Loving Charlie – where everybody knows you don’t mean cocaine

“I know it’s a Monday darling, but I’m off to the pub, save some dinner for me” is a line that has been working wonders for pub owner Ian Russell for years

Any Dane can spot a Brit a mile away, bad teeth aside. It is our attire that gives us away, and this is never more the case than on one of Copenhagen’s trendiest streets, Pilestraede, located just off Strøget.  Over the past ten years, it has become the go-to place for all those paleo-eating, yoga mat-wielding, Chai latte-slurping, fashion-conscious Copenhageners.
 On the street you can find hip interior design stores and a whole host of uber-trendy eateries. And at the heart of it all is Charlie’s Bar, a quintessentially British pub that, unlike the expats who frequent it, not only seems to fit in, but has even become fashionable in its own right.

The premises, which was originally a wine bar, was bought by self-confessed ale fanatic Ian Russell almost 14 years ago – a time when the street had a somewhat different status. Initially, it was the thirsty journalists from Berlingske Media (located opposite) that kept the bar afloat, but over the course of time, its clientele has evolved. “The bar was a very opportune investment,” he explained. “I have to admit I had no idea it would become such a fashionable street. That was pure serendipity.”

You can now expect to see well-dressed businessmen, interspersed with the usual expats, hanging from the pub’s front window sipping Harvey’s bitter – something that Russell could only have dreamed of all those years ago.

Bare en fådøl tak!
When Russell first moved to Copenhagen, he wanted somewhere to drink himself, but struggled to stomach what was on offer at the time. “Denmark was a beer desert dominated by Carlsberg,” he recalled. “The bar trade in this country was a complete rip-off:  the beer drinking public were being ripped off in terms of quality, under-pouring and price. Carlsberg had a free rein to make money.”  

Inspired by this, his aim was to offer something completely different to what the Danes had been brought up on. “I thought I would give my adopted country a taste of the great beers from Britain at a fair price,” he explained. And although he admits he was surprised when the beers he offered became so popular, ultimately the success of Charlie’s can be attributed to their quality.

Quality not quantity
Charlie’s is best known for its hand-pumped cask ale. The bar has a unique cask system that according to the bar’s manager, 23-year-old David Bartlett-Vowell, produces a much more complex and better tasting beer than those that are mass-produced. Charlie’s is one of only two pubs in Denmark (the other is Russell’s second pub, the Wharf in Aalborg) to have been awarded the prestigious cask marque, an honour that only four percent of British pubs have had and is best described as the pub equivalent of a Michelin Star.

Bartlett-Vowell remains confident about the future because Charlie’s offers something that only independent bars are able to. “We have always tried to keep our prices low,” he contended. “We have actually removed some products because they cost too much, and we decided it wasn’t fair for the customer to pay so much.”

As well as allowing for flexible pricing, the bar’s independent status has also let the management be more innovative. “We are constantly keeping an eye on new trends and looking for new beers that stand out,” continued Bartlett-Vowell. “Every year a group of us go over to England and visit the breweries we do business with and try a lot of their beers and then bring them here. We have had hundreds of different cask ales because we change our imported casks daily – there is a new beer for our customers to try every time they come in.”

Philosophy not philanthropy
Variety, flexibility and quality are all important. However for Russell, it is ultimately a question of philosophy – his aim now, as it was then, is to show the Danes that their drinking culture is different to British pub culture, which does not solely revolve around drinking.

“Charlie’s is not simply a commercial enterprise; it is much more than just a business,” he said. “I know it sounds clichéd, but I see Charlie’s as a lifestyle, and our customers are very much part of that – people come to the bar throughout the week just to socialise. We have a great rapport with our customers, and we have a lot of regulars. But the relationship is symbiotic. We have to give them what they are looking for, and in return we can be successful.”

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