The drinks served in Betty Kupsa's Chug Club are mostly small – but they pack a punch. The barwoman produces a never-ending stream of new, tequila-based creative tastes that experts say are the best in Germany. Our author Lena Frommeyer visited Betty at her bar in St. Pauli and got the top tips for cultured drinking.
Photos: Kevin McElvaney
To guess what pushes Betty Kupsa's buttons, you have to solve riddles that are concealed in the images on her skin. An agave graces her forearm – it's the noble fruit that grows in Mexico and from which tequila is distilled. She has had a small glass tattooed on her ring finger, her bar's logo on her thumb. The designs are set in motion when she grasps a shaker with both hands to make ice cubes and spirits swirl. Betty – striking pageboy haircut, red lipstick with black hair – was recently named Barwoman of the Year by the prestigious Falstaff magazine. Her Chug Club in St. Pauli stands for a modern bar culture that is about delicate flavour notes rather than sugary drinks in large glasses.
Tequila and mezcal play the starring roles at the Chug Club. “Tequila was practically a revelation to me, I fell for it like a ton of bricks,” says Betty – that was a few years ago at a blind tasting of fine distillations. “No other spirit is so versatile or so sexy”. At that time, Hamburg didn't have a tequila bar, so that gave Betty a business idea. “I went all-in in 2015 and opened the Chug Club,” she says. “I have put everything I own into it”. 'Chugs' are small tequila drinks with different flavour notes. When you order the taster selection, you get five chugs and a freshly-drawn beer for in between. Naturally, there are big drinks on the menu as well. For example, the buttermilk Margarita for which Betty is famous.
Take a look at the Chug Club
The birthplace of the “gin basil smash”
Betty is a good hostess – not just behind the bar counter, but also at home in Altona. She has lived for the last eight years on busy Max-Brauer-Allee, on the fringes of the hip district of Ottensen, which is part of Altona. A steep, narrow stairway leads up to her domain. There are only a few homes in the building, and each one has a floor to itself. “I hate big blocks of flats,” says Betty. Her conservatory has a view of the cherry tree in the quiet inner courtyard. The dining-room table is laid for coffee and cake, accompanied by hazelnut brandy and artistic dainties from the craft café Zuckermonarchie. Hanging on the walls are Mexican artworks made of paper and photo collages of all kinds. The pictures show Betty hugging friends or toasting someone with a drink.
A lot of the photos are memories of twenty years of Hamburg. Back then, Betty moved from Austria to the city on the Elbe to study marketing communication. An offer to take over a friend's pub, the Rote Laterne on Hans-Albers-Platz near the Reeperbahn, put paid to that plan. The then 21-year-old plunged into the adventure. “However, I lacked experience, particularly in handling numbers,” she says now. She sold the pub, went to college and decided to do an internship at the Blaues Barhaus in Ottensen, now closed. This was followed by a stint at the 3Freunde Bar in a St. Pauli side street, until Jörg Meyer engaged her for the bar of the internationally renowned Le Lion in Hamburg's old city centre, the birthplace of the famous “gin basil smash”. The Le Lion has been named of the “50 best bars in the world” by the English magazine Drinks International. Betty learned a lot there that she can apply in her own establishment.
“Drinking is an absolutely private and intimate thing”
It's 5 o'clock, the Chug Club opens in an hour. Betty's little car, which takes her the short three kilometres to St. Pauli, is in front of the house. “I'm just lazy,” she says, laughing, goes into reverse and slides a CD into the system. Alternative rock booms from the speakers. Betty likes loud music. Her boyfriend fronts the Hamburg punk rock band Der Wahnsinn. In the video for the song „Ich Ich Ich“, Betty shoves her face into a cream cake.
She parks in a quiet side street beside the bar, where old and new St. Pauli meet. “If you look down to your right, you'll see the last transvestite bar in the district, Davidstraße and then the red-light district,” she says. “On the other side are newly built offices and residential areas with a view of the port”. It's only 200 metres from the Chug Club to the Reeperbahn. Nevertheless, they never get stag-night groups straying in. That's mainly because Betty has stuck film over the windows so that no one can see in. “To me, drinking is an absolutely private and intimate thing. Nobody needs to be peering into your glass”. The bar remains invisible to passing trade. Betty likes that. “I think it's great to be people's intended destination”.
“You know every fucker”
Before the first guests arrive, Betty pays a visit to her favourite wine and spirits supplier in the Kiez, St. Pauli's entertainment district: Sigvald Hansen in Kastanienallee, a business with a long heritage. Chocolate vodka and champagne are on her shopping list. “We've no more Mozart Dry,” says the salesman after a warm welcome. “But the champagne is on offer, all this month for you”. With a bottle clamped under each arm, she leaves the shop, walks down the street and greets the occasional person walking the other way. “That's how it is in St. Pauli. You know every fucker”.
After a stop at Mother's Fine Coffee on the corner of Davidstraße, we go to the Chug Club. It's cosy and dimly lit here. Red light illuminates the space, a green velvet agave decorates a golden wall. Her team has already prepared the evening. Little bottles of essences are ready on the counter, behind them elegant flagons of tequila which has been refined by absorbing the flavour of carrots, for example. Betty writes the “Chug of the Day” on the board: “Kaffir Break”, made of coffee tequila, Grand Marnier, lime, sugar and orange foam.
Syrup and juice are out, uncluttered drinks are in
Two hours later, almost every seat is taken. Betty welcomes the guests personally, she knows almost all of them and they all know her. Betty has become an ambassador of modern Hamburg bar culture. “We really needed to catch up,” she says. “A few years ago, there were very few independent bars in the city – in other words, ones that aren't attached to a hotel”. Today, she says, people have more of a desire for quality and for making drinking an experience. After the Chug Club, other interesting concepts opened, including the dripBAR, The Rabbithole and The Walrus Bar, all of them in the Kiez. The new generation is getting out the old bar books again and moving away from syrup and juice, more towards uncluttered drinks.
But that's still not enough for Betty. “I want people to give more thought to the combination of food and drink”. She tells me that there are amazing concepts in New York and London doing just that. And things are happening in Hamburg as well: “I can only recommend you to drop by the Taqueria Mexiko Strasse in St. Pauli,” she advises. And then come to the Chug Club for a nightcap. Maybe even a whole liquid taster selection.
Recipe: buttermilk margarita
5cl 100% Agave Tequila Reposado
2cl fresh lime juice
1cl fresh lemon juice
2cl agave syrup
1 bar spoon quince jelly
Place all ingredients in a shaker and shake vigorously with ice cubes for 20-30 seconds (20-30 times). Strain the cocktail into a chilled glass (coupette). Enjoy ungarnished.