Research by the Campaign For Real Ale (CAMRA) shows that the closure of UK pubs has risen from 26 to 28 pubs a week in less than a year. Despite this, one sector of the drinks market is bucking the trend – the craft brewing scene.
This new phenomenon, which uses traditional ingredients and methods sometimes with a twist, has exploded across London and the South East in the last three or four years – sparked by the reintroduction of traditional brewing methods from the USA’s Pacific North West and Canada. Today there are an incredible seventy-plus breweries in London, up from just three just ten years ago. Found everywhere from the corners of pubs to substantial operations in industrial units, they are scattered across the capital from Penge to Tottenham.
Despite its stratospheric growth critics insist that craft beer will not be the saviour of pub culture. They see these products as being aimed squarely at ‘hipsters’, the much-mocked bearded bike-riders of Hoxton and Shoreditch. Who else, they ask, would pay £3 for a single 330ml bottle of beer when a six pack of Budweiser can be had from the local supermarket for just a fiver?
The limited availability of much of London’s output doesn’t impress them either – with the exception of the Meantime Brewing Company’s own-brand tie-in with Marks & Spencer, craft beers are usually only available in trendy bars and ‘bottle shops’ in the more upmarket areas of the capital.
High Quality + High Costs
Regarding the premium price of craft beer, speaking to several London brewers it becomes immediately clear that the vast industrial sites operated by the multinationals benefit from economies of scale and levels of production that are worlds away from the reality of producing small batches of beer in cramped surroundings. Indeed, half of London’s new brewers operate out of railway arches…
Pete Hills from the Hackney Brewery, which occupies a spot below the Overground near Hoxton station, explains: “We don’t use any adjuncts in our beer, we don’t bulk it up with rice or sugar. Our most popular product is our American Pale Ale. Loads of decent hops go into it – they cost quite a lot of money as they come from the States, but they give us a range of tasty flavours you don’t get with the mass-produced beers. When you’re small like we are you don’t get bulk discounts. That’s why we pay a premium.”
The typical size of these breweries doesn’t allow for easy expansion either: “We’re currently looking for additional storage space – that would give us room to produce about 30 brewer’s barrels a week [a modest 8,500 pints]. I don’t know of anyone who is able to meet the demand for their beer.”
Pete mentions the other big cost that comes with operating out of a small site: “Due to our size we can’t fill bottles on the premises – you need a dedicated line – so have to send it away for packaging, and beer’s heavy! In fact”, he says rather glumly, “we make less margin on it than the off-licence or the pub does”.
Portrait Of A Craft Beer Drinker
As for the view that craft beer is only of interest to the denizens of Shoreditch, people in the industry are quick to quash this particular fallacy. With his view of the bar through the glass wall that separates it from the brewery at the People’s Park Tavern in Hackney’s trendy Victoria Park area, head brewer Jim Wilson should know.
“If I can put it this way, the stereotypical beer drinker now is somewhere between the ages of eighteen and ninety nine – we have kids in their late teens coming in and drinking cask ale alongside people in their sixties or seventies who have drunk it all their life.”
Su-Lin Ong is a London-based drinks promoter who has been putting together a popular series of small-scale beer festival at Brick Lane’s old Truman Brewery for the last three years, dubbed ‘Craft Beer Rising‘.
She is even more forthcoming about the myths surrounding the people who drink it: “You know, people are amazed when I tell them that 50% of the people who come to our festivals are women. You see, craft brewery tap rooms and craft beer pubs are really convivial spaces – they’re not at all a male domain. In fact I would say that there’s no such thing as a typical craft beer drinker”.
To investigate London’s craft brewing scene for yourself, there’s a helpful book, map and app over at Craft Beer London.
|People's Park Tavern - Coffee & Oatmeal Stout - 5% ABV||Hackney Brewery - American Pale Ale - 4.5% ABV||Hackney Brewery - Golden Ale - 4% ABV|
|A thick, black brew heavy with coffee notes offering a remarkably sweet finish. A perfect pick-me-up!||An amber coloured beer offering a little bit of sparkle on the tongue. It offers soft peach and vanilla flavours - effortlessly drinkable.||A light and zesty beer made with Czech and American hops offering a remarkably strong vanilla odor which carries over into the taste, with a light, dry finish. A friendly and more-ish beer.|