The Helsinki bar ‘scene’ has seen some changes recently, with Viisi Penniä closing its doors for renovation over the summer, and most of S-Group’s Czech-themed bars undergoing a Nordic rebranding. But is this actual progress, or mere facelift? I wandered up Mannerheimintie last weekend to find out.
Viisi Penniä, Kakskyt Hanaa
Viisi Penniä is one of those rare places in Helsinki: a decent beer bar that’s not part of a chain. While it never had a very extensive beer selection, it made up for that by having the feel of a regular local pub, without any pretensions. As much as I appreciate Scandinavian minimalism etc etc, I generally prefer when a pub is just a pub. So, I was curious (and a little apprehensive) about the outcome of their renovation.
First impressions were positive: a lively post-hockey-game crowd; a neat row of twenty taps at the bar, with a welcoming barman eager to describe the beers on offer. Closer inspection of those taps suggested an attempt is being made to keep a balance between let’s-call-them ‘regular’ beers and let’s-call-them ‘interesting’ offerings (ie. mainstream vs craft, I suppose). A couple of the new small Finnish breweries were represented; the house brew, a very drinkable wheat/ale hybrid, comes from Beer Hunter’s. The tap list is complemented by a solid bottle selection – mostly the usual suspects, but none the worse for that. As usual, the bottle prices are the biggest deterrent; more on that later. I think I also spotted a handpump; will have to return to investigate real ale possibilities.
A full restaurant menu in the upstairs area makes this one of only a few places in Helsinki where you can get good food and good beer together. The prices are restaurant prices, not pub prices, but that’s the, uh, price you pay..
And the atmosphere, overall, was good. The reskinning of the place matches the tap list in striking a balance – not too casual, but not trying too hard either. Words like ‘understated’ come to mind. This is a good thing.
Across the street from Viisi Penniä, what used to be Hádanka is now Ølhus Helsinki, the latest of S-Group’s
rebranding efforts ‘service concept’ updates.
It’s amazing how similar an Ølhus and a Pivnice can look.*
In contrast to Viisi Penniä, which kept its name but revamped everything else, the Ølhus overhaul amounts to changing the signage, scraping off the Czech-related wall adornments and replacing them with Helsinki-related (or Oslo- or Stockholm-related, in the other bars) imagery, and making barely-noticeable changes to the beer offering – maybe one Finnish/Danish/Swedish keg replacing a Czech one in the cellar, and one or two new bottles in the fridge.
My drinking buddy and I first sampled the Choco Cherry stout, the latest Kaksi Kotia collaboration between Hiisi and Rekolan Panimo (verdict: tasty, and sorta surprisingly subtle for something with a name like that), and so we then needed something suitably dark and flavourful to follow it. Sitting in the fridge was an imperial stout from Slottskallans of Sweden; it fit the bill. But then came the bill shock.
Ten euros and ninety cents. For a 33cl bottle. Ouch.
The scary thing is that, after living here for a couple of years now, it’s not even a surprise to be charged that much. The annoying thing, the downright insulting thing, is that it was served ice cold, despite the recommendation right on the label to serve around 14°C.
Maybe so. However, this is arguably a premium product, sold at an unarguably premium price, but treated like a cheap can of soda. And it was served in inappropriate glassware, too. It shows up this Ølhus schtick for what it is: surface treatment. A name change and a bare-minimum redecoration to match, but no tangible improvement in the customer experience. This is a shame, because the former Pivnice bars are among the cozier places to go in this town, and I was hoping to have good things to report. Instead I just have to ask, what’s the point?
*I could talk about how the new identity and the interiors of the bars are a total mismatch, but that’s for a different kind of blog.
Viisi Penniä: welcome improvements; a refreshing change (I’ve been trying to work in a pun about pennies and change, but this is the end of the post and it seems like I didn’t manage to do it). Worth a visit.
Ølhus Helsinki (et al): Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. S-Group needs to remind itself what service means.