A tale of local ale: Why the London brewery scene is exploding

The number of London breweries has increased seven-fold since 2006

In the year 1419, Dick Whittington was Lord Mayor of London and the capital boasted a whopping 290 commercial breweries. The breweries were such successful financial enterprises that the Lord Mayor was horrified to learn that the brewers had eaten “fat swans” at their St. Martin’s day feast. As punishment, he ordered them to sell their beer for a penny a gallon the next day.

Unfortunately the heady days when a penny could buy you several pints of ale and a nice plate of swan are long behind us. Fast-forward 587 years to 2006, and London’s breweries had dwindled to just seven.

These are the high and low-water marks in London’s brewing history.

But since 2006, London’s brewery scene has picked up dramatically, with new brewers appearing at an astonishing rate. This year alone, in excess of 20 breweries have opened within the M25.

There are now 50 breweries in operation in London and consumption of real ale is on the rise.

As a whole, the UK brews around 5,200 different beers across the country. But until recently, London was a difficult place to find a good selection of local ales.

Fullers, in Chiswick, is perhaps London’s most famous brewery. Beer has been brewed on the site for over 350 years and the company has a turnover of £272m.

Other big names on the scene include Greenwich’s successful Meantime Brewery, which has been around since 1999 and now has a turnover of more than £8.5m, while relative newcomers such as Sambrook’s and The Kernel have enjoyed growing representation in the capital.

Steve Williams of the London Brewers’ Alliance, which represents contemporary brewers in the capital, says that London was initially slow to capitalise on increased interest in real ale.

“We’re a bit behind the curve as far as the rest of the country is concerned,” Williams says. “Mainly because real-estate values in London, and rents, make it very expensive.”

But that is changing fast. London is catching up at breakneck pace as several factors have created opportunities for brewers to set up.

Williams says: “For a long time there were fewer pubs in London that could buy independently brewed beer. Lots of them were tied to breweries, as they were around the country, but it was a particular problem in London. And that’s now started to open up a bit.”

This meant that as pubs broke from breweries, or were set up independently, they could stock whatever they fancied, and rotate a widening selection of guest ales.

And wide selection, combined with a sense of locality, is what people are increasingly looking for when it comes to drinking.

Londoners’ changing tastes

Almost a quarter of London’s new breweries are based in trendy East London, where a sense of pride in the area is particularly strong.

Claire Ashbridge-Thomlinson is director of the East London Brewing company. She says: “I think the localism agenda feeds into it a lot. People, especially in East London, are keen to drink beer that has been made up the road by people they can get to know and can see on a daily basis.”

She and her partner Stuart decided to leave their respective jobs and set up as brewers while she was on maternity leave. The brewery was founded in spring 2011, and has just made the jump from a partnership to a limited company.

Ashbridge-Thomlinson says that a move towards buying more local goods has been a key driver of interest in beer at the moment. “The Shoreditch youth are looking for something a bit more edgy and people are bored of bland lager.

“It’s the whole localism agenda – the fact that the UK used to be one of the world’s brewing centres and then suddenly we seem to be importing a load of fairly bland stuff from the continent, and the recognition that actually it doesn’t have to be like that.”

Beer brewing

Another brewery based in the area is Redchurch Brewery, which also got going in 2011. Gary Ward, the head brewer and managing director, had been working as a lawyer for over 10 years when he decided it was time for a change and set up a brewery. “I’d been brewing at home so I thought it might be a good time to start doing it commercially,” he says.

“We’re based in Bethnal Green, just off Old Bethnal Green road. The name comes from where I live on Redchurch Street and that’s where I started brewing in the kitchen. I was writing Redchurch Brewery on the bottles.”

Now, Redchurch has six employees, and Ward says that consumers are latching on. “There’s the realisation amongst consumers that there is something out there rather than the bland fizzy mass produced lagers.

“When we started, there were only a few of us. Since we started, we’ve taken advantage of the rise in interest and didn’t expect for a minute to be the only ones in the market for long, but certainly didn’t expect to be one of 50 two years later.”

Ward says that social media has also had a significant role to play in helping the modern London brewery scene gain ground quickly.

“Social media has a lot to answer for,” he says. “With the proliferation of chatter about this kind of thing, more people are interested in becoming a part of it. Consequently more people are interested in drinking the beer and more people are interested in making the beer.”

How Gordon Brown gave the London beer market some fizz

Despite Gordon Brown ending his political career with a somewhat unremarkable spell as Prime Minister, he did as Chancellor at least seal his legacy as the saviour of the small brewery scene in the UK.

This was through the introduction of small brewers’ duty relief, which cut tax rates for small brewers by 50%. This has had a profound impact on the ability of brewers to make ends meet and keep their businesses running as a viable source of income.

Ashbridge-Thomlinson says: “If we didn’t have that, we would not have a business. The overheads are not big. We are not very rich.

“It’s tough, really tough when you’re starting. Rent and rates are horribly high in London, so if they ever decided to rescind on that, then we’d have to close, absolutely undoubtedly.”

Brewing hope for the future

Despite rapid growth, the brewing scene is still a relatively small group of people, and this has engendered a strong sense of comradeship between the breweries.

Andy Smith is founder of the Partisan Brewery in Bermondsey and previously worked at the Redemption brewery in North London. He was encouraged to set up on his own and was helped enormously when the Kernel Brewery, also based in Bermondsey, offered him their old brewing kit for free following an upgrade.

He says: “Yeah, I feel very much a part of a London brewing scene. Everyone is really inviting to people coming into the scene. It’s not one of those exclusive snobby kind of things. It’s just a really friendly cool scene.” Partisan is just about to celebrate its first anniversary.

It’s not just the UK where interest in London ale is growing. Like cider, markets across the world are opening up to real ale.

Redchurch Brewery is already exporting beer across the UK and the world. “Probably only 50% of our product stays in London,” Ward says. “The other 50% goes to Edinburgh, Glasgow, Newcastle, Birmingham, Manchester, all over the country, and we’re exporting to Sweden, Italy, Spain and Australia.

“So while there is a an element of local caché, and the UK market is growing and we shouldn’t ignore that, the export market is phenomenal.”

Beer people

Ashbridge-Thomlinson at the East London Brewery says the opportunities are “as crazy and as far-flung as your imagination can allow you to go.” she says. “For example, somebody phoned me the other day who supplies wine to the MoD in Asia and makes a living out of it, and asked us if we wanted to go in as a beer supplier.

“It’s so niche that it wouldn’t even occur to you to supply beer to the MoD in Asia.”

Just as Scotch whisky has become a luxury brand worldwide, British beer is gathering the following needed to become a dominant player on the global beer stage - and at the current rate, London beers could be at the forefront of the campaign.

When this happens, we’re sure to find that brewers are once again able to live on the rich and controversial diet that is swan and beer.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • It is perhaps an interesting phenomenon that the brewing scene is booming when their outlets seem to be failing so badly. Never has it seemed that we have ever had such a selection of exciting flavoursome and drinkable brews, but then maybe it indicative of a backlash against the bland offerings of the big Internationals and the old guard family brewers.
    However the boom is not sustainable without outlets. The few free houses, that may be doing well, are just that few. As the leased and tied pubs shut with increasing frequency, 26 a week at the last count, and demolished or made into Tesco metros, bookies or flats the boom will be in serious danger of bust.

    The award winning Alma at Islington being the latest and most public casualty of Pubco greed.
    http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2013/nov/08/battle-to-save-alma-great-british-pubs
    http://petebrown.blogspot.co.uk/2013/10/tackling-thorny-topic-of-pubco-tie-it.html
    http://www.battleforthealma-n1.com/

    Unfortunately unless these micros wake up and realise they need a good supply of public houses to sell their brews and support reform and regulation as proposed by http://www.fairdealforyourlocal.com/ then I am afraid these halcyon days for real ale drinkers and brewers alike may well be numbered.
    They need MRO and Pubco reform as much as any Publican.

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