Our male-about-ale Pete Brown on why he’s heading to the Morden Hall Park, Beer by the River bash this Saturday
Late in 2008 I was asked to go to talk to a man who had started a new brewery in South London and write a piece about him for the Morning Advertiser, at that time one of two trade magazines aimed at the hard-working pub licensee.
Duncan Sambrook was an accountant with Deloitte and Touche who had gone to the Great British Beer Festival in 2006 and been struck by the fact that here, at a festival in London, there was only one London brewer represented – Fuller’s. “Don’t get me wrong,” he told me at the time, “I love Fuller’s beers, but it struck me as very strange that a city this size only had one brewery when somewhere like Salisbury, where I grew up, has several.”
It was something I’d been complaining about widely at the time. Now, reading back over the piece I filed about my visit to Sambrook’s Brewery just days after they’d sold their first ever cask of beer (to the Imperial Arms in Chelsea) it seems charmingly naive. The dutifully recorded details of how it all came together, the ups and downs of turning a former artist’s studio into a medium-sized cask ale brewery, belong to an age when a new brewery opening for business in London was something truly newsworthy.
The opening of a brewery with the scale, investment and ambition of Sambrook’s is still something worth investigating, as my next LLB column on the rebirth of East London’s Truman’s brewery will show. But as estimates on the number of breweries in London near fifty, of which I could name maybe half without checking, Sambrook’s nears its fifth birthday facing a competitive landscape that has changed utterly beyond recognition.
No one in London was talking about ‘craft beer’ in 2008.
There was talk of a real ale revival. Aberdeen’s Brew Dog, the poster boys of craft beer with attitude, was just over a year old. And there was great craft beer if you knew where to look, but those of us who were drinking it and trying to let other people know about it could never have imagined it would go mainstream the way it has.
If Sambrook had left it just a few more years before visiting the Great British Beer Festival, it’s doubtful he would have experienced the frustration that inspired such a momentous career change.
This weekend, in a display of the confidence and exuberance of the craft beer scene right now, Sambrook’s is preparing to celebrate its fifth birthday in style. It will be heading up the Morden Hall Park, Beer by the River bash this Saturday and leading a day-long celebration of good beer, good music and good food.
Even without any of that, I’m massively grateful to Sambrook’s for making me aware of the venue. I used to live in Tooting, three stops away from Morden at the grim end of the generally grim Northern Line, and I had no idea it existed. This National Trust property covers fifty hectares on the banks of the River Wandle, all leafy parkland spanning the river with exquisite footbridges, a totally unexpected South London oasis.
On Saturday you can enjoy this bucolic bliss with beers brewed only a little further down the Wandle, which has a rich brewing legacy.
Sambrook’s opened for business a couple of years after Young’s – London’s oldest brewery, in the heart of Wandsworth – closed down and transferred its brewing operations to Bedford.
(In a situation like this, the truth of the beer is irrelevant – lifelong drinkers who drank it partly because it was London’s beer are going to insist it doesn’t taste as good when brewed elsewhere, seeing the move as a desertion, a betrayal, irrespective of the real estate realities that made it inevitable.)
Duncan Sambrook did what any smart businessman would do and set up shop no more than a mile away from the now-silent Ram Brewery, on the banks of the Wandle, which once supplied Young’s with its brewing water.
Sambrook’s first beer, Wandle Ale (3.8% ABV) bore more than a passing resemblance to Young’s Bitter. While many of the new breweries that have followed Sambrook’s have aped American craft beer, Sambrook’s has continued to create cask ales in the classic British tradition. Its flavourful, quality beers are great examples of this style, and have quickly entered the mainstream.
They’re diversifying a little now. As well as the main range, Saturday sees the launch of new beer Number 5, a delicious, heady barley wine.
Because the beer world is a sociable place, Sambrook’s have invited along some friends too.
Beers will also be available from new Hackney brewer Five Points, the London Brewing Company (perhaps better known as the Bull in Highgate), the excellent Gadd’s brewery from Ramsgate and Tap East, the microbrewery in the little bit of Westfield Stratford that doesn’t resemble one of Dante’s circles of hell.
Food will be supplied by Ginger Pig, the Fish Club and Dessert Deli, and a mix of DJs and mellow folk will be curated by Artful Badger.
The event runs over two sessions: 12-5pm is child-friendly, while things get a little louder for the 6-11pm evening session. Tickets are £19 advance from the website or £22 on the day. You can buy them here.
This is not as steep as it sounds: it includes a street food voucher worth £5, a beer token for a third off an exclusive Sambrook’s beer, available only at the event, and a further one-pint beer token for the beer of your choice.
This has been a summer of craft beer events, many of which I’ve tried to cover in this column. It’s a concerted attempt to take craft into the heart of mainstream beer, or perhaps even an acknowledgement that it has succeeded in getting there already.
There’s no better brewery in London than Sambrook’s to bridge the gap between traditional, mainstream beer and pubs and a scene that is undoubtedly cool, but can be intimidating to the novice. And there can be few more beautiful environments than Morden Hall Park to drink beer in at the tail end of a great beery summer.
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