Microbreweries: London gets in on the act

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Craft beer bars, London, Beer

It was all starting to get a bit embarrassing. In 2006 I went on a tour of Boulder, Colorado, and had a wonderful time visiting a handful of the...

It was all starting to get a bit embarrassing.

In 2006 I went on a tour of Boulder, Colorado, and had a wonderful time visiting a handful of the city's 15 microbreweries. The range of beers they offered, both to a local craft beer market and across the US, was truly staggering and inspiring.

It was one of those visits we all need every now and again to remind us why we got into beer in the first place, to refuel our passion for the world's greatest beverage.

But it sticks in my mind for another reason. Because while I was over there, Young's brewery closed and brewing was moved to Bedford. Commentators who are usually up in arms about brewery closures saw this one as sad, but inevitable. Economics mean you just can't brew in London any more, some argued.

I came home from Boulder, a city of 100,000 people with 15 breweries between them, to London, seven million people and two breweries of any note (three if you count the excellent Zero Degrees Brewpub in Blackheath, four if you go out as far as Twickenham).

I felt embarrassed on behalf of my adopted home. Not only is London 70 times bigger than Boulder, with one third (if we're being generous) the number of breweries.

Not only is London a city that aspires to be the global capital of all things cultural. London was, until the rise of Burton on Trent, the most important brewing city on the planet, birthplace of two of the greatest, most influential beer styles in the world in porter and IPA.

This truly was a sad state of affairs. The burgeoning brewing revolution across the rest of the UK was seemingly leaving the capital behind. Nothing against Derby, Nottingham and Sheffield - they're fine places. But when the number of breweries in each dwarfs those in the capital, surely something is badly wrong?

When the revolution finally came though, it happened with breathtaking speed.

Breweries of the revolution

At the end of 2008 Sambrook's staked its claim to the Young's-shaped hole in South West London. After that, new brewery openings barely had time to be a trickle before they became a flood.

Brodies followed in 2009. January 2010 saw Tottenham's Redemption and Kernel in London Bridge open their doors, followed later in the year by the Camden Brewery in - well - Camden, Saints and Sinners at Brew Wharf, Windsor & Eton in Windsor, and a statement of intent about the revival of the legendary Trumans beer brand, currently contract-brewing but looking to set up permanently in the city this year.

Almost from day one, these brewers began creating beers that are being talked about. James Brodie started brewing to boost business in the family pub, which now boasts 17 Brodie's beers on the bar. He can't stop creating new ones, and beers like his Citra have spread as far as the West End.

"If I'd gone to brewing school they would have told me it's impossible to get that much flavour into a 3.1 per cent beer," he says.

"But I didn't go to brewing school. I just made it up, and it worked."

Andy Moffat quit a career in the City, for reasons that may include the fact that he is one of the kindest, most decent men you will ever meet, to set up Redemption. Pale Ale is his biggest seller, but Urban Dusk, his first brew, still turns heads with its incredible depth of warming malty flavour.

Online beer geeks are all atwitter over beers like Saints and Sinners' Military Intelligence, a 6.8 per cent 'Black IPA', a style further popularised by Windsor & Eton's much talked-about Conqueror.

Kernel's range of zingy, US-influenced IPAs and smouldering, chunky porters and stouts is already winning awards and tearing up craft beer bars across the capital.

Camden's Pale Ale, even better on keg than in cask, helps strengthen that elusive bridge between mainstream lager and more flavoursome beers, and won a medal at the recent Brewing Industry International Awards.

And it seems innovation is infectious. John Keeling at Fuller's freely admits to being influenced by the inventiveness of microbrewers, but believes that if bigger, older breweries combine it with their tradition and experience, they can do something different again.

Fuller's Brewmaster's Reserve explores the trend for wood ageing beers, and beer's relationship with time is taken further by the launch of the Past Masters range, the first release, XX, being an exact recreation of a beer from archive brewing books dating back to the 19th century.

And the Meantime Brewery in Greenwich, now suddenly seeming like an old, established London brewery after a mere 10 years, has enjoyed a step-up in stature with a much bigger, brand new, state-of-the-art plant.

Inspired by this, new initiatives include a College Beer Club, which offers extremely limited editions of exclusive beers that redefine how premium beer can be. It's doubtful that this is a response to the new competition (work on the new brewery began in 2008) but it only adds to the incredible sense of momentum on London's brewing scene.

So why has it happened now? And why has it happened with such intensity?

Behind the trend

Duncan Sambrook - whose Wandle Ale is in 250 pubs after just two years - admits that London was behind the trend.

"It's easier to buy land or even set up conditioning tanks in your back garden in rural areas, but property investment inside London is considerable. The recession has made it a bit easier," he says.

"Cask ale drinkers like local provenance, and London on the whole was under-served. The hardest thing for us now is keeping up with demand! But we're only southwest London, and if you break up the territory, I think there's room for lots more brewers inside the M25."

Brodie agrees. "I think drinkers just got bored with seeing the same beers in every single pub," he says. "Stella Artois is like the Big Mac of the beer world, and people are desperate for something different."

Moffat sees things in a similar way. "We've had years of materialism and conspicuous consumption," he explains. "And with the recession that whole thing has become a bit uncool. Now it's seen as more appropriate to be understated, and that suits craft beer very well."

The mood among London's brewers is nothing short of ebullient. Last September they came together to form the London Brewers Alliance, which meets regularly to swap tips, ideas and inspiration, help each other out, and even brew together. The LBA has already brewed its first collaborative, branded brew, and there have been several other collaborations between members.

Now it's finally reached the capital, the brewing revolution is making up for lost time. Sambrook is right about the local appeal of cask ale, but here, it goes beyond that. While it may not have had many brewers, London has in recent years been spoilt by more craft beer bars and specialist beer retailers than any other city.

London's young brewers have a good infrastructure at their disposal that facilitates ideas and inspiration for new beers coming in from around the world, and helps distribution of new beers going out - not just to Londoners, but to beer fans and publicans across the country.

It's still early days. But after 150 years of uneven decline, London is once more staking its claim to be one of the world's great brewing capitals.

Related topics: Beer

Property of the week

Follow us

Pub Trade Guides

View more