Brown's beer: The beer renaissance brewing in East London


Beer guru Pete Brown on why Hackney is nicknamed the “Hoppy Valley”

Up here in Stoke Newington there’s a nickname for the area based on its demographics: ‘Nappy Valley’.

Last weekend, my wife and a bunch of hardy volunteers staged the fourth Stoke Newington Literary Festival, and afterwards one of the crew said, “I remember when I first worked on the festival two years ago there were lots of pregnant women. But this year there were loads of families with screaming babies and toddlers.”

Funny that.

Screaming babies were in fact one of the few negatives on our feedback questionnaires when we collated them after the festival. Noise is the reason we don’t sell crisps or nuts from our festival bars – it tends to put off both readers and listeners – but small people did a far more devastating job than rustling packets ever could. Some parents took it in shifts to take their babies outside. Others seemed to think their child’s screams were more entertaining to the audience than the speaker on stage.

This is a fact of life in Stokey, even in its pubs. One might think the pub is an adult environment where you go to get away from children. Not in N16. One pub even employs a clown to entertain the young ‘uns on a Sunday afternoon.

So it was perhaps unsurprising that my own festival event on Saturday afternoon was marred only by a screaming child, who carried on screaming, uninterrupted, until an audience member rather forcefully suggested that the parents might want to take it outside.

To be fair to the kids, there wasn’t really very much for them to enjoy about my event. From their point of view it wasn’t a patch on Paddington Bear turning up to Stoke Newington Library earlier in the day. All I could offer was six blokes onstage talking about beer, and it must have been frustrating for the kids to see their parents being fed samples of delicious beers when they couldn’t partake.

If there’s anything in East London that’s spawning faster than middle class tots, it’s microbreweries. I managed to wrangle this onto the LitFest programme on the grounds that journalist and beer writer Will Hawkes has a book out called Craft Beer London, which documents the proliferation of great beer in the capital and is also available as a highly regarded app. I used this as a pretext to invite Will and four London brewers onstage to talk about what’s happened to London brewing, and why.

The pace of change is perfectly illustrated by the longevity of the breweries we featured. Wandsworth’s Sambrooks was the elder statesman, having been in business for almost five years now. Beavertown, featured in my last column, is almost eighteen months old, while Pressure Drop and Five Points are still getting on their feet – both are selling beer to instant acclaim, but are only a few months old.

Pressure Drop in particular had rushed over from their new site where their brand new brewing vessels had just been delivered for installation, after getting themselves established as a business on something little larger than a homebrew kit.

I asked each brewer to introduce themselves, and as we chatted they took it in turns to present a beer they had brought with them for the sell-out crowd to enjoy. These four were representing what is now rumoured to be fifty breweries in the capital – it shoots up every time I hear the figure – and while we tasted their beers we discussed the reasons for this astonishing growth.

After Young’s closed in 2006, there were only two breweries in a city of seven million people. So what happened?

We focussed a lot of attention on the American craft beer scene. Great beers have been gaining momentum in the US over twenty years now, and three of our four brewers were heavily influenced by them. Byron Knight, representing Beavertown, was born and raised in California and has been drinking flavourful brews his entire adult life. Having been trained as a sommelier, he now finds beer more exciting than wine.

Byron brought along a ‘Rye IPA’ for us to try – interestingly, so did Five Points. Ed Mason runs the excellent Duke of Wellington Pub in a spot on Balls Pond Road that, with its N1 postcode, probably made a strident claim to being in Islington ten years ago, but now pledges its allegiance to Dalston. Ed also used to run Mason & Taylor in Shoreditch, which he sold to BrewDog to give them their second London bar. Rumours of a justifiably high price tag are given credence by the launch of a new brewery that clearly means business.

Two East London breweries, each choosing a similar US-influenced style, provided a good illustration of current brewing trends. What’s particularly satisfying here is that IPA was originally a beer style that developed in London, that had an illustrious history before fading back to become just another term on a pump clip, and was then revitalised and utterly reinvented by American craft brewers. Hackney’s Rye IPAs are a perfect example of how developments in beer represent a tennis match being played across the Atlantic, the ball of inspiration heading back and forth in an impressive rally.

Influences from both sides combined perfectly in Stokey Brown, the beer from Pressure Drop. Devised in Stoke Newington (on the site Sainsbury’s currently hope to acquire in their endless bid to destroy the individuality and local character these brewers represent) it is now brewed down the road in Hackney. Brown ale is about as English a beer as it’s possible to get, but the American influence in the vivid, fruity hops is clear.  

London’s enormous influence on the history of brewing was reflected by Sambrook’s contribution – Powerhouse Porter. Records suggest porter was first brewed in East London, and it became the beer that drove the Industrial Revolution, the first beer produced on a truly commercial scale. Pretty much extinct twenty years ago, it’s now a mainstay of any craft brewer’s range. As a nice counterpoint to the rest of the panel, Sambrooks’ porter was English through and through, big yet balanced, with wonderful chocolate and coffee flavours.

As we enjoyed the beers, we also talked about the general climate of growing appreciation of food and drink. Beer lagged behind the rest of the stuff that’s popular down Borough Market, but now it’s catching up, and doing so with a velocity that’s making up for lost time.

That it began to do so when it did – the explosion started happening in earnest in 2010 – is partly due to recession. Commercial property prices fell inside London making a low-margin business such as craft brewing viable in the capital for the first time. And something else was at work that our panel didn’t admit as readily – disillusionment with big business. Two of our four brewers used to work in big IT and financial services, as did many more brewers across the capital, including Andy Moffat from Redemption, who provided our session with its welcome drink, Trinity. There’s a desire among good people to do something meaningful and pleasurable rather than joyless and amoral.

Finally, it didn’t escape anyone’s notice that three of our four brewers were extremely local, based in Hackney. Olympic regeneration perhaps played a part here, but our panel was also quick to point out that this is where the market is. East London is now the trendsetter for the rest of the capital. And while great breweries are now springing up all over the city, over here we have far more than our fair share.

By the end of the session, I’d become aware of another nickname for the borough, a different pun from the same root that looks set to stick for a while: Hackney has become ‘Hoppy Valley’.