London’s craft brewing scene has exploded over the past few years. In-fact, the number of breweries inside the M25 has doubled over the past year or so. A very different picture to that of 2006, which saw just a handful of breweries left in London when Young’s vacated its brewery in Wandsworth for a partnership with Charles Wells in Bedford.
London was once the brewing capital of the world; able to lay claim over historical styles such as Porter and Stout. So with new breweries popping up all the time, could London be returning to form?
On a recent trip to London I was shocked – and pleasantly surprised – to see the rapid growth of London’s craft beer scene. The support for it is mind blowing, and nowhere was this more apparent than at Sourced Market in St Pancras station. Sourced have gone from a store that stocked one or two ranges of London brewed beer when I was a regular commuter 2 years ago, to featuring what felt like an entire wall of the stuff. The place is full of it! They even boast London beer as ‘some of the best in the world’ on their chalk board sign (pictured to the left).
So why the change?
It all started in America, where a craft beer revolution against bland, corporate, mass produced beers has been well underway for decades. A similar trend toward micro brewed beer also took off during the 80’s in the UK, and really gained momentum by the 2000’s – thanks in part to newly introduced tax breaks.
While the UK as a whole enjoyed increased availability of local beer, London was actually relatively unaffected, with little other than perhaps Fullers flying the flag for London beer. This could be in-part due to higher start up costs in the capital.
Cities however, don’t stand still for long (particularly not London), and it wasn’t long before the pioneers of a London beer renaissance arrived. Amoung the first was Meantime in 2000 and Sambrook’s in 2008, and since then the whole scene has snowballed with what seems like new breweries popping up every week. Key success stories include Kernel (a Brewery near the Tate Modern), and Camden Town Brewery (I think you can guess the location of this one).
The Image Problem of Real Ale
Almost exclusively, new London breweries turn to America for their influence, with the exception of Sambrook’s who specialise in traditional British ales. Traditional beer in the UK (often referred to as Real Ale) has long suffered from false accusations of being ‘warm and flat’, and thanks to unimaginative marketing, it has also suffered real image problems over recent decades. Real Ale is often seen as something for an older generation; something your grandad drinks.
Although real ale has made huge progress outside of London to shift its stuffy image, the problem has been most acute in cities like London, with many seeing ale as something for old folks in the country. Not the pursuit of a trendy city slicker.
A revolution which began in the US, has very much made its way into the London micro brewing scene. Brewers are favouring the more intense character of new world hops over their British counter parts to brew zesty Pale Ales. It seems that almost every brewer also has its own version of an IPA (India Pale Ale) – a style traditionally associated with the British empire but recently reinvented and turbo-charged by US craft brewers.
It’s a surprise in many ways, that such intense ale styles have captured London’s imagination. Despite being more hoppy and bitter than traditional British bitters – they still seem to have won many over from the mainstream mass produced lagers. So why is this the case?
Familiar Serving Methods
Continuing with the American influence, a large amount of new London craft brewers keg their beer and serve it colder than cask beer through tap systems familiar to larger drinkers. As a result, if you’ve never drank draught beer from a hand pulled pump, the giant leap from lager to ale doesn’t seem so daunting. A trend that in my view, could benefit both cask and keg style beers overall.
I realise CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) have been fighting the use of keg beer for decades, but I really feel this is a good thing for real ales image. The idea that we might move away from a clear division on the bar of ale served through hand pump and lager served through a chrome tap is something I believe to be essential to shaking ales stuffy old image.
You only have to look at North America to see how this is done. For example, a bar I like to visit when in Vancouver called the Alibi Room fits this model perfectly. They have an extensive tap list and bottle list, featuring beers of all genres/styles, and yet they have 3 cask ales standing proud on their bar. Over in North America, Cask Beer (partly because of its obscurity) is viewed as a real artisan niche. People seek it out.
The problem in Britain, is that many traditional brewers have been so utterly uninspired in their creations for so long, that the concept of Real Ale, for some, has come to define only two styles of beer – Bitter and Mild. The reality is, British ‘real ale’ was once home to a world of flavours, which were invented, very often, in London itself.
Stout, Porter, IPA, Pale Ale, Old Ale, Barley Wine – all are British styles, and many have been off the menu for decades. Craft beer, I do believe is helping to change this, however it’s somehow ironic that British beer styles are now being rediscovered through the influence of Americans.
Giving Cask a Kick up the Backside
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not complaining. I’m a huge fan of new world hops, and I think the influence and innovation of North American brewers in the US & Canada have truly had a positive effect on the British beer scene. But you have to remember, these are our beer styles they’re re-creating here. Granted, they’re pushing the boundaries, creating hybrids, and brewing more intense versions. But, they are based on foundations invented in this country and across Europe.
There is no reason we can’t be doing the same in the UK. Alongside UK interpretations of US hop influenced pale ales and IPA’s, I’d like to see more innovative and rule breaking use of the British varieties, for example. I suspect our climate, combined with a limited land mass may not help, but why can’t we see more attempts to create new, more adventurous British hop varieties? The first brewer to then take these hops and make a double British IPA will be my kind of brewer.
Brewing Revolution? or Simply Imitation?
I guess what I’m trying to say here, is that on one hand yes – London is indeed enjoying a beer renaissance, and there is no doubt about the benefits of this. However on the other hand, it seems to me that this is not a true original. It’s so typical of the British, to talk themselves down, to think that the grass is greener, and ultimately absorb more American culture. But is this really what we want? America repackaged, and traditional British brewing a shadow of its former self?
Despite having a hard time being proud of ourselves over recent decades, the response to the London Olympics in 2012 suggests that there is still some national pride in us somewhere – I just don’t feel this is translating through some of the London craft brewers. For example, Camden Town brewery owner Jasper Cuppaidge, apparently started his brewery realising that the beers he liked came from abroad. He is Australian though, so perhaps we’ll forgive him.
All joking aside. It’s great to see London flooding with great beer. I just wish we’d be slightly less American about the whole process. We need more innovation in British brewing – I don’t doubt that – but there is no reason we can’t achieve this in our own unique way. Imitations after all, are rarely as good as originals. Perhaps a gap in the market?