Brown's beer: Brewpubs, pizzerias and graffiti

Pete Brown writes of the non-Olympic revolution taking place next door to the stadium

“IMAGINE IF YOU WOKE UP TOMORROW AND ALL MUSIC this s*it HAS DISAPPEARED.”

The graffiti on the towpath beneath the road bridge has itself been graffitied. 

Originally part of former KLF man Bill Drummond’s latest situationist art project, it now expresses the feelings of the discontented elements of Hackney Wick. 

The Olympic stadium dominates the skyline, glowing like a spaceship against the leaden sky. The road bridge itself is bollarded and fenced off, denied to the residents, ready for the VIPs.  A dour industrial estate stands silent and shuttered by the side of the road, deserted… except for one unit. 

Not everyone in Hackney Wick is unhappy. 

By the algae-covered River Lea, light spills out into the dusk and people spill out onto the bank. Several hundred hipsters are chatting loudly, quaffing beer and eating pizza. Neil Hinchley, one of the co-proprietors of the site, shakes his head and says, “We don’t know where they came from.  We don’t know how they found out about us, but we’re glad they did.” 

Tonight is supposedly the press opening of Crate, London’s newest brewery. But Hinchley tells me the place has already been mobbed for nearly a week now. “We opened on Saturday just for friends, to try things out. And the bar was five deep!” 

When the latest opening hits East London these days, word travels fast.

After the closure of Young’s in 2006, London had a mere two breweries. This was embarrassing for a city that is not only one of the world’s biggest, and likes to think it’s pretty cool at everything, but was once also the world capital of brewing – something few Londoners today are even be aware of, given the total absence of commemoration of its great lost breweries. 

I was in the town of Boulder, Colorado, when Young’s closed. Boulder has about 115,000 inhabitants and at that time had fifteen breweries. You can see why I was aghast at the stats.

Weirdly, it seemed to be the recession that helped kick-start London’s brewing revolution. Given the relatively low margins on beer, renting an industrial unit in London to brew it simply didn’t makes financial sense before 2008. But by the end of that year, rents had fallen and the first of London’s new microbreweries were already starting to appear.

As they proliferated, I made it my mission to keep track of them all, to visit and write about their beers. Pretty soon, I lost track. People would ask me what I thought about a new brewery, and I wouldn’t have heard of them. A quick check today reveals that the London Brewers’ Alliance has 28 members on its homepage – and that’s not including this latest addition.

The two things I like most about Crate are: (1) they invited me to their opening night; and (2) they remind me very much of those microbreweries out in Colorado. 

One thing American craft brewers seem to do much better than we do over here is present themselves. Invariably, when you turn up at a US micro you’re shown into the visitor’s centre. This may only be a small office or reception area in the unit, but it will have a few tables and chairs and a bar. You’ll be offered a sample tray of the beers, or just the chance to sit down with a pint.  Brewery memorabilia such as T-shirts and posters will be on sale, and overall you just get a feel for the brewery and what it’s all about.

Over here, there seems to be an assumption that people aren’t interested in this nonsense: that if you love the beers a brewery makes, there’s absolutely no question of you wanting to visit the brewery that makes them and find out a little bit more. 

This goes not only for micros – who to be fair are often working flat out just to brew the beer to meet demand and have no time to think about frippery – but for medium-sized and large breweries too. Some historic ones do have visitors’ centres, and some of these are excellent. But often you have to make an appointment to see them. More often, a query about visiting will be met by a puzzled ‘no’.

One step up from this model in the US is the brewpub or pizzeria. 

We have plenty of brewpubs dotted up and down the country, and a couple of excellent examples – such as Kew’s Botanist – within London. But it’s far from the norm for us to put brewing and retail together. And when we do, it’s invariably an ordinary pub with a brewery that may or may not be visible out the back. (The Botanist is a notable exception, in that it combines pub and brewery quite beautifully into one, and punters can even help out with the brewing process.)

But we don’t really do the pizzeria thing. Why should we? Well, because beer and pizza go together beautifully. Pizza Port in California is a pizza restaurant that started brewing its own beer.  The beers started winning so many prizes they became nationally famous, and were even on the bar over here in Leather Lane’s Craft Beer Co last time I went in. Dogfish Head, one of the most admired and pioneering US craft brewers, opened a brewpub and pizzeria where the yeast from the beer is used in the pizza dough, and the whole thing feels wonderfully symbiotic.

And that’s what sets Crate apart: in the newly renovated White Building (an ‘artistic space’ that was once a derelict factory playing host to the occasional all night rave), the pizza oven is tantalisingly visible from the bar. Sensibly, they’ve kicked off with a limited range from the brewery while it settles in. Hinchley brews a solid golden ale at 3.8% and an IPA at 5.8%. The rest of the beers available are very well chosen to represent British and international craft beer – not the biggest range, but you don’t need too many when you cover all the bases as thoughtfully as this. 

And the pizza is excellent. Quirky ingredients, combinations and influences leave American Hot as a distant memory. And like the beers, with pizza this good, you won’t be complaining that the menu is limited.

London is brewing some outstanding beers at the moment. Hopefully soon we’ll see more brewers creating even more imaginative ways to bring the public closer to the brewery itself, creating more of an experience to go with the beer. 

If anyone is thinking of opening a brewpub curry house, please hurry up – I’ll be there when you unlock the doors.

 

Pete Brown is one of the UK’s leading beer writers, working across business and consumer press. He’s the author of several best-selling books and blogs at petebrown.blogspot.com. He was recently named joint-37th most influential person in the British pub industry – a claim he strenuously denies.

 

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