London’s beer renaissance

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London’s beer renaissance
Pub quiz question: what do Jack the Ripper and brewing have in common? Answer: Truman’s brewery in the 19th century was producing vast volumes of beer at its plant in Brick Lane, east London, while in the side streets and back alleys of Whitechapel the Ripper was committing his foul deeds.

You can still see Truman’s chimney, but that’s all that is left of the brewery. The rest of the site has been turned into offices for graphic designers and website managers. It is easy to forget that Truman’s once vied with mighty Bass in Burton-on-Trent as Britain’s biggest brewer, while on the south bank of the Thames Barclay Perkins and Courage were also massive producers of beer.

Times changed. Brewing declined in London at such a rate that when the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) was formed in the early 1970s it dubbed London “a beer desert”.

The first edition of the campaign’s Good Beer Guide, published in 1974, listed Charrington, Courage, Fuller’s, Truman’s, Watneys and Young’s in the capital.

Soon only Fuller’s and Young’s remained. Charrington was part of the giant Bass Charrington group and the Mile End brewery eventually closed, with production moved to the West Midlands.

Truman’s and Watneys ended up as the brewing division of the leisure giant Grand Metropolitan. Truman’s promptly closed while today Watneys’ plant at Mortlake on the Thames is the British base for American Budweiser. Barclays and Courage merged in the 1950s, Barclays closed and Courage eventually decamped to Bristol and became part of Scottish & Newcastle.

In 2006, much to the distress of beer lovers, Young’s of Wandsworth pulled down the shutters. Young’s is now a pubco and its beers are brewed by Wells & Young’s in Bedford.

London, once one of the principal brewing cities in the world, seemed to have lost its history and its traditions. But suddenly, almost unnoticed, beer making is once again a vigorous pursuit in the capital. Visitors to the Olympics who venture into London pubs will discover there are two dozen breweries and brew-pubs offering a wide range of stimulating brews.

The revival of brewing in London has been highlighted by a CAMRA initiative called London City of Beer. The launch was held in the Red Herring pub near St Paul’s. This is a Fuller’s pub and the choice was a tribute to the fact that the Chiswick company has remained true to its traditions and its roots.

CAMRA is organising beer tastings and pub crawls, while pubs will stage beer festivals. Brewers will offer open days and “meet the brewer” evenings in pubs. You can follow the events on a special website:​.
I was delighted, as an expat Cockney, to conduct a beer and food matching event at the Red Herring. As well as Fuller’s beers, including the divine ESB, we also tasted beer from Sambrook’s and Meantime, two breweries that are indicative of the vigorous revival of brewing in London.

Meantime in Greenwich was founded by Alastair Hook, a master brewer to his fingertips who trained at both Heriot-Watt brewing school in Edinburgh and Munich’s Technical University in Germany. He brews a wide range of beers, including a delicious German-style wheat beer, which was part of the Red Herring event. His London Pale Ale is a fine cask beer and he also produces — recalling London’s brewing history — India Pale Ale and London Porter, as well as Belgian-style beers.

In Battersea, Duncan Sambrook has filled part of the yawning gap left by the departure of Young’s. He has been brewing since 2008 and already his cask beers, Wandle Ale and Junction, are widely available throughout London. Sambrook worked in the City of London as an expert in business investment and he was also advised by David Welsh, late of Ringwood Brewery in Hampshire. As a result, Sambrook’s has a solid business footing and, in common with Meantime, is more of a small regional than a micro.

In Leytonstone, east London, brother and sister James and Lizzie Brodie started to brew behind the King William IV pub, but their beers, ranging from a good old Cockney mild to modern golden ales, have found such favour that they can be sampled increasingly in pubs in several parts of the capital.

In north London, Camden Town Brewery is carving a new route to market with a mixture of conventional cask ales and modern keg beers, while close to Tower Bridge the Kernel Brewery meets the demands of the growing take-home beer sector with stunning bottle-conditioned IPA and porter.

There are many more joys to be found. As London stages a special festival of Shakespeare’s plays, I suspect the bard, looking down on the rebuilt Globe Theatre — ironically on the site of the former Barclay’s brewery — will raise a foaming tankard and declare: “Blessings of your heart, you brew fine ale.”

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