Hogarth was right: Beer and London’s brewing renaissance

This piece originally appeared in the May 2012 issue of Eurostar’s Metropolitan magazine. 

Beer Street by Hogarth

Is it a renaissance, or a revolution? In 2006, when Young’s left its brewery in Wandsworth to move to Bedford, it felt final orders had been called on brewing in London. The city that was once swimming in beer – literally, when a brewery exploded in Tottenham Court Road in 1814, causing the Great Beer Flood –had become a desert; only a handful of breweries remained. Six years later, everything has changed. London now has 21 breweries, in every corner of the capital, with more opening all the time.

‘London was once the brewing capital of the world,’ says Paddy Johnson, director of the Windsor & Eton brewery but speaking for the London Brewers Alliance, formed in April 2010 to represent London breweries. ‘It was bigger than Burton-on-Trent or bloomin’ Munich. We want to return to that. At our first meeting there were 13 brewers, ranging from Windsor & Eton, who had just done our first brew, to Fuller’s the biggest, oldest brewery in the capital. At our last meeting we had 21, and another six are on the way. It’s a vibrant scene. There is a real buzz about London beer. The public have cottoned on big time.’

So, why the change? It’s partly about microbrewing – a movement that began in America among people feel they weren’t getting sufficient taste, value or variety from the conglomerates that rule the beer world, so begin brewing their own. Microbreweries reached the UK in the 1980s and flourished after 2002, when tax rules were relaxed. London took a while to catch on, people put off by the barren London beer scene and the high-cost of starting up.

Camden Town Brewery

Under a railway arch down a cobbled mews in north London, Rob Gargan, brewmaster at Camden Town Brewery, takes a break from overseeing the production of 16,500 litres of beer a week to explain. ‘London is one of the last areas of the country to open up,’ he says, amid gleaming hi-tech equipment. ‘People realised that the beer they were drinking was from up north but there’s no reason why we can’t do it here.’ First to the pump was Meantime in Greenwich in 2000, but the new wave really began when Sambrook’s opened in 2008 in south-west London. Through 2010 and 2011 it felt a new brewery was opening every month as the resurgent London scene became the talk of the beer world. It isn’t just about microbreweries, either, Chiswick’s huge and venerable Fuller’s is a keen member of the LBA. ‘It’s not about micro it’s about local,’ insists Johnson. ‘Local beer for London is our mantra.’

And it is more than the rediscovery of a lost art, it’s about introducing a new drinking experience into London. There’s a running joke in ‘Asterix In Britain’ about the Englishmen’s baffling fondness for warm, flat beer, and while these classic brown ales are still brewed in London, the new breweries often look across the Atlantic for inspiration. Peter Holt, landlord at the award-winning Southampton Arms, explains: ‘English beers would be a bitter or mild made with Kentish hops, for an older generation. But a lot of the beers we sell use New World hops. Hops are measured in alphas and while English hops might be three, American hops are 13, 14 or 15. It’s much more intense.’

The Southampton Arms, the Campaign For Real Ale’s London pub of the year, only stocks beer and cider from small, independent breweries. It’s one of a growing number of London pubs to steer clear of mass-produced lagers and foamy bitters. ‘People are much more aware of what they eat and drink,’ says Holt. ‘People are conscious that you can buy Aussie lager in the supermarket for very little, so why go to the pub to pay three times as much when they have decent beer that can’t be found elsewhere?’

Southampton Arms

It’s not just locals. ‘Tourists desperately want to drink local beer,’ says Johnson. ‘When they go to a pub, they ask what’s local. London now has a huge range of award-winning beers to offer them.’

Most popular among these are the American-influenced pale ales (IPAs): golden, citrusy, stronger in alcoholic content, gassy and cold. Asterix and Obelix would approve. ‘Pale ale is the big thing,’ says Mark Dredge, a beer writer turned communications officer at Camden Town Brewery. ‘Most breweries sell more of them than anything else. It comes between a lager and a cask ale, so if you’re an ale drinker you can appreciate the flavours, and if you’re a lager drinker you can enjoy the texture and the fact it is colder. It’s the sort of beer anybody feels they can drink.’

Sambrook’s

Camden Town does a popular IPA, while the ones bottled by Kernel, a brewery near Tate Modern, have beer-lovers in raptures. But there’s variety among London brewers. Sambrook’s – founded by Duncan Sambrook, an accountant who attended CAMRA’s Great British Beer Festival in Earl’s Court, realised no London beers were available and decided to do something about it – specialises in traditional British beers. He talks me through the beer-making process. It’s a complex business. Who ever realised that if you got some barley, soaked it to the point of germination, and then rotated it on a flat floor with a large rake so the seeds didn’t know which way is up and can’t break into shoot, you could roast this malted barley, boil it, add hops, cool it, add yeast, add a fish’s bladder, call it beer, drink it and not kill yourself?

Adapt this basic method, and much can be made. Meantime does lager, pale ale, fruit and wheat beers, you can get a great thick bottled stout from former solicitor Gary Ward’s Redchurch Street Brewery in Shoreditch, while Redemption – which was opened by banker Andy Moffat in Tottenham in 2010 – and Brodie’s – run by a brother-and-sister team, James and Lizzie Brodie, in Leyton since 2008 – make beers that come somewhere between the pioneering Kernel and the traditional Sambrook’s. And that’s just for starters.

Camden Town’s big seller is lager. The brewery was founded by Jasper Cuppaidge, who realised that the beers he liked came from abroad so decided to make some himself. His beer is now in 120 pubs, mainly in London – for most London breweries, distribution is limited to the M25, although the LBA helps organise festivals of London beer all around the country, as well as having regular London beer showcases in different London pubs each week. The LBA also set up a marquee at London Zoo during their late-night summer openings, which was very popular among customers in their 20s and 30s. Many of the breweries themselves are run by similarly young, self-taught enthusiasts.

The LBA give these tyros the help they need. ‘A lot of our members are young so we assist them with distribution and technical problems,’ says Johnson. ‘We want to raise the bar for everybody brewing in London. We’re competitors, but we act co-operatively. If more people drink more London beer we all benefit.’

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One response to “Hogarth was right: Beer and London’s brewing renaissance

  1. Good article. At the End of the Road music festival last year I heard one twenty-something telling another “they’ve got that real ale at the bar – it’s really fashionable these days”. I never thought I’d live to hear that, and as you say, it’s provenance and local-ness, building on the back of the foodie revolution, that have done it.

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