work in a town, city, or neighborhood that doesn’t get enough coverage would like to do a ‘What’s Happening In…?’ interview, send us an email: editorial@barlifeuk.com