Exclusive: What will drinks lab Crucible do next?

Clinton Cawood

Clinton Cawood

14 October 2020

As Crucible celebrates its third birthday, the London-based drinks lab is entering a new phase with a new site. Founder Stu Bale talks exclusively to Clinton Cawood about creativity, evolution, and Buckfast

If you’re the kind of bartender whose pulse rises even slightly at the thought of unfettered access to a lab full of scientific equipment like centrifuges and rotovaps, you’ll have heard of Crucible. Based in east London’s Haggerston, that’s exactly what it offered – a high-tech playground and shared workspace for the drinks trade, where many an inspired idea – and a few really out-there ones – were conceived and brought to life.

Hopefully you made your way down there at some point, because that particular incarnation of Crucible is no longer, the lease on that site having come to an end in June this year. This is why we’re meeting on a quiet Monday afternoon at Victory Mansion in Stoke Newington, where the small team has temporarily set up shop ahead of their next move, while waiting for the world to sort itself out in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

The timing of the lease was fortuitous. It had hardly been worth maintaining ‘the first creative hub for the drinks and flavour industry’ while everyone was at home. ‘I was burning five grand every month,’ says founder Stu Bale.

A high-tech playground and shared workspace for the drinks trade, where many an inspired idea were conceived

Global circumstances notwithstanding, it was time to move on. A flood in the building a few months before had brought its share of challenges. Besides that, the Crucible concept had evolved beyond the space Bale opened in 2017 – this isn’t the kind of setup that stays static for long.

As if to demonstrate this, the team unexpectedly secure a new site just days after we meet. Crucible is set to take up residence in a unit within Bones & Pearl, an art space in South Tottenham.

‘It’s an amazing space, probably the same size as the old site was, but over one floor instead of two. It wasn’t at all what we were looking for, which is nicer sometimes, when something feels right.’

Stu Bale and Alix Nardella
Stu Bale and Alix Nardella

It’ll no doubt be different from the original site, but that suits Crucible’s evolution. ‘That model had organically changed anyway – although it will definitely be just as welcoming as it was before,’ Bale tells me.

While it lasted though, that small transformed office in Haggerston was a special place. It was something that hadn’t been done before, but seemed so obvious once it was set up – a makerspace specifically for drinks, offering an array of equipment most bars couldn’t afford, and a hub where the industry could collaborate. It felt like somewhere bartenders rather than lab techs hung out, with murals, a sound system and a makeshift bar.

In the beginning

‘It had to be stimulating. It would have been very easy to have everyone in safety glasses and white coats, with no music and signing in, health and safety and shit,’ says Bale. ‘I did have a first aid kit…,’ he adds.

He also had a vintage helmet that visitors were encouraged to wear when operating the potentially dangerous centrifuge. Bale has seen the benefits of this creative environment when it comes to the consultancy side of the business too.

I quite fancy having a boozer, with Crucible as it looked upstairs and... a pub downstairs

Stu Bale

‘It’s why we’re getting more jobs from the bigger companies – because their people are stuck in these labs with their white coats and their processes,’ he says. ‘Although at some point down the line it’d be useful to have one of those tame people work for us, to tell us what would be really dangerous to do…’

Bale set up Crucible after a five-year tenure at creative drinks agency Strange Hill, which he followed by a ski season. ‘I was about to turn 30. I came back in bits. There’s a reason people do that when they’re young.

‘When I came back I was done working for other people, and was trying to work out a way of doing a consultancy myself. I thought about the music industry – no one has a music studio in their house. Or a gym. I needed a place to work, and figured other people needed a place to work too.’

The intention was that bars and bartenders would pay for membership, or that brands would pay for them. ‘It was a big punt. No one had done it before,’ he says. ‘But it was a no-brainer. Why hadn’t anyone done it? Because everyone was drunk all the time…’.

It took nine months to find a site, during which time Bale was doing consultancy work from his kitchen and working the occasional bar shift. The crucial thing for him was a location that was easily accessible from various parts of London, and the site located next to Haggerston station offered exactly that.

Stu Bale and co playing with Woodford Reserve
Stu Bale and co playing with Woodford Reserve

The premises were nothing more than an office shell, so August was spent plumbing in the upstairs area, acquiring equipment and more.

‘I opened in September, then just sat there by myself for three months. The days that really fucked me off were Sundays. I thought we would be really busy because that’s when bartenders are off, but the only person who ever came in on a Sunday was Davide [Segat, director of beverage at Edition Hotels] and that was because there was a football match he wanted to watch. Which I appreciated.’

Second coming

While Crucible attracted some membership, and some support from brands, the business grew in other ways. ‘It was acting as a shop front for my own consultancy,’ explains Bale.

Trudi Schemel, with whom Bale had worked during his time at Strange Hill, joined the team as head of operations the following March. ‘I’d managed six months of doing stuff on my tod, and Trudi called asking if I knew anyone looking for staff . I was almost in tears,’ he remembers.

‘Stu was a wreck,’ laughs Schemel. ‘It was just when it was getting really busy.’ Countless training sessions, consultancy gigs and events followed, including the Unofficial Buckfast Competition.

‘I’m adamant I’ll receive a cease and desist at some point,’ says Bale. ‘I’m dying for it.’ He’s certain the Buckfast comp will be back, but in the meantime there’s more to consider, namely what shape Crucible will take next.

You open something, but the people that use it and interact with it dictate what it becomes

Will McBean

‘We’ve become more of a creative agency,’ says Will McBean, Crucible’s minister of propaganda, who Bale met working on the Edition Hotel while at Strange Hill. That’s not to say the new space won’t have a lab filled with cool equipment. ‘That still really works as a shopfront,’ says Bale, who adds that the kit will still be accessible to bartenders. ‘I really believe these things shouldn’t be exclusive.’

‘It’s a connection to the industry,’ agrees McBean. ‘If you lose that link then you’re something else.’

Looking to the future, there’s talk of opening a venue at some point too. ‘I quite fancy having a boozer, with Crucible as it looked upstairs, and rather than office space have a pub downstairs that could be run as an academy,’ says Bale. ‘I’ve been thinking about getting somewhere that doesn’t have a licence. You bring your own bottle and we make our own fi zzy pops. Mainly because I like the name Pop Shop.’

The team have worked on a number of products over the past three years – such as CBD drink InTune – and haven’t been wasting their time during lockdown either. Bale produces something he’s been working on that he reckons he’s the most proud of.

It is indeed remarkable, but for the time being he swears me to secrecy. Watch this space.

McBean is philosophical about the evolution of the concept when we discuss it. ‘What we’ve learnt from Crucible, and in my case with Bad Sports, is that you open something, but the people that use it and interact with it dictate what it becomes. You have this great idea, and it’s shaped by the people that engage with it. We found that with Crucible and we’d find that with a pub,’ he says, adding: ‘We’re saying pub and not bar deliberately.’

Good things come...

Whatever it ends up looking like, we won’t see it for a while. ‘We’re nervous that this is going to be a horrible winter, with everyone locked up inside,’ says Bale. ‘Any decision on a pub would be pretty mad to take before next spring.’

‘But we’re lucky because we’re agile,’ says Schemel positively. ‘We can adapt to whatever someone needs, which is why I think we can survive this.’

‘We’re agile in different ways,’ adds Bale. ‘Having a dog and two kids makes you agile in one way. And having dealt with the chaos of bars for years makes me, well, agile in different ways.’

Stu Bale playing with the rotovap
Stu Bale playing with the rotovap

Bale first encountered the on-trade in the early 2000s while studying dentistry at university, paying his way by working in bars in Glasgow. ‘In the evenings I was learning hospitality and how to make cocktails, which as a 17 year old was pretty edgy. In the days I was trying to pull teeth out of dead bodies, with brutal hangovers. This was probably the same time I discovered Sub Club and Optimo. Optimo was on Sundays, dissection was on a Monday.’

He left uni, while working at a bar called Alchemy as a barback, before moving to Edinburgh, working at Dragonfly, then going to Tonic. ‘That was the bar I really wanted to work in, because I was doing all the flair shit. At 17 I was second in Scotland in the championships, before I was legally allowed to pour a drink.’

After Tonic came 99 Hanover Street in Edinburgh, Bale’s first opening, which was subsequently followed by 99 in Aberdeen. ‘They wanted me to be the manager but – fair play to them – they thought it would be a good idea to have supervision, so they employed Uncle Rhys [Rhys Ferguson, now of Edinburgh Ice Company] and put us in a flat together.’

Bale eventually moved to London, and after a year at Albannach (‘the holding pen for Scottish bartenders’), joined 69 Colebrooke Row when it opened, with its diminutive lab upstairs. ‘That really appealed, as I had an understanding of science, and wanted to learn,’ he remembers.

After two years there he joined Strange Hill, which led to the opening of Crucible – and the rest is history.

Bale’s next opening might just be a pub entitled Pop Shop, with a state-of-the-art lab upstairs. When it happens, you heard it here first.

This article was first published in the 2020 autumn issue of Imbibe.

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