Brown's beer: London's bubbling brewing industry

How a tiny tax break kick-started the capital’s microbreweries

The nice thing about making beer is that anyone can do it: brewing is a naturally occurring process.

The world’s first beer was probably the result of some grain collected in a basket or pot, that was allowed to get wet, started to germinate, and was attacked by wild yeasts that fermented the sugar in the grain into alcohol. 

Yeah, you can filter out the grain husks, add flavourings such as hops and filter it for clarity if you want to get all technical, but that’s it: at its simplest, that’s how beer is made.

For most of our history, brewing was a household activity: housewives baked bread and made beer as part of their everyday chores. The best ones began to specialise and turned their homes into alehouses. Then the industrial revolution happened, and it became cheaper for alehouses to buy beer from large brewers utilising economies of scale than brew it themselves.

“In 2002, possibly the last brilliant thing Gordon Brown ever did was to introduce Progressive Beer Duty (PBD)”

But for some, quality is more important than price. Small-scale brewers can experiment in a basement or garage and, if they’re serious about it, create beer that has nothing whatsoever with the foul, green stuff you and I created with a Boots-bought homebrew kit in the earlier eighties. 

Many of them get so good at it, they can give up the day job and brew enough beer to sell to a few local pubs.

In 2002, possibly the last brilliant thing Gordon Brown ever did was to introduce Progressive Beer Duty (PBD).

We have the second most punitive beer duty rates in the whole of Europe, but PBD introduced a sliding scale whereby smallest brewers pay a fraction of what the biggest pay. Small scale brewing suddenly became a viable business opportunity, and the number of breweries in Britain began to grow. Now, we have more than 800 – more than at any time since before the Second World War.

“But the property slump that arrived with the credit crunch changed all that, and since 2008 London microbreweries have been popping up like mushrooms across the capital”

The problem for Londoners was, it didn’t happen here.

Commercial brewing, even on a small scale, requires a fair bit of space, and even with low beer duty, margins on a pint are slim – many small brewers have to use their duty windfall to lower prices to compete with the economies of scale of the big boys. So while microbrewers exploded across the country, there were virtually none in a capital city infamous for its eye-watering property prices.

But the property slump that arrived with the credit crunch changed all that, and since 2008 London microbreweries have been popping up like mushrooms across the capital. Three have opened in east London in the space of as many months. 

From just two brewers operating in London in 2006 – Fuller’s in Chiswick and Meantime in Greenwich – we’re looking at as many as twenty London brewers by the end of 2011.

“While the people behind breweries like Camden, Sambrooks, and Windsor & Eton are obviously passionate about beer, they are also, first and foremost, entrepreneurs and business people”

The most interesting part of this for me is the wonderful flavours these brewers are creating. London has long been a great market for interesting beer, absorbing influences from around the world, as London always does. So these new brewers are coming out of the traps more experimentally, more innovatively, than the vast majority of their provincial rivals. 

The poster boy for this movement is Evin O’Riordan, who founded the Kernel Brewery at Tower Bridge in 2010 and has since been salivated and swooned over by just about every food and drink focused publication in the capital. 

His beers began winning awards almost before the paint dried on the brewery walls. He’s a big fan of American craft beers and their use of big, bold, tropical fruit flavoured hops, but seems to have an almost supernatural understanding of how these flavours will work in strong beers.

His cool, minimalist packaging means his creations are as adored by hipsters in Dalston pop-up bars as much as they are by beer geeks in Borough market, and his only problem now is trying to figure out how to meet demand.

But there’s a second interesting point here too. Evin’s brewery is currently on a very small scale – though this arrangement can’t possibly last. Some of his fellow London brewers (you can’t really call them competitors) have started in a much bigger way. 

While the people behind breweries like Camden, Sambrooks, and Windsor & Eton are obviously passionate about beer, they are also, first and foremost, entrepreneurs and business people. 

Their past histories working in big business, and the amount of money invested in their breweries, shows that this is not just about giving up the day job – it’s about level-headed business people running the numbers and concluding that there is good money in brewing good beer, that this supposedly moribund market offers good profit potential. 

Because while Foster’s drinkers grumble at the price of their pint breaking £3, craft beer drinkers are very happy to pay over £4 for, say, a pint of Camden Pale Ale.

This column will focus more on London’s individual craft brewers in weeks to come. 

But in the meantime, check out your local – and if they’re not stocking local, you might want to drop them a hint.

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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