From humble beginnings as a Shoreditch pop-up to not one but two busy bars in Hackney and Bethnal Green, Sager + Wilde proprietor Michael Sager has had a front seat to London's wine scene over the last half-decade, earning accolades and a global fanbase along the way. The man's dream, he remarked in 2016, is to someday “compile the best three-page wine list in London, if not the world.” There's still plenty of time for that, but for now he'll make wine democratic first, one £4 tap pour at a time.
That's the hook behind FARE, the latest from Sager, a new pizza restaurant and natural wine bar with all-day coffee service and “democratic” prices in London's trendy Clerkenwell neighborhood. The new venture is a collaboration with bartender Marcis Dzelzainis (Drink Factory, Lyan Group) and Assembly Coffee, a leading London specialty coffee roaster.
Featuring a “fast, affordable and honest” coffee program, as per Nick Mabey of Assembly, with a focus on balancing the convenience demanded by busy London and the city's deep appreciation for good food, drink, and coffee. On the wine side, this is echoed by wood-fired pizzas, a focus on local ingredients, and a wine program championing a tap system for by the glass options. We've seen similar models work back on the American West Coast at spots like Bar Bandini (LA) and Coopers Hall (PDX), and it appears to be jostling to become the next big thing in London wine, with Sager helping lead the way.
FARE will open in late Spring 2018. In advance of that launch, Sprudge spoke with Michael Sager by phone from London.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Hello Michael Sager and thank you for speaking with Sprudge. Your new project is after our own hearts, fusing natural wine and specialty coffee. What's behind this union?
Michael Sager: There needs to be more. What I've always found fascinating about baristas is that they work for no money, at least here in the UK, and they produce something that's really an art form and it couldn't be more terroir-driven. I think it has more to do with wine than even spirits; coffee is pure and it has a terroir connotation and I think the people who execute it don’t get paid well enough.
We've tried to put coffee in a restaurant before, but we didn't have any daytime trade, and there needs to be more to make that work. But this new location, it's in the most exciting area of London, where all design is based: web design, architects, branding, you name it. And we're on an intersection with a Starbucks, a Pret, and a Costas. Our competition there is not artisanal small scale. I think it can work.
Will it be sit-down coffee, or grab and go? Will it only be in the mornings?
I want to enable the most amazing coffee in a sit-down environment, as well as a take out environment. Partnering with a roaster, a really good roaster like Assembly is the only way of doing this properly. It is a full partnership—they've got a share of this new company—and that gives us coffee at a better price.
Have you tried coffee before in your wine bars?
Yes. We’ve tried to make service at the best possible set-up at our other bars, with a lever machine that’s hard to man in a busy brunch environment, so these days we do filter only or pod espresso from Assembly. We have tried to offer amazing coffee at the other locations but we’re not selling that much; those bars are more an evening place. But this new location, if you’ve been to Tartine Manufactory, imagine that but in London, with floor to ceiling windows in a super bright airy space, with an outside area as well in a little courtyard.
Sounds like brunch.
Yes! It's brunch heaven. We can serve a fuckton of people well-priced coffee, pizza, and with natural wine focus coming out of the taps supported by our new importing company.
All the wine on taps? Tell me more.
Yes, it's becoming very popular here. When I came back from a trip to San Francisco it seemed like all the wine in London was on tap. And so I said, why not do it? So we're working with people like Yann Bertrand, he does amazing stuff in kegs. Also Domaine de Triennes in Provence, which is amazing. It's tough to convince the French to go into taps at the moment but the wines are beautiful.
I've had a few conversations recently for other stories that included wine on tap. It's not a new thing, but there seems to be some energy behind it right now. Why do you think that is?
That’s not all we drink, but it’s a way to get into a new opening. We love it, but we’re going to work with more high-end stuff as well, which is more with our Sager & Wilde brands. But it’s sensitive. A lot of winemakers aren’t happy with how they’re being represented, so what we’re trying to do is get those people wines into the new and trendy wine bars, which is relatively straightforward for us to do.
Do you consider Sager & Wilde a “natural wine bar” under your own definition? Will FARE be a “natural wine bar”?
At Sager I would say, we have baller wine. It’s 90% natural, but we have to have an RN74 element, or else people aren’t going to understand us as a place of quality. Five years ago especially, London wouldn’t take natural wine seriously. But now the market is ready.
The focus at this new place will be 100% natural in my definition, which means no more than 30 mg/l of sulfur in a bottle, in line with RAW. We will be serving “natty wine” but without being faulty. I look at people like Charlie Mellor [of The Laughing Heart] and he's managed to do it, he serves amazing wine without it getting people too fucked up, and people like that and can take it seriously. Right time, right temp, from the cellar not the shelf. Our bottle list will be entirely in the cellar; you can't just take it off the shelf, that ruins the wine. Natural wine means you should look after it the way you look after produce—you don’t let spinach wilt in the sun. That’s for me really important, and a lot of natty wine people are getting that wrong. The moment it leaves the winery it gets neglected and it tastes a bit fucked up.
What's your timeline like for opening FARE?
Timeline is for us to open mid-June, with full wood-fired pizza kitchen and a natural wine on tap program, as well as a cocktails on tap program. You know, cocktails are really overcharged in America. It happened to me in New York. Why is my Manhattan $18?
I would blame astronomical New York commercial rents, but you're in London.
Right, I just think it's too much. So we’re going to have cocktails that start at £5, and they'll go up as high as £7. Wine by the glass will be around £4, sustainable and on tap. That’s the plan. To offer democratically priced high-quality stuff for the people, because the people deserve to drink well and deserve to eat well.
Cheers, and thank you.
Follow FARE on Instagram for updates and opening information.
Top image courtesy of Michael Sager.
Jordan Michelman is a co-founder of Sprudge. His writing has appeared in T Magazine, The New York Times, Seattle Metropolitan Magazine, and Willamette Week.