Beer guru Pete Brown invites you to behold the capital’s craft renaissance
When I wrote my very first column for LondonlovesBusiness.com back in 2011, I talked about the exciting craft brewing revolution that was happening in the capital, and about how in fashionable East London bars, beer was the drink of choice of hipsters both male and female. I said I’d be documenting the progress of this revolution as it happened.
And to be honest, it’s all taken off so quickly that I’m feeling rather left behind. The pace of new brewery openings and the conversion of tired, knackered old pubs into cool craft beer bars has staggered everyone watching the London beer scene.
In 2011, we were all pretty excited to see around a dozen breweries operating in Greater London. It was an incredible turnaround after the low-point in 2006 when, following the closure of Young’s in Wandsworth, there were just two breweries operating commercially in the city.
This was just embarrassing.
Historically, London was one of the most important brewing cities on the planet. Two of the world’s great beer styles – porter and India Pale Ale (IPA) were developed here. Brewers such as Whitbread, Truman’s, Watney Mann and Barclay Perkins helped not only shape the city but also drove the whole Industrial Revolution, pioneering the use of steam power and using microscopes to understand the behaviour of yeast, which ultimately led to the invention of microbiology.
All that has been swept away, and in that curiously and uniquely English way, it has not been recorded or commemorated. In any other country there would be a museum of brewing at Brick Lane’s Truman Brewery, or at The Brewery on Chiswell Street. There’s not even a marker to show where Barclay Perkins used to stand next to Borough Market. In its day, it was so impressive it was visited by heads of state from across Europe.
When the boom in British microbrewing began around a decade ago, London never got in the race. Cities like Derby, Nottingham, Norwich and Sheffield became destinations for beer lovers while in the capital breweries continued to close.
When the turnaround finally came, it hit with dramatic force.
The recession had something to do with it. On the one hand disillusioned professionals, some with redundancy cheques, figured they’d had enough of the corporate rat race that had chewed them up and spat them out. On the other, the lease on a small industrial unit in Greater London became more affordable. Add to this the grants and investment in East London regeneration leading up to the Olympics, and the sums for setting up a microbrewery in the capital started to add up.
And London was ready. We may not have had the breweries, but we certainly had the thirst. Bars like the Rake, Lowlander and Porterhouse were introducing increasingly exotic ranges of beers: real ales from Britain’s microbreweries, as well as bottled beers from Belgium, Germany, the Czech Republic and the US. These were beers that altered perceptions of what beer could be and stretched your palate in myriad new directions. London’s new wave of brewers had a new world of flavour and inspiration at their fingertips.
In late 2009 and early 2010, breweries like Brodies in Leyton, Sambrooks in Wandsworth, Redemption in Tottenham and Kernel in Bermondsey opened their doors. The trickle became a flood, and then the flood became a deluge. Now, London has over 40 commercial breweries.
These new breweries came together to from the London Brewers’ Alliance, a trade body to support each other and connect “those who make local beer with those that love it”.
This weekend sees the most ambitious attempt yet to do that. From Friday to Sunday, the event space at the London Field’s Brewery’s Brewhouse hosts London’s Brewing, an unprecedented beer festival. Every London brewer, old and new, will be exhibiting their beers – over a 100 in total. This doesn’t make it a huge beer festival in the grand scheme of things, but it’s staggering that there’s so much variety from one city. While good old real ale will be out in force, London’s brewers now excel at a much broader range of beers, so continental styles including wheat beer and lager will also be on offer.
Every beer entered into the festival is judged in competition by a panel of beer experts, including your humble correspondent. The finals take place in Sunday, when you’ll be able to taste what are officially London’s best beers.
In keeping with beer’s newfound contemporary sensibility, the food and entertainment are also refreshingly different from what you expect at the traditional real ale festival. Instead of oompah bands and tired old folkies there are DJs and hip young folkies. Instead of generic pies and pasties, Hoxton Beach will be offering their amazing falafel, there’s Mexican street food from Luardos, and much more.
Everything about this event demonstrates the new life and energy that’s got into craft brewing generally and London in particular. For years, beer had a fusty, down-at-heel image, a hangover from the real ale campaigners of the seventies and eighties, complete with nerdish, trainspotter associations. The rest of the world never had this, and it was inaccurate as far as it went in the UK too. But when Britain’s foodie revolution took wine as its drink of choice, beer was increasingly seen as being out of date.
This simply didn’t make sense: craft brewing incorporates all the artisanal production, local sourcing, combination of tradition and innovation and infectious passion that characterises all great food and drink production. Beer simply had to catch up with the enthusiasm we had for bread, meat or cheese, and now it has.
Tickets for this weekend are available from the London’s Brewing website. So if you’re in town this weekend, come along and witness the crowning moment in London’s beer revolution.
See you there.
Pete Brown is the author of the newly published Shakespeare’s Local, an amusing romp through six centuries of history through the George Inn near London Bridge, watering hole to Chaucer, Dickens and the Swan of Avon. It is currently Radio 4’s book of the week.
Pete is also celebrating being crowned Beer Writer of the Year for a second time.