Five years in at Alba Bar & Deli with Jamie Fleming

How far can sherry, jamon, and hip hop take a bar?

Five years in at Alba Bar & Deli with Jamie Fleming
Jamie Fleming at Alba Bar & Deli. Photo: Boothby

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For any bar to turn five years old is quite a feat — the bar business is a notoriously difficult business. But the bars which do turn five years old this year have had a rougher time of things than most: in their first year, they had to contend with the arrival of Covid and a wave of lockdowns.

Many of those bars that opened in 2019 never reopened their doors once the lockdowns lifted. Jamie Fleming’s Alba Bar & Deli, on Burnett Lane in the Brisbane CBD, is one of the ones that made it back.

Alba Bar & Deli has evolved a little over the years but has stayed true to its original vision, which revolved around three things: sherry, jamon, and hip hop. When it opened, it was a bar you’d expect to open in Fitzroy or Surry Hills — there wasn’t really anything like it in Brisbane.

And opening next to Death & Taxes on Burnett Lane, a few doors up from what was then Super Whatnot, Alba Bar & Deli has helped to make Brisbane’s CBD a place for small, original, genuine venues.

Alba’s fifth birthday is today, and to celebrate, they’ve put on a birthday snack menu, with some key bartenders of the past five years returning for the night along with some old favourite Alba drinks — if you’re in Brisbane, make sure you get down to check it out.

Below, I’ve got a couple of takeaways from my chat with Jamie.

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“The places that stick in your mind, and the places that I feel are the coolest to go to, are a clear concept — this is what we do.”
When Alba Bar & Deli opened, not only were there no other bars in Brisbane championing sherry and jamon and all the tinned goods you’d expect from Iberian peninsula, there definitely weren’t bars doing that and playing Wu Tang at considerable volume. And while the offering has grown and evolved over the years, those three pillars have remained. As Jamie says in this interview, those three pillars of Alba Bar & Deli have come to represent more than just delicious food and drink and tunes: the hip hop element is about the community they’ve built around Alba; the jamon represents taking time and care in service; the sherry is providing something a little bit different and left of centre. Those are three ideas that represent a framework you can apply to a number of great bars.

“Having a really solid identity is one of the key things.”
It’s a theme I’m returning to more and more. The bars that matter most, are the bars that do something different and have something to say — they tend to be the bars that are well defined in the minds of the public. You know what Shady Pines Saloon is all about — it’s complete. You know what you’re getting at Alba Bar & Deli, too.

Jamie thinks you ought to think of your bar’s identity as a person (something Mucho Group’s Daisy Tulley has said before, too). “Is this a person you want to hang out with?” Jamie says.

“Bright bars — I hate them. I hate them so much.”
There’s three things that Jamie thinks make a good bar, and they’re simple things that people miss a lot of the time. “Sound, lighting, and say hello,” he says.

“I want to feel hosted.”
Jamie says that he is a host at heart, and that what he looks for when he’s out — whether it’s a dive bar, or “the most elaborate cocktail bar on the planet,” — is to be hosted, be looked after. The bartender should be looking outward, not in on themselves, because the job really isn’t about you. American bartender Steve Schneider once told me that “If you tend bar for other people, the job is so fucking easy.”

As Jamie says in this episode: “If you’re spouting 10 minutes of history on the Sazerac because you want everyone to know you know the 10 minutes of history on the Sazerac, I don’t care. I want a beer and a shot, thank you.”