They say…

Des de Moor
Best beer and travel writing award 2015, 2011 -- British Guild of Beer Writers Awards
Writer of "Probably the best book about beer in London" - Londonist
"A necessity if you're a beer geek travelling to London town" - Beer Advocate
"A joy to read" - Roger Protz
"Very authoritative" - Tim Webb.
"One of the top beer writers in the UK" - Mark Dredge.
"A beer guru" - Popbitch.

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From the cellar: Castle Eden Special Ale

Trophy Special, as brewed in Castle Eden.

Trophy Special, as brewed in Castle Eden.

ABV: 5.5%
Origin: Castle Eden, Durham, England
Website: www.cameronsbrewery.com
Date: 7 September 2000

Another review from the archive written for the pioneering Oxford Bottled Beer Database (OBBD). I’ve left it uncorrected — so please read it in that historical spirit.

The history of Castle Eden, before and since, is rather tangled. Founded in 1827, it was acquired by Whitbread in 1963, and saved by a management buyout when threatened with closure in 1998, as mentioned in the review. Whitbread retained the brands, which it licensed back to the new owner. In 2002, however, the brewery was closed anyway when the owning company bought out another historic brewery, Camerons in Hartlepool, and relocated all production there.

The Hartlepool brewery was known for a while as Castle Eden & Camerons but the Castle Eden brands disappeared completely between 2009 and 2013 following a dispute with current owners AB InBev on the renewal of the license. Today, Camerons is once again brewing cask best bitter Castle Eden Ale, plus a keg 4% version of Trophy, though under the Camerons name.

The County Durham brewery recently regained its independence through a management buyout when threatened with closure by Whitbread, and as a farewell present from the big brewer the staff were each presented with a bottle of commemorative pale ale based on Whitbread’s Trophy Special recipe. Now the brewery is making a similar – unfortunately pasteurised – beer, available commercially through outlets like Tesco, in a rather handsome old-fashioned bottle.

The beer has a delicate, faintly spicy hop aroma, and a firm, fruity malt palate with a touch of wood and slight hints of ginger biscuit that are unfortunately rather obscured by over-carbonation. Hop bitterness, ginger and pepper spice linger in a warming finish. Pleasant and well-made but not as special as all that.

From the cellar: Boon Winter

Your fanmail to Frank Boon arrives here.

Your fanmail to Frank Boon arrives here.

ABV: 5%
Origin: Lembeek, Vlaams-Brabant, Vlaanderen
Website: www.boon.be
Date: 7 September 2000

Another review from the archive written for the pioneering Oxford Bottled Beer Database (OBBD). I’ve left it uncorrected — so please read it in that historical spirit. This particular beer is something of a mystery as I’ve never been able to find another reference to it since and haven’t been able to confirm the ABV. I suspect it was a one-off strong Faro that Boon racked into cask for a CAMRA festival. If anyone can shed any light on it, I’d be grateful.

This seasonal line from the renowned lambic brewer based in Lembeek, Frank Boon, was on sale at the Catford Beer Festival 2000, emerging foaming from a cask and having to be left in the fridge in a jug to settle. It’s an extremely unusual beer that seems to be in an idiosyncratic category of its own, probably best described as an intensely-flavoured cross between a brown ale and a Faro (it bears some similarity to Boon’s highly distinctive ‘double Faro’, Pertotale).

It had a sourish, hoppy bouquet, a fine bead, and a whole spectrum of intriguing flavours in the mouth, from brown sugar on the tongue through fruity, sourish hints of cherry and blackberry to a long finish alternating between sweet and refreshingly sour, with hints of herbal hops.  The sourness indicated a lambic presence, but I’d suspect there was a more conventional dark ale in there too, as well as spices and some sort of sweetening.  If you like your beers dark and interesting, you’ll love this.

From the cellar: Berliner Kindl Original Weisse mit Schuss, Waldmeister

Berliner Kindl Weissbier mit Schuss Waldmesiter

Berliner Kindl Weissbier mit Schuss Waldmesiter

ABV: 2.5%
Origin: Berlin, Germany
Website: www.berliner-kindl.de
Date: 6 September 2000

Another review from the archive written for the pioneering Oxford Bottled Beer Database (OBBD), where it required webmasters Tom and Jasper to create a new ‘beer colour’ symbol in green! I’ve left it uncorrected — so please read it in that historical spirit.

There have been major changes with Berliner Kindl since this review was written. Its owner the Oetker group (known at the time of the review as Binding) grew to take over its longstanding rival Schultheiss, and in 2006 its historic West Berlin brewery in Neukölln was closed, though it’s still standing as a listed building and a microbrewery operates on part of the site. Brewing for both brands is now concentrated at a plant in another suburb, Alt-Hohenschönhausen.

Even more remarkably, Berliner Weisse has undergone an unexpected revival largely outside its home city, with beers inspired by the style, some of them rather loosely, part of the regular repertoire of craft brewers worldwide.

The Berlin style of wheat beer is one of the world’s most unusual and hardest-to-find beer styles. Only two breweries in Berlin, Schultheiss and Kindl, still produce it, and although it still has a reasonable local following, it is rarely seen outside its home territory even in Germany. Kindl, the largest producer, is part of the Binding group and seems to have been a little more visible lately with a small presence at a handful of beer festivals in Britain.  Now some of its beers have turned up on the shelves of Bottles, the [long since closed] specialist beer shop in Stepney, East London.

Unfortunately they’re not the pure product: this very sour, lactic beer is almost invariably served in Berlin pubs with a ‘Schuss’, a dash of raspberry or Waldmeister syrup, and Bottles have only the ready-mixed versions, already flavoured with syrup, which the brewery produces for home convenience.  The Waldmeister variety is flavoured with the herb woodruff, which grows wild around Berlin. The drink boasts one of the most shockingly unexpected colours ever to have emerged from a beer bottle, a lurid green that would look more at home garnishing a 99 from your local Mr Whippy ice cream van! The syrup colours the head as well, although this lasted only briefly and was not as thick as the photos I’ve seen of the draught version.

The aroma is restrained and barley-sugar sweet, with a faint hint of hops (added, according to the label, as extract) and a dry, slightly medicinal scent from the woodruff.  The taste is initially honey-sweet and faintly herby, soft in the mouth with restrained carbonation, then an intriguing sourness rapidly emerges that is quite unlike any other sour beer I’ve tried.  The finish is gentle, initially apple-citric but mellowing into boiled sweets and traces of the herb. If it’s conventional beer you’re after, you will probably be disappointed at how any recognisably beer-like qualities are obscured by the added syrup, but at such a low gravity, it’s probably better to enjoy this one more as an interesting and unusual adult semi-soft drink.

From the cellar: Duyck Jenlain No. 6 (Bière Blonde Spéciale)

Jenlain, Nord-Pas-de-Calais, France

Jenlain, Nord-Pas-de-Calais, France

ABV: 6%
Origin: Jenlain, Nord, Nord-Pas-de-Calais, France
Website: www.jenlain.fr
Date: 14 August 2000

Another review from the archive written for the pioneering Oxford Bottled Beer Database (OBBD). I’ve left it uncorrected — so please read it in that historical spirit. Another beer and brewery that are still very much around, although sadly no longer stocked in Sainsbury’s. When I reviewed this beer it was labelled Bière Blonde Spéciale — in 2005 it was renamed No. 6, and a new stronger 7.5% Jenlain Blonde introduced.

The Jenlain brand is one of the best-known amongst bières de garde, the Duyck brewery having pioneered the re-marketing of the style in the 1980s. This blond variety has recently appeared in Sainsbury’s in a redesigned, very distinctive screw-top green glass bottle with a clear printed label that departs dramatically from the ‘traditional’ retro style in which such beers usually appear and approaches the aesthetics of alcopop marketing!

The beer inside, however, is reassuringly good. Though sharing the colour and something of the hop character of a pils-type lager, and recommended to be served cold (5-6°C), the designation ‘Spéciale’ and the notably honeyed fruitiness of the taste suggest a top-fermented brew.

The beer has an extraordinarily perfumed, honeyed nose that makes the taste that follows a minor disappointment: a soft, sweetish, slightly bland malt palate, with full but not overstated hay-dry hop character (Saaz?), and a good honeyed fruit finish with some hop and faint pineapple notes. It’s primarily a refresher, and, as beers of this type go, not overstrong, but it has enough complexity to sustain interest over a more considered swallow.

From the cellar: Saint-Sylvestre Le Gavroche

stsylvestregavrocheABV: 8.5%
Origin: Saint-Sylvestre-Cappel, Nord, Nord-Pas-de-Calais, France
Website: http://www.brasserie-st-sylvestre.com/
Date: 14 August 2000

Another review from the archive written for the Oxford Bottled Beer Database (OBBD), a pioneering crowd-sourced beer review website founded in 1992, and predating the likes of Ratebeer and Beer Advocate. I’ve left it uncorrected — so please read it in that historical spirit. Another beer and brewery that are still very much around, although almost impossible to buy in the UK these days. What I didn’t pick up was that the name is a nod to Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables.

This beer, another top-fermented, bottle-conditioned treat from the brewery responsible for one of the very best artisanal bières de garde of French Flanders, Trois Monts, was on sale at the Great British Beer Festival 2000. The festival notes described it as ‘very rare’ and certainly I can’t find any reference to it in my own sources, so perhaps it’s a new line.

The name, which for British people will most likely bring to mind a very posh French restaurant in London, is actually the slang term for a 19th century Parisian street urchin, and the packaging has an old-fashioned feel.

The beer itself is deep amber, and the label recommends it is poured carefully, presumably without the sediment: my example came out cloudy from the start, but tasted none the worse for it. It has a dry, crisply malty, almost papery aroma with the faintest hint of floral hop on first pouring.

The condition is very lively, and the beer pours with a beady and very sustained head. It has a smooth, creamy mouth feel and a very firm, malty and initially slightly sweet body reminiscent of a Scottish ‘wee heavy’, but a notably full bitterness soon develops and lingers, with an almondy character I’ve noticed in the brewery’s standard-issue Trois Monts. The finish is clean and bitter, with pleasant malt and hints of apricot. The label suggests serving at 10-12°C but I noticed that as the beer warmed it gave up more fruit and slightly spicy hop flavours. Overall, an imposing, ‘serious’ beer that gives the impression of subscribing to the ‘quality’ values of the past.

From the cellar: ‘t IJ Paasij

ij-general-w300ABV: 7%
Origin: Amsterdam, Noord-Holland, Netherlands
Website: www.brouwerijhetij.nl
Date: 7 August 2000

Another review from the archive written for the Oxford Bottled Beer Database (OBBD), a pioneering crowd-sourced beer review website founded in 1992, and predating the likes of Ratebeer and Beer Advocate. I’ve left it uncorrected — so please read it in that historical spirit. Interestingly I focused on the hops which are modest by today’s standards, though this was one of the earliest hop-forward beers in contemporary Dutch brewing.  Brouwerij ‘t IJ is still very much with us, though it’s expanded from its original site under a windmill on Funenkade to a production brewery on Zeeburgerpad. In September 2015, it entered into a partnership with Belgian ‘new national’ brewer Duvel-Moortgat.

This, one of the renowned Amsterdam brewpub’s seasonal brews, cropped up at the Catford Beer Festival 2000.  As usual, the name is a pun on the similar sounds of the Dutch word ‘ei’ meaning egg and ‘t Ij, the name of the watercourse overlooked by the brewery itself.  ‘Paasei’ is an Easter egg and the characteristic diamond shaped label comes complete with a drawing of an easter bunny that appears to have an egg swelling out of its chest.

The beer has a light citric hoppy aroma, slightly phenolic, with a rich dark orange-grapefruit palate, turning intensely hoppy. The finish at first is slightly sweet and sherbety but soon becomes mouth-numbing with an onslaught of lingering bitter hop.  The hops are so intense that they arguably knock the balance out slightly, since despite its strength the beer doesn’t have quite enough body to support them. Nonetheless, another intriguing and characterful brew from a very reliable source.

From the cellar: Guinness Foreign Extra Stout (Nigeria)

ABV: 8%
Origin: Ikeja, Nigeria
Website: www.guinness.com
Date: 7 August 2000

This was my first ever published bottled beer review, written for the Oxford Bottled Beer Database (OBBD), a pioneering crowd-sourced beer review website founded in 1992, and predating the likes of Ratebeer and Beer Advocate. I’ll gradually be archiving my reviews from the site here, generally uncorrected — so please read them in that historical spirit. Thanks to Tom and Jasper of Sparks Computer Solutions, who founded OBBD and made the text available to me.

Nigerian Guinness, now politically correct too.

Nigerian Guinness, now politically correct too.

Guinness has three outposts in Nigeria: this example was from Ikeja. Working ‘under close supervision’ of the St James Gate brewery, they produce a blend of a light local beer (bottom fermenting?) with a stronger liquid brewed locally using concentrate sent from Dublin which bears more than a passing resemblance to Foreign Extra Stout.

The result isn’t half bad, not only stronger but much more complex and interesting than the rather dull ‘Original’ that’s become the standard-issue bottled Guinness in mainland Britain. It’s widely available from local shops in places with a significant West African population and the bottle even wears on its neck the classic slogan “Guinness is Good For You”, long since banned in countries with more delicate sensibilites.

The contents has a pronounced creamy, estery aroma of banana and solvents, a full burnt malt palate with some refreshing citric fruit and faint horse blanket notes (the residue, perhaps, of the <I>Brettanomyces</i> that inhabits St James Gate’s legendary wooden maturing vessels), and a very fresh mouthfeel for its strength. There are lingering delicate hops, bitter chocolate and ash in a pleasingly long finish. If only they’d bottle condition a beer of this complexity.

From the cellar: Buying bottled beer in 2005

Beers of Europe

Beers of Europe

My original intention was to use this blog to archive pieces that previously appeared elsewhere. I’ve stalled a little in implementing this plan, but now is the time to return to it. I’m starting with this piece which first appeared over ten years ago, in the November 2005 issue of BEERback then a tabloid-style insert within What’s Brewing. Although I’d contributed bottled beer reviews to WB since 2002, this was the first feature I was commissioned to write about beer, and I’m grateful to then-editor Ted Bruning who asked for it.

I haven’t attempted to update it, but left it as a reminder of how much has changed in not much more than a decade — or not. Despite the ‘craft revolution’, improvements in the beer offer of major supermarkets have been miniscule, though at least Oddbins has rediscovered beer, and with a vengeance. Though Fabeers, livingbeer.com and Only Fine Beer have gone, specialist retailers now proliferate, including those offering curated cases. And I’m glad to say Beers of Europe and Beer Ritz are still very much with us. The upward trend of bottled beer’s market share has certainly persisted: in 2015 it topped draught for the first time in the UK, and is currently around 51% of overall volume.

In Mike Leigh’s classic TV play Abigail’s Party, monstrous hostess Beverly dispatches her weedy husband Laurence to fetch “light ales and lagers” for their little social gathering, thus pretty much summing up the choice for home beer drinkers back in 1977. Those were the days when over 80% of beer was drunk in pubs, and domestic social events were the only respectable justification for a carry-out. Brown ale and barley wine might have been on offer too, though these would have been far too déclassé for the pretentious Laurence.

How times change. Against a trend of overall decline in beer sales in the UK, off-trade sales now stand at 40% and rising. Off-sales have been driven mainly by the big supermarkets with their price cutting and marketing clout. As a beer enthusiast living in inner city south London, with branches of Tesco, Sainsburys, Asda, Morrisons and Waitrose within easy reach, I should surely be spoilt for choice. So why do I still feel disappointed with supermarket beer? And what are the alternatives?

Brand value? Tesco Value Bitter. Pic: Ewan Munro, Wikimedia Creative Commons.

Brand value? Tesco Value Bitter. Pic: Ewan Munro, Wikimedia Creative Commons.

Supermarket beer ranges look dazzlingly extensive at first glance but on closer inspection turn out to be rather restricted and predictable. Much of the shelf space is taken up by mass market multipacks, and while I confess to having a morbid interest in 2.1% ABV Tesco Value Bitter at 51p a litre, it’s not the sort of thing you’d want to match with Rochefort 10 in a comparative tasting.

More space is now given over to British speciality ales, but often from the same usual suspects: Greene King, W&D, Wychwood, Badger, Fullers and the like, most likely filtered and/or pasteurised. The lack of a varied range of British real ale in a bottle continues to dog supermarket beer listings: the few you will find are the same old strong pale ales, with imported beers like Hoegaarden and Duvel sometimes making up more than half of the live yeast quotient.

Sainsbury’s are about the best of the big chains at the moment thanks to a bigger than usual real range and their support for the likes of Meantime, though sadly their “CAMRA says this is Real Ale” shelf tags always seem to be placed in front of filtered beers. Tesco might be the biggest chain but they’re now arguably the most disappointing for beer hunting. Their beer challenge has a fine track record of lauding imaginative specialities, though few seem to survive beyond their initial guaranteed listing period.

Waitrose don’t do badly, though most of their real beers are imports like Anchor Steam and Westmalle. Asda have some less common BCAs and a few filtered specialities that are worth drinking. Safeway’s formerly impressive range is much reduced since it was swallowed up by Morrisons: the latter has just launched a new range of imported specialities although these are mainly InBev and ScotCo brands. The Coop commissions beers from Freeminer with exemplary labelling, but the selection is often small. And Booths is still supermarket beer heaven if you’re lucky enough to live in northwest England, but my nearest is 188 miles away.

If this seems like carping, you only have to look at the next aisle to see what things could be like: vast metres of wine from all over the world, from bargain basement to Grand Cru Classé, with grading systems, food matching suggestions and detailed tasting notes. And you can bet there’s not an Aussie fizz mislabelled as a champagne amongst them.

Since Oddbins lost interest, high street chains are now even less inspiring than supermarkets for beer hunters. Specialist beer shops are even less accessible to most of us than Booths. And while good local beer is popping up increasingly at farmers’ markets and delis, the range and variety here is self-limiting. So where to turn?

The answer is, as they say, merely a mouse click away: internet mail order has made it viable for specialist suppliers to reach a significant but scattered clientele of dedicated enthusiasts. At least half a dozen reliable websites allow you to hand pick bottles from an extensive selection which are delivered securely packed for a charge of around a fiver a case.

Only Fine Beer offers one of the biggest ranges on the web. Owner Gavin Preston took over a neighbourhood off license in East London in 1995, and started stocking then-rare Leffe. Customers asked if he could get other Belgian beers too, and eventually obscure Wallonian craft brews crowded out the cans of Stella and packets of fags. Gavin started selling on the web in 1997. The shop moved from London to Chelmsford in 2003 but it’s now the tip of a mail order and internet sales iceberg.

A range of around 1,100 lines majors on Britain, Belgium and Germany. There are plenty of BCAs from small British independents, and the Belgian choice has gone way beyond Leffe, with some classy lambics and even the rare Westvleteren trappist brews. The German selection is better than most you’ll find in Germany.

These are joined by serious beers from several other countries, artisanal ciders and perries and what Gavin calls “holiday beers”, pale international-style lagers of little interest to most CAMRA members but eagerly sought after by people hoping to recapture the taste of a favourite destination. He’s had the occasional email from beer snobs complaining about these, but they’re a major part of the business: lines like the Greek Mythos sell by the caseload and help make it possible to keep the more connoisseur-friendly beers. Customers are becoming more discriminating but, says Gavin, “they still baulk at high prices for beer and don’t see why they should have to pay for quality”.

Beers of Europe, now home of Britain’s biggest online range at 1400 lines, opened in 2001, a combined warehouse and shop inspired by the big beer supermarkets of mainland Europe. The website arrived soon afterwards but the shop still accounts for a good third of the turnover – surprisingly for somewhere tucked away down a country lane in a village just outside King’s Lynn. “Some people make us their excuse to have a holiday in Norfolk,” says owner Derek Clark.

Again Britain, Belgium and Germany are the mainstays but the range has expanded far beyond even the boundaries of Europe despite the company name. The choice is perhaps slightly less interesting than OFB but there are plenty of gems, including a good line in fine East Anglian BCAs, unfiltered Franconian lagers and a strong choice of hard-to-find French bières de garde. And there’s a list of holiday beers to do a travel agent proud.

Keeping such a big range means putting a lot of time into dealing with small brewers, not always the easiest occupation. “They’re the same breed as artists,” says Derek. “They’re not businessmen! But it’s usually worth having to chase an order a few times if the product’s good.” Their customers have always been a discriminating bunch, he says, and the good news is there are now more of them.

One hazard of web shopping is items going out of stock at short notice: with speciality lines in small quantities it’s difficult to predict sales, and someone unexpectedly buying three cases can clear the shelves. I like to pick my own mixed cases but I’m apparently atypical, since single beer cases are an important part of the trade: many drinkers find their favourites and stick to them, or let the supplier do the choosing by putting together preselected cases.

A few companies specialise in this case-based trade, including livingbeer.com which stocks only bottle conditioned British beers, with a list of over 100 beers that reads like a roll-call of the Good Bottled Beer Guide. At the moment you either have to order a case of each or go for one of owner Nigel Barker’s well-chosen, themed mixed cases, a limitation of the software the site uses.

Nigel, a former marketing man, was inspired by the pride the French take in their small wine producers on a visit to a Beaujolais chateau, and came back determined to do something similar for British beer. He sells entirely through the web, and wholesale to pubs whom he assists in mounting mini bottled beer festivals. Much of his custom comes from people, often women, buying mixed cases as gifts, and the recipient will often follow up by ordering a case of one particular favourite.

“It’s early days”, says Nigel, “but people are waking up to the fact that there’s more to beer than fizzy chilled stuff. To a certain extent that’s been driven by the supermarkets, even though their range is quite limited. But there are more and more brewers, and most of them are innovating, so it’s an exciting and dynamic time.” He says his policy of stocking as many British bottled real ales as he can find goes against the grain of the “less is more” philosophy that was drilled into him in his marketing days, but in a niche market customers appreciate genuine choice.

Many of the smaller specialist beer shops also have a web presence and will do mail order, although few run to full scale internet shopping: you can read their list online, but you’ll have to phone them up to make the order. One exception is Fabeers in York, with a range of around 700 including several small brewers from the north of England.

Vahe Nersessian opened his city centre shop in 1998, motivated by a personal interest in speciality beers acquired while living in Belgium. The website was added two years ago and though the shop is still the mainstay the internet trade is growing. It would grow faster, he says, if he could afford more advertising to promote it.

With seven supermarkets around the York ring road, Vahe wisely concentrates on a specialist market where expertise and the personal touch makes a difference: he could move to web sales and reduce his overheads with an out-of-town warehouse, but he’d lose the contact with customers. “Information is valuable”, says Vahe, after breaking off to give expert advice to customers on everything from strawberry-flavoured beers to German schnapps.

That personal interest and enthusiasm is something that drives all the specialist suppliers I spoke to: the challenge they face is retaining this and communicating it to the consumer while exploiting the economic advantages of the potentially impersonal world of internet sales. The personal touch is something that the supermarkets can’t offer, and something caring customers can appreciate and support. As Derek Clark says, “people who drink good beer are the salt of the earth – they tend to be nice people too.”

Porters, peers and pilgrims 2016: Beer heritage walks in August

The old Truman Black Eagle brewery in Brick Lane. Pic: Christine Matthews for Geograph. Creative Commons license.

The old Truman Black Eagle brewery in Brick Lane. Pic: Christine Matthews for Geograph. Creative Commons license.

Saturday 6 August 2016, 1030hrs
Sunday 14 August 2016, 1030hrs

This year there are two opportunities to join me during the week of the Great British Beer Festival and London Beer City for a fascinating walking tour of London’s brewery heritage and numerous other historic sites, through the City, Spitalfields and the East End, across Tower Bridge and along Bankside.

Discover the sites of Whitbread, the original Truman’s, the perfection of porter at St Katharine’s Dock, Courage on the riverside and Barclay Perkins by Shakespeare’s Globe, finishing at the celebrated George Inn, the Borough’s last historic coaching inn, near London Bridge and numerous other beer venues. A great way to celebrate London’s beer renaissance by reminding ourselves of its illustrious brewing past.

A leisurely walk of approximately five miles (8 km) taking about three hours. Note this walk visits heritage sites, not working breweries. Charge: £10 per person.

Meet at Old Street Underground/National Rail station (downstairs by ticket hall), London EC1Y 1BE. Finishes at the George Inn, 77 Borough High Street SE1 1NH, near London Bridge station.

To ensure your place, book a ticket in advance through London Beer City. Places are limited and this walk is often popular.

See also the Facebook events page.

Picture credit: Christine Matthews for Geograph, under a Creative Commons license.

London update: brewing in the shadow of the multinationals

Brewhouse and Kitchen Highbury: a newer, bigger kit than originally planned in one of London's newest brewpubs.

Brewhouse and Kitchen Highbury: a newer, bigger kit than originally planned in one of London’s newest brewpubs.

It’s now a year since the main text of the latest edition of The CAMRA Guide to London’s Best Beer, Pubs and Bars was finalised, and speciality brewing in the city continues to expand. The most obvious marker of this, and the one that’s grabbed the headlines over the past year, is the hitherto unprecedented, and not universally welcomed, appearance of multinationals with chequebooks at the ready.

The first evidence of this was SAB-Miller’s acquisition of Meantime in May 2015, just in time to squeeze into the guide. The deal was met with some concern and dismay, but no great surprise as Meantime had long been one of the most commercially-minded London micros and its CEO was actually a former executive of the South African-US combine. What Meantime might not have been expecting, though, was that before the year was out, SAB-Miller itself would be swallowed by the world’s biggest brewer, Brazilian-Belgian-US behemoth Anheuser-Busch InBev.

There was considerably more reaction to the news just before Christmas that Camden Town Brewery, which began in the cellar of a Hampstead pub as recently as 2006, had also sold out to AB InBev. Social media turned purple with the rage of beer fans who had considered the Kentish Town-based brewer one of their own, including numerous crowd funders for whom an offer to buy back their shares at an impressive 70% return could not offset their feelings of betrayal.

It was one of those occasions where the vision of a brewery as a social institution with stakeholders beyond the directors and shareholders, and the reality of a business that needs to expand to meet demand while continuing to pay salaries and dividends, seemed irreconcilable.

London now even has a brewery in a recycled shipping container: 40FT in Dalston.

London now even has a brewery in a recycled shipping container: 40FT in Dalston.

Personally, though I didn’t expect the opportunity to arise quite so quickly, I wasn’t at all surprised that Camden Town seized it. Brewery founder Jasper Cuppaidge is a smart, enterprising and effective businessman who has worked hard to build the reputation of his beers, and there’s no shame in wanting to reap the rewards. I’m sure he’s doing what he thinks is best to secure the ongoing success of his company.

I’m also not too concerned, at least for the moment, for the immediate survival of both breweries, nor for the quality of their beer. We are no longer in the 20th century, when big brewers bought smaller ones primarily for their pubs, as a way of expanding their market share under the tied house system.

Multinationals like AB InBev have been thrown by the international craft beer movement. Though the craft sector is still small, it’s important and high-value. The big boys know they need a presence, but with their mass-market brands and plants geared to mammoth production runs, they are poorly placed to gain one. So they are buying up more efficient and marketing-savvy smaller brewers to do it for them. Too much ‘dumbing down’ of these brewers’ products would be counter-productive; indeed, with additional investment, we might even see quality and consistency go up.

More concerning is the way that global capital inevitably treats the companies themselves as exchangeable commodities. Following the SAB-Miller deal, AB InBev knew it would face challenges from monopolies regulators, so announced it would take a ‘pro-active’ approach by selling off some of the assets of the combined group, including its partnership with Molson Coors in the US.

Though it’s highly unlikely the regulators would be bothered by the multinational owning more than one small London producer, Meantime was duly packaged up with Groslch and Peroni and placed in the shop window. After some speculation that a non-brewing investment fund would be tempted, the three breweries were finally sold to Asahi, the first time one of the big Japanese brewers has got involved in the UK and Europe. This sort of pass-the-parcel is the norm at this level of business, and it adds uncertainty to both breweries’ futures.

One of the most welcome 'graduations' from cuckoo to fully-fledged brewery: Bullfinch in Herne Hill.

One of the most welcome ‘graduations’ from cuckoo to fully-fledged brewery: Bullfinch in Herne Hill.

Meanwhile, most London breweries continue to expand whatever their size, with Moncada and Redemption among those in the midst of long-needed upgrades. The startup rate has definitely slowed, though, and the brewery total in my latest update is down to 75 from 78 last July: a handful of closures include the last remnant of the 1970s Big Seven in London at the Stag, Mortlake, and a number of would-be brewpubs that evidently found it easier to sell other people’s beer.

But still new breweries continue to appear in long-dry locations, like Husk in Silvertown and Reunion in Feltham, while Bullfinch in Herne Hill is surely the most welcome recent graduation from a beer firm to a fully-fledged brewery. This update also acknowledges several new brands appearing since Bermondsey’s communal brewhouse Ubrew finally got its license.

The variety and quality of beer in London’s pubs, bars, restaurants and shops continues to grow too. Several bottle shops are adding new branches, and the increasing presence of a few interesting London-brewed bottles and cans on informal dining menus suggests the capital might yet reach the point where good local beer is taken for granted. So there’s still plenty to celebrate.

The most recent online update to the guide, including more information about all these developments and much more, is available as a PDF download here.