Craft Joins Tradition in the Capital City

All About Beer Magazine - Volume 34, Issue 1
March 1, 2013 By
In the city where porter emerged as the first beer of the industrial age, London is poised for a bigger surge in craft brewing.

It’s Friday lunchtime at the Dean Swift, a smart but casual corner pub on the south side of the Thames and a few minutes’ stroll from Tower Bridge. Inside the open-space bar, the lunchtime crowd of young professionals and serious barflies scuff the battered oak floorboards as they enter in search of good food and drink. The beer is flowing: The pub has a comprehensive selection of cask, keg and bottles from both home and abroad.

I go for local and order a bottle of Kernel’s Export Stout, brewed a stone’s throw away beneath a railway arch close to Bermondsey subway. Based on an 1850 recipe, this luxurious dark beer manages to blend notes of vanilla, rich chocolate liqueur and freshly ground coffee beans with an end-of-palate acidity that adds a noble and delicious contrast. It’s magnificent.

Fifty years ago, if you’d have asked for a local beer in this pub, you would probably have been offered Best Bitter or Directors, both of them made at the massive Courage brewery sited just around the corner. Courage was just one of the many famous London names that endowed the city with its reputation as brewing capital of the world. London, after all, was where the first beer of the industrial age—porter—emerged, followed by its younger, more vigorous sibling, stout. Furthermore, you could also argue that London was the birthplace of what would become known as India pale ale (though its spiritual home was Burton upon Trent).

So much history and at one stage so many breweries, but in the decades after World War II, most gave up the ghost and either deserted the capital for cheaper sites elsewhere or completely removed themselves from brewing (many being swallowed by larger competitors in the process). Courage’s Anchor Brewhouse (as it was known) closed in 1981 when the brewery went west in the direction of the town of Reading; it is now a block of luxury flats. Whitbread had already left in 1976—its brewery is now a conference centre. Other names that once made Londoners proud of their beery traditions also joined the rush for the exit: Truman, Charrington and Taylor Walker are among the most famous. Walk London’s streets now and their names can be occasionally seen decorating pub facades, lingering on like ghosts.

London Turnaround

By the start of the 21st century, only Fuller’s, Young’s and new guys Meantime, plus a handful of micros, flew the flag for independent brewing in London (though Guinness and Budweiser were produced in massive plants in the western ’burbs). The downward plunge had not yet finished, either. In 2006, Young’s closed and merged with Charles Wells in Bedford, some 50 miles north of the capital (where Courage beers are also now brewed). A year later, it was estimated that London had a mere 10 breweries and brewpubs, small beer if you consider its 5,000 pubs and the millions living and working within the city limits. (It was an ironic fact of geography that London’s brewing deficit mirrored that of a couple of other beer nation capitals—instead of Berlin we think of Munich, while Pilsen always comes before Prague.)

Times change. Fast forward to 2012 and the number of breweries London hosts is now nudging 30. And, given London’s magnificent history and comparative quietness on the recent brewing front, it’s long overdue.

Fuller’s continues to straddle the scene, while Meantime has had a new brewery installed, supposedly the largest new build in London since 1936. As for the newcomers, most are admittedly small outfits: Some, such as Brodie’s, London Brewing and the Florence, are twined with a pub; others, like Redemption, call home an industrial estate. Prize for most unusual location, though, goes to Tap East, which makes its beers behind a bar at the massive Westfield shopping mall in East London.

Whatever the location, though, there’s a sense of innovation, excitement and pure beery bonhomie that’s not been seen in the city for a long time. Some pretty awesome beers are flowing out of the taps as well: elegant pale ales, robust IPAs, slinky lagers, boisterous bitters, ravishing wheat beers and intriguing fusions that any student of the U.S. craft beer boom would recognize (imperial Märzen anyone?).

London Beers for Londoners

What is behind the boom? According to Christine Cryne, organizer of the London City of Beer event during the summer of 2012, “The reduction in the price of commercial property has helped. Meanwhile, outside London there has been a terrific growth in small brewers, producing beers with different styles and all creating interest. A lot of these beers began to be seen in London, and a few people spotted the opportunity to brew London beers for Londoners.”

Her view is echoed by Duncan Sambrook, founder of Sambrook’s Brewery in 2008, a decision kickstarted after he noted the lack of London-brewed beers at the Great British Beer Festival two years before. “Compared to the rest of the U.K., London was slow to embrace the craft beer revolution,” he says, “and I think that the main reason for this was simply a lack of real estate at a reasonable price.”

The rise of craft beer bars with their multitude of taps, handpumps and bottles has also played its part. The Rake in Southwark was the first, followed by the likes of Craft Beer Co., Cask and Euston Tap. During 2012, Fuller’s revamped a gastro pub and unveiled its own play on the craft beer bar: As well as Fuller’s beers, the Union Tavern features many of the new London brewers. In addition, a good handful of food-oriented establishments, such as the Dean Swift, realized that a stunning selection of craft beers was a must-have complement to a robust menu of gorgeous grub.

And while we’re within sniffing distance of the kitchen, let us not forget the abundance of artisanal food of all cultures available to Londoners. Those who eat well tend to want to drink well. Borough Market in Southwark is the No. 1 target for such dedicated foodies, and it’s no coincidence that the Rake set itself up here, while Kernel’s original home was also very close. Brewery founder Evin O’Riordain actually used to run a cheese stall at the market, and it was this special knowledge that took him to New York, where he couldn’t help but notice the depth of flavor and complex aroma of the craft beers he drank.

This light-bulb moment led to a spot of homebrewing and then the foundation of Kernel in 2009. Very quickly, he built up a reputation for his brightly hopped IPAs, rich porters and stouts and sprightly pale ales (he was named Brewer of the Year by the British Guild of Beer Writers in 2011). Kernel’s open Saturdays in the original small railway arch (it moved to a bigger one in 2012) remain legendary. People would come to drink beer but also eat artisanal cheese and ham made by neighboring producers.

“We started brewing here because this is our home,” he says. “This is where we live; this is where those with whom we want to share the beer live. It is as simple as that.”

“The environment of the brewery, the environment in which we work, has a huge effect on the beer, as does being in London. So we make our brewery the best place to be in. Which makes the beer better. We surround ourselves with our community—our friends the cheese makers, ham importers, butchers, coffee roasters—because these things are also essential to our lives. They affect the beer.”

O’Riordain’s sense of neighborliness and kinship with Londoners is echoed by Jasper Cuppaidge, founder of Camden Town Brewery: “Our drinkers are generally in their 20s and 30s and interested in what they buy, whether it’s shoes, sandwiches or beers. This knowing crowd of drinkers is taking things forward in London and making it a hot trend. That’s not going to disappear; it’ll only catch on and get into more places.”

As beers from Kernel and Camden Town might suggest (plus many others produced by these new brewing kids on the block), the weight of influence from U.S. craft beer is hefty. However, this is not about blindly getting involved in a hop arms race or ramping up the alcohol and sticking a big beer in an old whisky barrel: It’s more about U.S. craft breweries’ freedom, the ambience that surrounds their creativity and the almost Janus-like way they make use of the great brewing traditions while looking to the future.

“Yes, of course we’ve have been influenced by our transatlantic cousins for our APA,” says Jon Swain at Hackney Brewery (which started in 2011). “I love the highly hopped, rich beers they produce, but I also love a traditional British classic best bitter. We produce one to remember where we have come from and update it a little. Our golden ale is about trying to blend the gap between lager and ale and hopefully convert lager drinkers to nice ale.”

London’s a hip world city, and naturally the breweries’ branding is also smart and striking. For instance, Camden Town’s is almost percussive in the way the bold words and vibrant colors leap off bottle labels and keg fonts; Kernel opts for a more minimalist approach. London Fields offers a nod to Fritz Lang-style expressionism, and Redchurch goes for a clean, crisp look.

Rock ’n’ Roll Brewmasters

One of the newest breweries is Beavertown in the East London borough of Hackney; its Lilliputian kit is tucked away close to the kitchen at Duke’s Brew and Que, formerly an old boozer that is now the home of classic ribs, juicy burgers and great craft beer. Brewmaster and co-founder is Logan Plant, whose father is Robert, formerly of Led Zeppelin. Like Dad, Logan was a singer in a rock ’n’ roll band that toured the world, and he was always keen to try the local brews. It was only when he was in Brooklyn savoring some of the local craft beer that he had an epiphany.

“After coming off stage, a local hipster directed me to a late-night joint where numerous ales flowed and pulled pork was served until the early hours,” he tells me. “Three lashings of pork later and half a yard of ale down my neck, I knew that this was it! All that nonsense of note taking and gargling beers from all over the world suddenly hit me between the eyes. I had found my calling!”

Beers brewed by Plant include Neck Oil, based on the sweetish session ales of the English Midlands, 8 Ball Rye IPA, which Plant describes as “a massive nod to the U.S.,” and Smog Rocket. The latter is a fabulous smoked porter with a creamy palate, subtle smoke notes and mocha and chocolate in the background.

While at Duke’s, I also tried one of his Alpha series of experimental beers, an American pale ale that has been brewed with the Summit hop. It’s a big blast of beer with an almost savory note on the nose that is also joined by an abundance of grapefruit. It’s bitter but also beatific in the way it blesses the beer with a massively tangy and sweet, overwrought citrus character followed by the sort of bitter finish that’s like a dream you never want to end.

“Our Alpha series will range from pale ales to saisons, imperials, exports, browns, stouts and anything we can stick on the bar at Duke’s to stimulate and educate people with,” Logan says. “It offers no boundaries, which is like looking into the void with regards to brewing. Scary!”

Pride of London

Amid all these young breweries with their rock ’n’ roll brewmasters and plates of pizza (Crate Brewery exists side by side with a pizzeria), let’s not forget Fuller’s and Meantime. The latter go from strength to strength. Under the tutelage of Alastair Hook, they produce a variety of great lager styles (as well as porter, pale ale and IPA). I was recently wowed by their Friesian Pilsner, a crisp take on Jever. It has a bitter lemon bite and a Saaz-led hoppiness that leaves footprints in the mouth. Its inspiration might be northern Germany, but it’s a London beer. The same goes for the brewery’s Chocolate Porter, Pilsner and London Lager.

Undisputedly, the beer most associated with the capital is Fuller’s London Pride, the brewery’s flagship beer, a bittersweet pale ale with an exquisite balance between citrus orange and fresh, crisp cracker-like notes on the palate. However, as well as a full range of beers that appeal to more conservative palates, Fuller’s has also brewed an intriguing selection of bottled beers with recipes from its archives. Called the Past Masters series, the first two were XX Strong Ale and Double Stout, both of late 19th-century origin. The most recent, the third in the series, was Old Burton Extra, based on a 1931 recipe.

Respect for Fuller’s is immense among the new brewers. “Fuller’s is an institution in London,” says Jon Swaine at Hackney, “and this rise in awareness of other London breweries will only draw attention to their legacy and influence on modern beers.” Redemption’s Andy Moffat is also a big fan: “I am always captivated listening to experienced brewers such as Fuller’s John Keeling and Derek Prentice recounting stories of days gone by and passing on their extensive knowledge and appreciation of beer.”

Brewmaster John Keeling, who comes from the northern city of Manchester, where he started his brewing career, has certainly gone native. He is a passionate advocate of London beer and for him this renaissance has its links in the worldwide craft beer movement, though he also feels that the total abdication of the larger brewers in the city left a vacuum that demanded to be filled.

“London needs industry,” he says. “It cannot become a city of banks and pubs. Not only is that depressing, it is against the character of the city.”

Keeling’s latest beer is Wild River, an intensely hoppy U.S.-influenced beer. Could this possibly be the start of a new London style, a modern-day porter in the sense of being a true London beer?

“The modern London style will evolve,” Keeling says. “Just like in the U.S., all styles will be fair game for the London brewer. We will put our own interpretation onto these styles. I dare say it will not be the over-the-top style of the U.S. but a more restrained response.”

As various brewers speak about the future of London beer, there’s a guarded confidence. They all express a sense of pride in being part of this movement, though some offer a word of caution.

“London will never become again what it once was,” says Evin O’Riordain. “London can certainly sustain a lot more growth, in terms of breweries and good places to get good beer. In terms of London as the dominant center of brewing for the country, I’m not sure this will happen, and if it did, it would probably be due to people shouting louder about London. The effect/influence of some of the London breweries on the wider U.K. environment is not necessarily anything to do with the fact of them being in London. But, of course, it might well do.”

Andy Moffat shares some of these concerns: “I think there is the risk that the growth feels stronger than it is because there is a passionate minority who shout about it through social networking, etc. Sometimes when we are in the bubble, we may think Joe Public is also as interested and passionate about beer as we are. But in reality, London is a big city with real ethnic diversity, and I wonder if the beer scene sometimes feels bigger than it really is. I still know plenty of wine drinkers who would not touch Jacob’s Creek but happily swig Foster’s. In our immediate vicinity of Tottenham, any form of beer scene has yet to emerge.”

On the other hand, if you want ebullient optimism, Logan Plant is your man: “London is one of the biggest, most vibrant and stylish cities in the world. It will sustain anything if enough people believe in something, and a lot of people believe in having a good time and trying new things. Those people also like to, in typical British fashion, get behind the small guy, and that’s what we craft micros are. Honest, caring folk, creating an amazing product that people love and support wholly. It’s a great to speak to so many people who can talk about your beers for five minutes picking out the finer characteristics of the malts and hops you’ve used. I love it; it’s a buzz!”

The surge of London breweries is seemingly unstoppable, but that hasn’t meant those involved in the London brewing revolution/renaissance are snapping at each other from their respective barricades. Beer swaps are common, so you will find Kernel’s bottles in Duke’s Brew & Que or beers from Redemption, London Fields and Camden alongside Fuller’s at the Union Tavern. Brewing collaborations are de rigueur, while the London Brewers’ Alliance brings together everyone within Greater London (as well as honorary members Windsor & Eton). According to the Alliance’s secretary, Steve Williams, “It aims to unite those who make local beer with those that love it, and represent the vibrant heritage and contemporary scene of beer brewing in the great city of London.”

London is indeed calling.