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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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.

Back in black: living beer heritage in the West Midlands

Blessing of your heart, you brew good ale.

The Birmingham conurbation is the latest British city to rejuvenate its beer scene under the ‘craft’ banner, albeit several steps behind the likes of Bristol, Leeds and Manchester. But this is a city that’s also particularly rich in living examples of beer and pub heritage, demonstrating that, though today’s beer may be novel in style and a new demographic of people are buying it, craft brewing in Britain never really went away.

I went to Birmingham recently with a thoroughly contemporary remit: the Time Out website required a list of “the 10 best craft beer bars” and some good bottled beers to recommend, and I also planned on featuring new local breweries in a BEER magazine column. But while there I took the opportunity to tick off some longstanding entries on my bucket list by touring the region’s cluster of classic brewpubs too.

That cluster is in the Birmingham hinterland known as the Black Country, to the west and northwest of the city centre, in the boroughs of Dudley, Sandwell, Walsall and Wolverhampton. This rolling territory straddles coal seams and deposits of iron ore, and was already ‘proto-industrial’ in the 16th century, when there was a forge on almost every farm. By the 19th century it had developed into one of the great powerhouses of the Industrial Revolution, with a dense cluster of mines, steelworks and other metalworking industries like chainmaking.

The name dates from this period: contemporary accounts talk of a blasted land of spoil heaps and perpetual twilight, overcast by factory smoke in the daytime and lit by furnaces at night. J R R Tolkein, who grew up in south Birmingham, based his chief villain Sauron’s desolate domain in The Lord of the Rings on this landscape. Its name, Mordor, even translates as ‘black country’ in the author’s invented languages.

For better or worse, the dark lord has long departed. The last pit closed in 1968, and most of the heavy industry is now gone too. The Black Country is both much less black, and less economically prosperous. Nonetheless it retains a distinctive local character, and a texture which, if not quite semi-rural, is notably dispersed, with the patchwork of dense housing, open space and scattered former village centres typical of an ex-mining area.

Like metalworking, brewing was also once proto-industrial, often a sideline for farmers, publicans and other tradespeople. In 1830, small-scale commercial brewing got a boost as new legislation deregulated spirits-free ‘beer houses’, also entitled to brew their own supplies. And the development of the West Midlands drove a huge demand for beer, primarily as a refreshment for manual workers at a time when water was often unsafe.

Some small brewers evolved into major enterprises. The city of Birmingham itself became the home of two regional giants, Ansells and Mitchells & Butlers, which between them absorbed much of the immediately local competition before becoming key components of two of the ‘Big Seven’ national brewing groups, Allied and Bass Charrington respectively, in the later 20th century.

But the Black Country proved more resistant to such concentration, preserving the tradition of pubs with their own small breweries – what we now call ‘brewpubs’ – well into the 20th century. Only one survived into the real ale revival years of the 1970s, plus a couple of small production breweries with a scattering of pubs and a loyal local following: one of these, Simpkiss, was bought and closed by Greenall Whitley in 1985; the other survives today and is discussed below. But the local collective memory has persisted, and influenced the revival of brewing in a number of local pubs.

The idea of touring the Black Country might raise eyebrows but, for anyone with an interest in the past and present of brewing, it’s an essential visit. Trains are relatively sparse but there’s a dense and frequent bus network and, from a Birmingham base, it’s easy to find your way around at least four rewarding gems of brewing heritage in a day. All the following venues are in Dudley borough.

The Sarah Hughes Brewery / The Beacon Hotel

Beacon Hotel, Sedgley.

Beacon Hotel, Sedgley.

My first call was the Beacon Hotel at Sedgley, the only place I’d been before, though many years ago. This large and handsome pub is airily located near the top of the hill known as Sedgley Beacon, one of the highest points in the area. The pub is celebrated among other things for its unspoilt 1920s multi-room interior, with some Victorian panelling and other features, and a rare serving cubicle in place of a bar, where glasses are passed precariously through low glazed hatches. It’s both Grade II listed and on the CAMRA/Historic England national inventory of pub interiors. In keeping with tradition, there’s no food other than filled rolls, known locally as cobs.

The Beacon is a fine example of a successfully revived brewing tradition. Rebuilt in 1865 as a homebrew house, it was owned and operated for 30 years from 1921 until her death by Sarah Hughes, who bought it from the compensation she was paid on the death of her miner husband in a workplace accident.

As a female brewpub proprietor and brewer (or ‘brewster’ if you prefer the old Dutch-derived feminine form), Hughes wasn’t at all unusual. Many of her contemporaries in the trade were women. Interestingly, up until early modern times, most brewing was carried out by women – it was only when the industry grew from a domestic to an industrial scale that it came to be seen as men’s work. But women continued to play a major role as licensees, including taking on brewing responsibilities where required.

The brewery was abandoned a few years after Hughes’ death, in 1958, but the pub stayed in the family, and in 1987 her grandson John Hughes stumbled on her recipe for dark mild. He restored both pub and brewery, reviving Sarah’s name for the latter.

Sarah Hughes tower brewery seen from the rear of the Beacon Hotel.

Sarah Hughes tower brewery seen from the rear of the Beacon Hotel.

I already knew the building behind the pub was a scaled-down tower brewery worked by gravity in classic Victorian style – it’s clearly visible from the outside – but I’d always assumed its equipment was modern. This time I was lucky enough to turn up when brewery manager Mark had a spare few moments to show me round, and I discovered much more working heritage than expected.

There’s now a small electric winch to lift ingredients to the second floor-level brewhouse, but the last few metres up to the grist case in a wooden loft above are still accomplished by hand. The core beers are made exclusively with Maris Otter pale and crystal malt from Fawcett’s: this is possibly the only brewery I’ve ever visited without a sack or two of something from Weyermann lurking around.

Mash tun at Sarah Hughes brewery.

Mash tun at Sarah Hughes brewery.

The 8-barrel (13 hl) mash tun, now put to use three times a week, is a simple wooden-clad vessel custom-made for the 1980s restoration, though the hot liquor tank, concealed under a nearby hoarding, is original. Once it was heated by solid fuel; it’s now gas-fired but still has to be left on overnight. Sparging is through a perforated tube around the inside rim of the mash tun. The mash is stirred by hand using an old-fashioned paddle, and there’s not even a hatch in the vessel, so the spent grains have to be dug out the hard way.

Copper at Sarah Hughes brewery.

Copper at Sarah Hughes brewery.

The copper is the star of the brewhouse, a genuine 1930s copper vessel recessed into the floor beside the mash tun, in a brick surround. It’s also now gas-fired, though with direct flame, a method known to contribute to the character of the beer as it causes uneven caramelisation. There’s a modern heat exchanger for running off the hopped wort, but its predecessor is on display downstairs: it looks like an ancient radiator. Unlike on modern versions, the channel for the wort was on the outside, as this was easier to clean.

Fermentation vessels at Sarah Hughes brewery: old pub beer tanks.

Fermentation vessels at Sarah Hughes brewery: old pub beer tanks.

The cluster of dinky cream-painted fermentation vessels dates from the 1980s but is still something of a blast from the past, as they’re tanks originally used in pubs to store an obsolete format of tank beer (unlike modern tank beer systems, these tanks had no inner liner and contained beer that was usually bright and dispensed under gas pressure; in its day it was regarded as something of a halfway house between keg and real ale).

After primary fermentation the beer is cooled in the fermenter using iced water and conditioned for a few days, then transferred to a racking vessel where it’s kept overnight before being racked into casks, and conditioned for at least a week in the pub cellar. It’s normally fined but the brewery has been known to ship unfined beer to order.

Barrels (right) and kilderkins at Sarah Hughes brewery.

Barrels (right) and kilderkins at Sarah Hughes brewery.

The racking room boasts a rare sight: not only substantial 18 gallon (82 l) ‘kilderkins’, double the size of a standard 9 gallon firkin cask, but even more beefy casks known as ‘barrels’, doubled in size again to 36 gallons (163.5 l). British brewers, when they’re not thinking in hectolitres, readily calculate in terms of these brewer’s barrels, but I wonder how many of the current generation of brewers have actually ever seen one. The barrels are used for the most popular beers sold in the pub, but some of the kils go to other outlets.

The big wood-panelled ‘smoke room’, thankfully now smoke-free, is a fine place to sample the beers. Of these, the flagship is still the dark mild inspired by that recovered recipe, Sarah Hughes Dark Ruby, brewed to a robust 1920s strength of 6% ABV. I’ve long regarded this as a benchmark of the style.

It’s a deep amber-brown beer, darkened with just a touch of invert sugar and caramel, with a smooth light fawn head. There’s dark brown toast, tart fruit and caramel on the aroma, and a smooth, inky palate of some complexity, with hints of port, cherry and light citrus pith besides chocolate and coffee. Charred flavours show on the finish which turns quite dry and lightly bitter, though still with a rich maltiness. See also earlier review.

Now marginally a better seller is the brewery’s special bitter Surprise, or Sedgley Surprise to use its full name. This is a modern recipe, at a substantial 5%, but its warm colour fits the local preference for light-coloured bitters. It’s a smooth beer with lemon-tinged hops and a bit of peachy fruit, with a very firm rooty dryness emerging at the back of the throat and a hint of toast. It’s just a little bit worty, though, for my tastes.

The other regular is Pale Amber at 4%, also a warm gold colour. This is a very tasty bitter with earthy and orangey hop notes on the aroma, a full-bodied palate with a hint of diacetyl and a bracing bitter hop note emerging, and some lettuce bitterness in the finish balanced with good malt.

There’s also a winter red-amber seasonal, Snowflake, at 8%, which I was too early to catch this time around. When I last drank this a decade or so ago I found it winey and slightly figgy, with hints of stewed apple, ginger and herbal hops on the finish.

Fownes Brewing Co / The Jolly Crispin

The Jolly Crispin, Upper Gornal.

The Jolly Crispin, Upper Gornal.

A brisk stride or a bus ride south of the Beacon, in the linear village of Upper Gornal alongside the old turnpike road to Dudley, is the Jolly Crispin. Originally built as his own home by a local builder, who then diversified into selling beer, this has been a beer house since the 1830s, and may once have brewed on its own account.

Badly damaged by a fire in 1936, it became a Simpkiss pub in 1940. Unloved and deteriorating as a neglected corner of Greenall Whitley’s estate, it was bought free of tie and restored in 1997 with a focus on cask beer. It’s changed hands twice since then, and is now part of the Newport Pub Company, but the beer focus has been developed further, boasted by the presence since 2012 of an in-house brewery.

This is Fownes Brewing Company, pronounced ‘phones’ (with or without a Black Country accent) and named after the homebrewing brothers who run it. It’s actually a separate business from the pub, operating from an outhouse at the back, which originally held a tiny 100 l brewhouse, upgraded to the current 4 hl (2.5 barrels) in 2014.

Tom and James Fownes are fantasy fiction fans: their products are dubbed ‘Dwarfen Ales’ and there’s a designated company storyteller. They’ve established a good reputation locally as one of the first of the more contemporary ‘craft’-inspired commercial brewers around this way, but they favour English hops, using several new varieties, and aren’t afraid to re-interpret traditional styles.

Crispin’s Ommer, the house beer they brew for the pub, is a case in point. It began life as an appealing but unchallenging golden bitter that fitted in well with the local style. “We developed it by testing several batches with customers of the pub,” Tom told me, “and we were surprised that they kept on asking us to make it hoppier, so it ended up at 60 IBUs.”

The 4.1% mid-gold beer has a sticky white head and a slightly floral and waxy lemon-tinged aroma with definite resin notes. There’s sweetish fruit salad and apple on the palate, with a good sweet balance for the resinous hops, and a hint of coloured malt in a bready and hoppy finish that develops a crisp but not overpowering rooty bite.

I’ve not yet tasted the Fownes’ other beers, but their porter King Korvak’s Saga has won awards, and they also brew a ruby ale, Firebeard’s Old Favourite No 5, inspired by the original Wychwood Hobgoblin. An ommer, in case you’re wondering, is a runic hammer.

Although not especially remarkable as a building, the pub is well worth visiting for its traditional and welcoming atmosphere – low ceiling, horse brasses, dartboard – and a range of up to nine cask beers, sometimes including more Fownes brews besides the likes of Castle Rock, Dark Star and Oakham.

The Old(e) Swan / Ma Pardoes

Old Swan, Netherton.

Old Swan, Netherton.

The Old Swan at Netherton, a village south of Dudley now ringed by nature reserves wrought from the ruins of industry, is one of Britain’s most significant brewing heritage sites. It’s one of the four historic brewpubs still in operation when CAMRA was formed in 1971, although its record since then isn’t quite unbroken.

This is one of those areas where many pubs have more than one name, and the one used by locals is rarely the one on the pub sign, causing endless confusion to visitors. The Swan, which has been licensed since 1835, owes its more familiar name, Ma Pardoe’s, to Doris Pardoe, who took on the management of the pub with her husband in 1931 and presided for many years after his death in 1952, eventually becoming the owner in 1964. She died in 1984 at the age of 85, having passed the business on to her daughter and son-in-law the year before.

Pardoe, incidentally, wasn’t a brewster. The Old Swan has probably always had a brewery, which was rebuilt alongside the rest of the pub in 1863. But although the Pardoes were experienced licensees when they took it on, they had no brewing knowledge, so retained the existing head brewer and then employed others. I didn’t visit the brewhouse, but you can glimpse it through the window of one of men’s toilets, a solid tower structure at the back.

The pub went on the market very soon after the death of its longstanding host, and passed subsequently through several hands. CAMRA gave financial backing to prevent it being snapped up and rationalised by a big brewery, and it even played a role in the convoluted history of pioneering microbrewery Pitfield’s, which was based here briefly in 1987. But all of these well-intentioned initiatives foundered. Brewing ceased in 1993 and the pub was finally closed in 2000.

It was soon bought by pubco Punch, who in this case did the right thing in recognising its heritage and uniqueness were the key to its future success. The pub and brewery were restored and reopened in 2001 under the leasehold of Tim Newey, a former employee of Doris Pardoe, and in this incarnation, they’ve flourished afresh.

Unique enamel ceiling at the Old Swan, Netherton.

Unique enamel ceiling at the Old Swan, Netherton.

It’s a sprawling place, with numerous rooms that once had separate entrances and now interconnect only in a convoluted way. The showpiece is the front bar, which retains much of its Victorian character and fittings, including a unique decorative enamel ceiling with an image of a swan, and an elderly stove. Behind this is a more intimate smoke room with engraved glass and an elaborate fireplace. These and other features ensure its registration on the national inventory of pub interiors.

The additional rooms to the left of these are also decked out in traditional style but originate from the 1980s when the pub expanded into a former wool shop next door. And, perhaps wisely, the Swan now departs from tradition by serving a full food menu, both at the bar and a table service restaurant, the Granary Loft, upstairs.

To add to the naming confusion, the brewery styles itself Olde Swan, with a suitably archaic extra ‘e’, when it ships its beer to other outlets – in the pub, it’s dispensed Victorian-style from unlabelled handpumps.

Unusually, the flagship beer, Original, is a light mild. At only 3.5% ABV, this is a very easy-going and traditional pale yellow beer, with only a hint of hops on a worty glucose-tinged aroma, and a full-bodied grainy palate with some lemon hop notes. A well-integrated finish is slightly grassy and earthy but very mild and slightly sweet, though not at all cloying, and overall as thirst quenching as beer gets.

The dark mild, Dark Swan, is a stronger 4.2%. It’s amber-brown with burnt toast and blackcurrant on the aroma and some deep toasty notes and brown sugar on the palate. The finish is very mild with light rooty hops and a hint of roast. My sample had a just-detectable funky and acidic note. I’m normally a great fan of dark milds but in this case I concede the lighter alternative is superior.

Entire is a term normally associated with porter, but in Netherton it designates a 4.4% best bitter, a rich gold colour, with lots of grain and sweet malt on the palate and a dash of spicy pepper on a short finish. The beer was a little too plain for me, with a couple of odd artefacts that suggested a very warm fermentation and not quite enough conditioning.

There’s also a stronger 5.2% bitter, Bumblehole, which is greenish-gold with a slightly sharp lemon squash note and a dose of diacetyl too, a pleasantly nutty palate and a lightly honeyed finish. All are worth sampling, but Original remains the most interesting and drinkable beer.

The Vine / The Bull and Bladder

Bathams is the last traditional vertically integrated family brewery in the Black Country, and the Vine, almost invariably referred to locally as the Bull and Bladder, is its brewery tap. It’s at Brierley Hill southwest of Dudley, only a short step from the massive new Merry Hill mall and leisure park, but seemingly a world away.

Like the venues discussed above, Bathams traces its history back to the 1830s legislation that encouraged beer houses. This prompted butcher Charles Attwood to convert part of his shop at Cradley, a little further south, into a beer house, and to begin brewing. Trading in both meat and beer was a relatively common practice at the time: the Vine is another former butcher’s shop, thus its nickname.

In 1882 Daniel Batham, from a local nail-making family, and his wife Charlotte, who was an accomplished home brewer, took on the Cradley pub, which by now was an inn known as the White Horse. The Bathams gradually expanded, acquiring other pubs including the Vine, which they bought in 1905 from another member of the Attwood family. The pub and its brewery, known as the Delph Brewery, were rebuilt in 1912, the latter eventually supplying a small estate which currently stands at 10 pubs.

This is another classic traditional pub, with a cheerful but dignified exterior well-known for the quotation from William Shakespeare displayed above the cornice: “Blessing of your heart, you brew good ale.” Inside is another gobsmacking heritage interior, though considered only of regional importance. There are four rooms, including an old school public bar with fixed bench seating barely altered since its Edwardian installation, old fireplaces and attractively stained windows. Gargantuan rolls and pies are the only food.

Once, Black Country brewers would all have produced only dark, sweetish mild ale, and perhaps the odd stronger beer. Gradually, though, paler beers crept into local brewing practice, influenced by fashions elsewhere. Bathams stuck exclusively to mild, and a strong ale for Christmas, right up until the 1950s. In 1951 it acquired a pub called the Swan in Chaddesley Corbett where pale ales were popular, and finally diversified to meet this new demand. The resulting beer, Bathams Bitter, is now the one for which it is most famous.

Like the cask bitters already encountered above, this one is not the stereotypical brown: it’s a warm mid-gold. ‘Golden ale’ is often assumed to be a modern invention, formulated to attract lager drinkers, but the original pale ales from which bitters descended were golden in colour, like many American pale ales today, made entirely or near-entirely from pale malt. And how such beers must have stood out as something new and exciting amid a sea of dark mild.

Served on cask at the Vine, the 4.3% bitter has a dense and creamy clean white head – sparklers are the norm in this part of the world – and a restrained aroma of light malt with perhaps just a hint of diacetyl and cream cheese. A sweetish palate is balanced by a burr of lightly tangy hops from the start, and there’s coating malt and a gentle but distinctive hop bitterness on the finish.

My sample was also in superb condition, at cool cellar temperature with just the right level of carbonation. Even more than the Olde Swan Original, this is a straightforward but beautifully integrated, refreshing and very moreish beer, and you can easily understand its appeal to a thirsty worker.

Bathams still offers a Mild at 3.5%, a dark chestnut glassful with a light beige head. This has a notably roasty aroma with hints of coffee, and a malty, nutty and again quite plain palate with gentle tangy bite. There’s a touch of caramel, light hops and a mineral hint in the lingering finish, though the tanginess becomes slightly thin and astringent, and it doesn’t tempt you back as much as the bitter.

And this despite the fact that I paid only £1.19 for a half – a penny less than I’d paid for the same quantity of the same beer a decade earlier at the Great British Beer Festival.

Black to the future?

The day after my dash around the Black Country, I found myself in the City Arcade, just off Corporation Street in Birmingham City Centre, where the newly-laid tram tracks are poised to transform the local street scene, and likely for the better. I was visiting the then-not-yet-opened Tilt, a refreshingly ambitious cutting edge craft beer, coffee and pinball-themed venue run by two youthful enthusiasts, Kirk Sadler and Richard Kimberley.

Tilt, with its bold, bright and clean design, its keg-only dispense via post-industrial bar mounts and its plans for a list of rare lambics and sours, seems to represent a world of beer a long way from the fussy heritage bar backs and unpretentious, old-fashioned session beers of the Black Country brewpubs.

As the US-inspired craft beer revolution sweeps the old beer countries of Europe, I’ve found myself hoping again and again that beer drinkers and brewers will come to appreciate both worlds and everything in between, recognising the threads that, despite appearances, link them together. Indeed if it hadn’t been for the Bathams and many other old-established European brewers sticking to styles and methods that well merit the label ‘craft’, we would likely not be enjoying the current abundance.

One particularly pertinent example springs to mind. London brewery Beavertown has become one of the most admired of the new generation of contemporary brewers since it opened in 2012. Among other things it’s been an early adopter in the UK of craft beer in cans, which come with striking designs as well as flavourful and alluring contents.

Yet Beavertown’s founder Logan Plant grew up in the Black Country, and first acquired a love of beer through drinking the local cask brews. One of his most popular beers, session pale ale Neck Oil, began as an attempt to replicate none other than Bathams Bitter.

The best value way to explore the Black Country is with a bus and metro pass or Day Tripper card: for details and journey planner see the Network West Midlands site.

Time to toast London’s Best Beer

Newly granular London beer marketing at Hop Burns and Black.

Newly granular London beer marketing at Hop Burns and Black.

As I recently wrote in London Drinker magazine, the young William Blake had a vision of angels in a tree on Peckham Rye Common. I had a revelation of a different kind in more-or-less the same spot. Towards the end of a lengthy six months researching 467 beer venues for the second edition of The CAMRA Guide to London’s Best Beer, Pubs and Bars (published on 2 July 2015), I visited a newly-opened shop, Hop Burns and Black, on East Dulwich Road. The first thing I saw when I walked in was a big shelf unit labelled “South East London”.

I stood in wonder for a while. Just four years previously, when the first edition of the book was in preparation, no more than two bottling breweries would have qualified for these shelves. Now there are approaching 25 potential suppliers. And ‘London beer’ is a term now insufficiently granular to express their geographic loyalties. Jen Ferguson, the shop’s New Zealand-born co-owner, confirmed these local beers sold the most, despite competition from some of the world’s greatest brewers on neighbouring shelves.

The facts put my little revelation in context. London was once the world beer capital but brewing here suffered relentless decline through the 20th century, culminating in a new low in 2006 when the closure of Young’s, one of our two remaining historic independents, left only nine breweries.

But then a trickle of promising start-ups appeared, and by 2010 the London Brewers Alliance had emerged specifically to promote London beer. Some of the newcomers were directly inspired to fill the gap left by Young’s, such as Duncan Sambrook, who told me early in 2011: “The London market’s so big, I think it could support all of us and more.” He couldn’t have known how right he was.

Fermentation vessels at Beavertown in Tottenham.

Fermentation vessels at Beavertown in Tottenham.

When I submitted the manuscript of the first edition in March 2011, Greater London had 14 operating commercial breweries including brewpubs, the highest figure since 1981, including some now-familiar names like the Kernel, Redemption and Sambrook’s. Just before the book went to press, we heard about another soon to start, Moncada, and congratulated ourselves on being so bang up-to-date by squeezing it in. As it turned out, Moncada encountered delays and didn’t finally launch until October, by which time another six breweries had appeared.

The brewery total by the end of 2011 was 22. A year later it was 36, already a higher tidemark than at the peak of the Firkin era in 1998. By the end of 2013 it was 45. When this edition was signed of early in 2015 it stood at 70, and by my calculations it’s since reached 75, almost certainly the highest figure since at least Victorian times.

While there have been a couple of casualties and a handful of short-lived projects since, the rest of the class of ’11 have grown significantly in size and capacity, Truman’s, then just a beer firm, is now supplying major pub chains from its own brewery at Hackney Wick, and many that appeared since have been forced to consider expansion plans within days of first opening the books. Beavertown has perhaps the most remarkable story – from a corner of a pub kitchen in February 2012, it’s expanded twice, and now has one of London’s most modern and capacious microbrewing setups in Tottenham.

Brewery numbers don’t equate to overall volume, of course, and many of the newcomers are still very small. Derek Prentice estimates that in the days of the Big Seven, nine or ten London breweries were producing seven million barrels (11.5 million hl) a year between them. Today, seven times the number of breweries barely manage one million barrels (1.6 million hl), and that’s including all the Bud lager currently made in Mortlake. But it’s hard to argue with the claim that the overall diversity in London, and the quality from the best brewers, has never been bettered.

One of the many positive aspects of the new wave’s fresh approach is the direct relationship brewers now cultivate with drinkers. The old breweries were industrial black boxes, but most of the current crop welcome the public to taprooms, open days and tours, and those that don’t would love to if only they had the facilities. Establishing this practice is one of Kernel founder Evin O’Riordan’s many achievements – his modest shop and taproom inspired a movement that has turned Bermondsey’s railway arches on Saturdays into an unlikely zythophiliac promenade.

One of the most welcome pub reopenings, the Express Tavern  by Kew Bridge at Brentford.

One of the most welcome pub reopenings, the Express Tavern by Kew Bridge at Brentford.

Is there a downside to all this? Speaking to a US journalist recently, I noted the link between beer-friendliness and gentrification and all its attendant problems. Local microbrewers now press all the right buttons with prosperous arty metropolitan types, and as young middle class families move into deprived inner city areas like Hackney, Peckham and Walthamstow, small breweries and craft beer bars inevitably follow. And while I’m delighted to see fine old pubs in Homerton and Clapton lovingly restored as beer and food emporia with yoga classes and cycle repair workshops, I do wonder where the previous customers of these places now go to drink and meet their mates.

Devotees of traditional cask ales may also be concerned that much of the growth is elsewhere, in ‘craft keg’, bottles, cans and US-inspired styles. Pretty much every London brewer now produces a pale ale liberally dosed with New World hops, but a good few see no reason to offer a best bitter. I’ve even had to add a section on saison to the style guide.

Now, I’m an eclectic drinker: I love many of these new beers and the huge variety of flavour now on offer. But subtle, low gravity, gently carbonated cask session beer is something British brewers, almost uniquely, do well and it deserves pride of place in the capital. Pubs and many customers still very much want to drink it: several licensees told me they wished more London brewers did good cask. And more than one North American beer tourist has reminded me they visit London to drink great cask, not clones of beers they can easily find at home. Some brewers need to get better at overall consistency and quality too if London brewing is to secure its future.

Jaega Wise of Wild Card is one of several professionals who told me that “beer in London is now fashionable.” Indeed the archetype of the keen beer fan may even have shifted from the gent in jumper and sandals with an untidy beard pontificating over a pint of Old Crudginton’s to the snappily tonsured and tattooed Hackney hipster rhapsodising over the New Zealand and Japanese hop aromas in his, or increasingly her, two-thirds of Session IPA. But it’s an occupational hazard of being fashionable that you can rapidly and unexpectedly become unfashionable again at the flick of an eyebrow – is there a danger of this happening to London beer?

Peter Haydon, a fine brewer immersed in pub and beer history, says in the book that London won’t re-enter the premier league of beer cities “until Londoners at large think about their city and their beer in the same way as the citizens of Munich, Brussels, Denver and Bamberg do.”

I’m hopeful that we’re some way there, and great beer and world class brewing are already just about firmly enough re-embedded into London’s social and cultural fabric that they’ll survive fickle fashionistas finding something trendier to post about on their tablets.

Meanwhile one of the best things you and I can do to ensure this happens is to continue to enjoy the fruits of all this frenetic activity. So raise your glasses, please, for a toast to London brewing. You’ve certainly got the widest choice ever of appropriate libations – Beavertown Smog Rocket, Brick Peckham Pils, Brixton Electric IPA, By the Horns Lambeth Walk, Hammerton N7, The Kernel London Sour, Pressure Drop Stokey Brown, Redchurch Hoxton Stout, Redemption Hopspur or Sambrook’s Wandle are all possibilities that spring to mind.

But perhaps the most appropriately named beer with which to wish the London brewers health, long life and prosperity is still one of the oldest-established: Fuller’s London Pride.

The CAMRA Guide to London’s Best Beer, Pubs and Bars is published on 2 July 2015.

Porters, peers and pilgrims: a beer heritage walk

The old Truman Black Eagle brewery in Brick Lane.

The old Truman Black Eagle brewery in Brick Lane. Pic: Christine Matthews: see below for copyright details.

Sunday 9 August 2015, 1030hrs

To celebrate London Beer City week and the 2nd edition of The CAMRA Guide to London’s Best Beer, Pubs and Bars, I’m once again leading this 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.

See also the Facebook events page.

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

London brewers 1971

1971 vintage Evening Standard Pub of the Year plaque still in situ in Fulham. Pic: Edwardx, Wikipedia Creative Commons.

1971 vintage Evening Standard Pub of the Year plaque still in situ in Fulham. Pic: Edwardx, Wikipedia Creative Commons.

The 2nd edition of The CAMRA Guide to London’s Best Beer, Pubs and Bars, published on 2 July 2015, contains a lengthy listing of over 70 breweries in Greater London, the vast majority of which have sprung up in the years since the inaugural edition was published in 2011. The new book also makes clear this unexpected flowering is only the latest episode in the long story of brewing in the city that for much of the 18th and 19th century was the beer capital of the world. So I thought it would be interesting on the eve of publication to turn the clock back and look at London brewing as it was back in 1971.

Why 1971? That year is something of a turning point in British brewing. The 1950s and 1960s had brought turbulent times to the industry, which was swept by ‘merger mania’ and the emergence of new national groups. The situation had stablised by the early 1970s, with the ‘Big Seven’ brewers (Allied, Bass, Courage, Guinness, Scottish & Newcastle, Watney and Whitbread) now firmly in control and well-advanced in their plans to supplant traditional cask ale with nationally marketed pasteurised keg ale and mediocre ‘Continental’ lager. All of these groups were in some way active in London.

But 1971 also saw sporadic resistance to the growing homogeneity of the brewing industry articulate itself through the foundation of the Campaign for the Revitalisation of Ale, soon to be renamed the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA). This presaged a new and more self-conscious appreciation of beer both nationally and internationally, and the emergence of small scale commercial breweries in numbers not seen since the Victorian era. But in 1971 all that was still some years away – there had been almost no openings of new British breweries since the 1930s, though plenty of closures.

At the beginning of 1971, there were 11 commercial breweries operating in Greater London: Charrington, Courage, Fuller’s, Guinness, Ind Coope, Mann (by then a Watney subsidiary), Tolly Cobbold, Truman, Watney, Whitbread and Young’s. This total is much smaller than today’s, though around the same as in the mid-2000s before the current boom really took off. The complexion of these breweries, however, was very different indeed from today’s crop. All were much larger operations than is typical today: veteran London brewer Derek Prentice estimates that back then London brewers between them produced over 10 million hl a year, while almost seven times the number of breweries today barely manage 1.5 million hl. All were well-established concerns, most tracing their origins back at least as far as the first industrial heyday of London brewing in the 18th century. All but one shared the vertically integrated structure which was the norm in British breweries from the late 19th century until the early 1990s, selling much of their output through their own pubs.

Today, all but two London brewers are independently owned, but back in 1971 the national groups dominated the landscape. Courage, Watney Mann and Whitbread had grown from historic London breweries, while other London names were involved in the mergers that created Allied and Bass Charrington. All these companies had both breweries and extensive pub estates in London. Dublin-based Guinness – the exception among big breweries as it owned no pubs – supplied southern England from its London subsidiary. The seventh of the ‘Big Seven’, Scottish and Newcastle, had no brewing connections in London but owned some prime pubs.

Truman’s was the sole surviving large scale independent from the golden age, but its ongoing struggle to retain that status was shortly to fail. Two much smaller independents, Fuller’s and Young’s, brewed largely for relatively localised pub estates. All these breweries were standalone operations – there were then only a tiny handful of historic brewpubs left in the UK and this particular business model seems to have been abandoned in London even earlier than elsewhere, not to be restored until the Goose and Firkin opened in 1979 as the first example of what became a major resurgence in UK brewpubs.

Looking back across the upheavals of the intervening decades that brought about the completely transformed brewing landscape of today, it’s striking to note how much kinder history has been to the independents. Of the big brands brewed in London back then, Guinness is the only one that retains its familiarity and cachet today, though its production has once again been centralised in its home city of Dublin. Fuller’s is the only brewery to have retained true continuity, with the same company structure, the same family ownership and the same site – though it’s now much bigger and has a national brand of its own. Watney’s former Stag brewery in Mortlake is the only other actual brewery still in operation on the same site, now under changed and multinational ownership and brewing even less distinguished beer.

Young’s is still a familiar name on the London scene although the owning company has finally become a non-brewing pubco, with the brands produced at the Charles Wells brewery in Bedford, alongside those of Courage – the only major Big Seven brand of the day besides Guinness to retain a shred of credibility. Since August 2013, East London has once again had a brewery under the Truman name, although aside from ownership of the brand and considerable respect for the history and heritage there is no connection with the original brewery. Meanwhile once ubiquitous brands like Ind Coope Double Diamond, Charrington’s Toby, Whitbread Trophy and – most notorious of all – Watney’s Red have been consigned, perhaps deservedly, to the ullage of history.

Note the postcodes given below are current ones indicating the location of the sites for those interested in finding them. Postcodes were being introduced to London in 1971 but the actual codes of the day were very likely different. The boundaries of the London boroughs have not changed significantly since 1971.

Charrington Brewery (E1, Tower Hamlets) Read more
Courage Brewery (SE1, Southwark) Read more

Fuller Smith & Turner (W4, Hounslow) Read more

Guinness Park Royal (NW10, Brent) Read more

Ind Coope (RM1, Havering) Read more

Mann Crossman & Paulin (E1, Tower Hamlets) Read more

Tolly Cobbold Walthamstow (E17, Waltham Forest) Read more

Truman Hanbury & Buxton (E1, Tower Hamlets) Read more

Watney Mann (SW14 7ET, Richmond upon Thames) Read more

Whitbread Brewery (EC1, City of London) Read more

Young & Co's Brewery (SW18, Wandsworth) Read more

In search of the lost London beer style

Hop monsters -- the true London beer style?

Hop monsters — the true London beer style?

When the late great beer writer Michael Jackson wrote The World Guide to Beer, the book that’s usually acknowledged as introducing the modern concept of beer styles, in 1977, he could hardly have guessed that, less than 40 years later, interpretations of nearly all the styles he wrote about would be brewed commercially in his home city. Back then, the Good Beer Guide needed only three symbols to describe the cask repertoire of English breweries: one for mild, another for bitter, and an occasional third for “old ale or special”.

It wasn’t always so. Beer historian Ronald Pattinson once remarked to me that, at the beginning of the 20th century, “you could walk into a London pub and have a choice of five or six draught beers such as bitter, mild, Burton and porter, all completely different in character and with strengths ranging from 3% to 7 or 8% ABV”. That diversity began to shrink exactly a century ago, during World War I, not only through shortage of ingredients but because of increasing taxation and regulation of the brewing industry – ostensibly in the name of the war effort but in reality driven by the same sort of ideological objections to alcohol consumption that gave rise to the USA’s disastrous experiment with Prohibition from 1920-1933.

Heavy taxation based on a beer’s gravity persisted into the interwar years, so beer strengths declined accordingly, and the industry responded to the challenges of the 1930s recession and of rebuilding after World War II by streamlining its output. By the time of the real ale revival in the 1970s, the idea that beer was all about low gravity session ales suitable for drinking in pints was firmly embedded in the British consciousness. The growth of microbreweries and the emergence of more discerning drinkers prompted a revival of interest in defunct styles like porter, and new developments like golden and summer ales – but almost always at session strengths.

The current abundance is partly the legacy of Michael Jackson himself, and the way his work directly and indirectly inspired would-be brewers in countries like the USA where big brewing had almost entirely obliterated older and more localised brewing techniques and styles to start rebuilding their beer culture from a blank sheet. The resulting enthusiastic eclecticism and cosmopolitan openness has now returned to the old European brewing heartlands to inspire a new generation of brewers. And nowhere is this more evident than London, a city with a long tradition of being open to exotic influences and new ideas.

All this makes it rather challenging to talk about specifically London beer styles. The beers with the deepest historical roots in the capital are porters and stouts, though, aside from a few wood-aged experiments, no contemporary London brewer makes porter in a way comparable to the 18th century methods of maturing strong porter for years in wooden vats. By the end of the 19th century, milds were a more typical London style, and in the early 20th century, the related sweetish style of bottled brown ale typified by Mann’s Brown was regarded as an East End speciality. Today, hardly any London brewers offer a regular mild and none brews anything like Mann’s Brown, which itself is still around but produced outside London.

Old school real ale drinkers associate the capital with the revered cask bitters brewed by Fuller’s and Young’s, the two independents that survived into the 1970s. While Young’s is no longer brewed here, Fuller’s is proud to remain a London brewer, though neither can really be said to brew beers in a distinctively London style. Instead they reflect a general southeast English preference for relatively dry and hoppy cask bitters, doubtless influenced by the proximity of the Kentish hop gardens, and drawn without sparklers, with a low level of carbonation and a minimal head.

London can equally claim, alongside Wrecsam and Glasgow, to be one of the UK’s few genuine lager-brewing cities. In the 1930s, Barclay Perkins on Bankside became the first big British brewer to commit to lager production  In the 1990s London was the birthplace of one of Britain’s first ‘craft lager’ breweries, Freedom, and is still the home of one of its most successful, Meantime. And today the city can claim to be the UK’s main centre for hop-forward US-inspired pale ales and IPAs: while a good few London breweries don’t bother with bitter, pretty much all of them have at least one hoppy pale ale in their repertoire. Anyone tempted to express regret at this apparent departure from tradition should remind themselves that London originally gave the world not only porter, but India Pale Ale too.

Walk London’s beer heritage in London Beer City week

Historic riverside pub the Dove in Hammersmith, on the Fuller's Country walk. Pic: Fuller's.

Historic riverside pub the Dove in Hammersmith, on the Fuller’s Country walk. Pic: Fuller’s.

I’m combining my walking and my beer interests to help celebrate the London beer renaissance during London Beer City week in August. I’ll be launching my new Beer Badge Guides project with two great walking tours taking in the capital’s rich brewery heritage and some great pubs as well as various historic and beautiful corners.

Porters, Peers and Pilgrims: a London brewery heritage walk

Saturday 9 August, 1030hrs

Join me 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 leisurely walk of approximately five miles (8km) 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.

Ensure your place by booking an advance ticket.

The Thames Path and Fuller’s Country: a riverside pub and brewery walk

Thursday 14 August 2014, 1300hrs

A walk that combines the splendours of the Thames Path, including part of the famous Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race course, with the Fuller’s brewery and two fabulous Fuller’s pubs. From Putney we walk along the river then beside the Beverley Brook near the London Wetlands Centre to the well sited Red Lion at Barnes, then across Hammersmith Bridge to one of London’s loveliest riverside pubs, the Dove, finally passing the brewery itself with a chance to call in at the shop (a brewery tour may be available at an extra charge – to be confirmed).

A leisurely walk of approximately five miles (8km) taking about four hours including pub stops. Charge: £8 per person

Meet at Putney National Rail station, High Street, London SW15 1RT. Finishes at Turnham Green Underground station (District Line).

Ensure your place by booking an advance ticket.

London Beer City 9-16 August 2014.

London Beer City 9-16 August 2014.

London Beer City

London Beer City is a week-long, city-wide festival which will celebrate London’s beer renaissance, running from Saturday 9 to Saturday 16 August. There will be events at the best pubs, bars and breweries across the city, showcasing the finest beer from London, Britain and further afield. There’ll be mini-festivals, tap takeovers, dinners, tours and much more besides. See the London Beer City website for more, including the full schedule of events.

London Beer City takes place around CAMRA’s flagship event, the Great British Beer Festival (GBBF), one of the biggest events of its kind in the world, serving more than 900 British cask ales, ciders and perries and imported beers. GBBF runs from Tuesday 12 to Saturday 16 August at Olympia Exhibition Centre.

Not only that but the London Craft Beer Festival, launched last year, will run from Thursday 14 to Sunday 17 August at the Oval Space in Bethnal Green. 24 breweries from London, the UK , Europe and this year the USA will be pouring beers to fuel the imagination and delight the senses.

Truly a sensational summer of beer here in London!

 

London’s Best Beer, Pubs and Bars: The return

One of London's newest breweries in one of its oldest pubs: the Dragonfly brewery in Acton, W3.

One of London’s newest breweries in one of its oldest pubs: the Dragonfly brewery in Acton, W3.

Sometime in October 2010 I created a new folder on my laptop labelled ‘londonguide’, for everything connected to what eventually became the first edition of The CAMRA Guide to London’s Best Beer, Pubs and Bars. Rather optimistically, I then created a single subfolder within the folder, labelled ‘2011’. And so things stayed for several years, an apparently redundant extra layer of hierarchy, until a few weeks ago when it was finally joined by another labelled ‘2015’.

There aren’t  many files in that new folder yet, but among them is an already large Excel spreadsheet which ultimately will generate the ‘Places to Drink’ section of the next edition of London’s Best Beer. Inside the spreadsheet is a tab named ‘Long list’.

The adjective is deserved. At the moment it contains 489 records of potential listings, and only a handful with updated details and reviews. Its predecessor never contained more than 300 or so.

I admit the file structure of my hard drive is of no great interest, but somewhere in these spreadsheets and documents is a pale reflection of an extraordinary story: the rebirth of London as a genuinely great beer city.

When CAMRA Books first suggested I create what was original mooted as a London pub guide back in the late summer of 2010, one of the reasons I jumped at the opportunity is that I felt there was a modest but significant new sense of excitement around beer and brewing in London.

“It’s a great time to do this,” I enthused at my editor. “Beer in London seems to be on the up for the first time in years.”

After the disappointingly brief flowering of Clapham’s pioneering Microbar in the early 2000s, another internationally-focused specialist beer bar, the Rake, had managed to flourish on Borough Market since 2006. Over the previous year or so, a few more venues had started finding interesting ways of presenting quality beer in a variety of styles to a broader audience than the traditional crowd of real ale drinkers and well-travelled geeks: places like Cask Pub and Kitchen (2009), the Southampton Arms (2009),  the Jolly Butchers (2010) and the Euston Tap (2010).

And with its longstanding smattering of good real ale pubss, Belgian- and German-themed bars, bottle shops and beer champions like the White Horse SW6, London’s claim to becoming a major beer destination was strengthening.

Perhaps even more significant were the new London breweries. We’d reached a nadir in 2006 with the departure of Young’s but suddenly there were a handful of vibrant young newbies brewing seriously well, often using approaches and styles that stretched the established boundaries of British microbrewing, like Brodie’s (2008), Camden Town (2010 in its current form), the Kernel (2009), Redemption (2010) and the more traditional but nonetheless determined and consistent Sambrook’s (2008).

Someone had even revived the legendary brand name Truman’s — as sported by the last big historic London independent to fall to a national takeover in the 1970s — although at first the beer was contract brewed outside the capital.

When the book went to press in April 2011, London entrepreneur and beer importer Martin Hayes had a single pub to his name – the groundbreaking specialist beer bar Cask Pub & Kitchen in Pimlico. Just before the book finally appeared on the shelves in July, Martin opened the first Craft Beer Co in Clerkenwell, immediately raising the bar for London beer venues with its dazzling range of domestic and imported specialist beers in all formats. In a mere 18 months since, three more Crafts have opened, two in London (Angel and Brixton) and another in Brighton, and all appear to be flourishing.

At a time when 18 pubs close every week in the UK, the Craft story is only the most striking example of how an unprecedented growth of interest in “craft” and other specialist beer is happily pushing at least one significant sector of the licensed trade against the depressing trend, in London at least. The three Draft House branches listed in the book are now five, and several other top class independent beer outlets featured have gone forth and multiplied – the Bree Louise, Jolly Butchers, Pineapple and Southampton Arms have all added sister pubs.

Small pub chains – Butcher & Barrel, Convivial and, most notably, Antic – have seen the commercial wisdom in creating showcase beer outlets and upping the ante across their estates. Fashionable bar operators that ten years ago would not have ventured within a long beard’s reach of real ale, like Barworks, Fluid Movement and Lost, are embracing the new age of hops and malt. Even big national pubcos are boosting their beer credentials – Mitchells and Butlers’ beer friendly Castle and Nicholson’s chains continue to improve with even some branches of more mainstream high street bar brands like O’Neill’s being transferred to them.

The turnaround of brewing in London is even more dramatic. When published the Guide contained details of all 13 breweries then operating in Greater London. 18 months later that total has shot up to 36, with further launches imminent. East London and City CAMRA’s Pig’s Ear beer festival in December 2012 featured a Hackney bar, dedicated to the brewing products of a single London borough which until August 2011 had not witnessed commercial brewing within its boundaries since the 19th century. Now there are six, with one of the most eagerly awaited of the new projects soon to join them when Truman’s re-establishes itself in East London at its new site in Hackney Wick this spring.

– See more at: http://desdemoor.co.uk/latest-guide-updates-show-londons-beer-culture-blossoming/#sthash.7TkzdDH5.dpuf

When the book went to press in April 2011, London entrepreneur and beer importer Martin Hayes had a single pub to his name – the groundbreaking specialist beer bar Cask Pub & Kitchen in Pimlico. Just before the book finally appeared on the shelves in July, Martin opened the first Craft Beer Co in Clerkenwell, immediately raising the bar for London beer venues with its dazzling range of domestic and imported specialist beers in all formats. In a mere 18 months since, three more Crafts have opened, two in London (Angel and Brixton) and another in Brighton, and all appear to be flourishing.

At a time when 18 pubs close every week in the UK, the Craft story is only the most striking example of how an unprecedented growth of interest in “craft” and other specialist beer is happily pushing at least one significant sector of the licensed trade against the depressing trend, in London at least. The three Draft House branches listed in the book are now five, and several other top class independent beer outlets featured have gone forth and multiplied – the Bree Louise, Jolly Butchers, Pineapple and Southampton Arms have all added sister pubs.

Small pub chains – Butcher & Barrel, Convivial and, most notably, Antic – have seen the commercial wisdom in creating showcase beer outlets and upping the ante across their estates. Fashionable bar operators that ten years ago would not have ventured within a long beard’s reach of real ale, like Barworks, Fluid Movement and Lost, are embracing the new age of hops and malt. Even big national pubcos are boosting their beer credentials – Mitchells and Butlers’ beer friendly Castle and Nicholson’s chains continue to improve with even some branches of more mainstream high street bar brands like O’Neill’s being transferred to them.

The turnaround of brewing in London is even more dramatic. When published the Guide contained details of all 13 breweries then operating in Greater London. 18 months later that total has shot up to 36, with further launches imminent. East London and City CAMRA’s Pig’s Ear beer festival in December 2012 featured a Hackney bar, dedicated to the brewing products of a single London borough which until August 2011 had not witnessed commercial brewing within its boundaries since the 19th century. Now there are six, with one of the most eagerly awaited of the new projects soon to join them when Truman’s re-establishes itself in East London at its new site in Hackney Wick this spring.

– See more at: http://desdemoor.co.uk/latest-guide-updates-show-londons-beer-culture-blossoming/#sthash.7TkzdDH5.dpuf

Yes, it was obvious that something was happening, but nobody could have predicted the scale of what was to follow. Consider the case of entrepreneur and beer importer Martin Hayes, pioneer founder of the Cask. When the book went to press in April 2011, it was still his only pub. Just before the book finally appeared on the shelves in July, he opened the first Craft Beer Co in Clerkenwell, immediately raising the bar for London beer venues. Since then, five more branches have opened, four in London and one in Brighton.

The only Antic pub listed in the last edition was the Antelope in Tooting — now, despite a funding glitch last year, the company’s distinctively distressed and junk-bedecked drinking holes are sprouting up in every unlikely suburb, many of them free of tie and dispensing fine local beers. And this at a time when 18 pubs close every week across the UK.

Besides this and numerous other examples of independents and small chains, the impact on the big boys of this evident change in the marketplace is arguably even more symptomatic. Mitchells and Butlers is converting more and more pubs from tired old circuit drinking chains like O’Neill’s to its beer friendly Nicholson’s and Castle brands.

Meanwhile Greene King seems to be pretending it isn’t even a brewer, with numerous members of its extensive estate rejigged into ‘Metropolitan’ pubs stocked with guest casts and little evidence of their owner’s own products.

Then there’s London brewing. When published the Guide contained details of all 13 breweries then operating in Greater London. By the end of 2013 there were over 50, representing a quintupling of brewery numbers over a mere five years. I was keeping track of them all, but temporarily gave my attention to other things and now I’ve lost count, but there must be at least 60 by now.

For two years running, East London and City CAMRA’s Pig’s Ear beer festival has been able dedicate an entire bar to the products of a single London borough, Hackney, which until August 2011 had not witnessed commercial brewing within its boundaries since the 19th century. OK, it stretches a point by including Hackney Wick, most of which is technically in Tower Hamlets, but if it didn’t it would miss the new Truman’s, now up and very much running on an industrial estate on Fish Island.

There have been some casualties. At least five breweries have opened and closed again since the last edition was published. And not everyone has been able to make a success of showcasing a great beer range everywhere: two significant and lamented departures this month were Ales and Tails in Twickenham and the Duchess of Cambridge between Shepherds Bush and Chiswick.

These are hints that the rapid expansion of the past few years is slowing, but all the signs are that, with a newly educated generation of discerning drinking underpinning its beer culture, London isn’t about to lose its status as a top beer destination anytime soon.

All this poses an acute challenge for your humble compiler. Given the scale of change, the new edition will largely be rewritten from scratch.

We don’t want it to grow in terms of page count, yet only 12 of the 252 places to drink in the last edition have closed or lost interest in beer (two or three more have changed ownership or name but kept the faith with St Arnold). Many current listings will simply have to go, then, not because they’ve fallen in standards, but simply because the more deserving cases have proliferated.

A rethink of the breweries section is unavoidable — I can’t possibly afford to treat everyone at the same length as I did in 2011. I’m also planning to squeeze in more on beer and food, and more on London brewery heritage.

You can help — I’m eager to hear your suggestions of new places to drink as well as general comments and feedback. But please look at the guidance notes first. See the London page for more details.

I’ll be tracking the progress of the new edition on my Twitter feed and on the new official Facebook fanpage. Please do have a look and Like it if you will.

I was pleased with the way the first edition turned out and delighted to win an award for it. I like to think that in a small way it contributed to boosting the interest in London beer. I’m determined to make its successor as good as it possibly can be, and an essential and indispensable guide to what’s once again one of the world’s great beer cities.

 

 

 

When the book went to press in April 2011, London entrepreneur and beer importer Martin Hayes had a single pub to his name – the groundbreaking specialist beer bar Cask Pub & Kitchen in Pimlico. Just before the book finally appeared on the shelves in July, Martin opened the first Craft Beer Co in Clerkenwell, immediately raising the bar for London beer venues with its dazzling range of domestic and imported specialist beers in all formats. In a mere 18 months since, three more Crafts have opened, two in London (Angel and Brixton) and another in Brighton, and all appear to be flourishing.

At a time when 18 pubs close every week in the UK, the Craft story is only the most striking example of how an unprecedented growth of interest in “craft” and other specialist beer is happily pushing at least one significant sector of the licensed trade against the depressing trend, in London at least. The three Draft House branches listed in the book are now five, and several other top class independent beer outlets featured have gone forth and multiplied – the Bree Louise, Jolly Butchers, Pineapple and Southampton Arms have all added sister pubs.

Small pub chains – Butcher & Barrel, Convivial and, most notably, Antic – have seen the commercial wisdom in creating showcase beer outlets and upping the ante across their estates. Fashionable bar operators that ten years ago would not have ventured within a long beard’s reach of real ale, like Barworks, Fluid Movement and Lost, are embracing the new age of hops and malt. Even big national pubcos are boosting their beer credentials – Mitchells and Butlers’ beer friendly Castle and Nicholson’s chains continue to improve with even some branches of more mainstream high street bar brands like O’Neill’s being transferred to them.

The turnaround of brewing in London is even more dramatic. When published the Guide contained details of all 13 breweries then operating in Greater London. 18 months later that total has shot up to 36, with further launches imminent. East London and City CAMRA’s Pig’s Ear beer festival in December 2012 featured a Hackney bar, dedicated to the brewing products of a single London borough which until August 2011 had not witnessed commercial brewing within its boundaries since the 19th century. Now there are six, with one of the most eagerly awaited of the new projects soon to join them when Truman’s re-establishes itself in East London at its new site in Hackney Wick this spring.

– See more at: http://desdemoor.co.uk/latest-guide-updates-show-londons-beer-culture-blossoming/#sthash.7TkzdDH5.dpuf

The marvels of malt: tasting single malt beers

The beauty of barley. Pic: Valley Malt.

The beauty of barley. Pic: Valley Malt.

It’s often said that hops are the varietals of the beer world, an idea that many brewers have seized on with numerous single hop brews constructed to show off the individual characteristics of a specific variety, so dedicated connoisseurs can get to know their Citra from their Challenger. But while the new primacy of the hop in drinkers’ consciousness has been most welcome, the resinous cones are by no means the sole ingredient of beer.

Yeast, too, is worthy of attention beyond the current penchant for Belgian variants and Brettanomyces in certain sections of the craft brewing world. Grains, meanwhile, are very much the unsung hero, despite making up the bulk of the dry ingredients, fuelling the fermentation and providing the backbone of the flavour.

So I was particularly intrigued to spot a sensory workshop focused on ‘craft’ malt in the seminar programme at the Craft Brewers Conference in Denver, Colorado, yesterday, even if it meant engaging my beer tasting faculties at the businesslike hour of 0900. The event was coordinated by the newly formed Craft Maltsters Guild, which began as a Google group in 2012 bringing together the growing number of speciality maltings that are springing up in the wake of the growth of craft brewing in North America. To qualify as a craft maltster, you need to be independently owned, source at least 50% of your ingredients locally and produce less than between five and 10,000 tonnes a year.

In preparation for this session, five maltsters collaborated with Christian Holbrook, a quality specialist at New Belgium in nearby Fort Collins, to create five beers showcasing different pale malts, plus a ‘control’ beer featuring that old stalwart of quality brewing, English Maris Otter pale malt. Christian brewed six beers on New Belgium’s pilot 10hl kit, all to the same very simple recipe.

Five of the beers were made with 200kg of a single pale malt mashed at 68°C, followed by a 75 minute boil with a modest 0.5kg of Oregon-grown Nugget hops, then fermented with New Belgium’s house ale yeast at 20°C. A sixth, gluten-free beer made with 100% millet needed a rather different treatment, but still featured the same quantity of grain and the same hop bill.

Six pale ales from different malts: left to right, Colorado, Grouse Millet, Frontenac, Riverbend, Valley, Maris Otter.

Six pale ales from different malts: left to right, Colorado, Grouse Millet, Frontenac, Riverbend, Valley, Maris Otter.

As soon as I got my nose over the first glass of beer I knew I was in for a sensory treat. I’ve got a sweet tooth, and love the fresh grainy sweetness of good malt. It’s always a delight to taste unfermented wort at a brewery – I treasure the memory of visiting Budvar in České Budějovice and sampling wort scooped fresh from the open lautering system as it gushed through a row of giant copper taps.

It’s a tendency I have to rein in when judging beers, as ‘wortiness’ is often a technical flaw, indicating a fermentation that hasn’t quite worked, leaving too much of the soothing breakfast cereal note of unfermented wort behind. Or it could be a stylistic issue if it isn’t balanced by sufficient hop character.

No such problem here as the beers were specifically brewed to showcase the flavour of the malt. But aside from the fact that all of them exhibited the expected fresh from the field graininess – you could almost smell the diesel fumes from the combine harvester – and cereal sweetness, the real surprise was how different they all were from each other.

The original gravity – the proportion of sugar extracted from the malt during mashing – varied slightly from beer to beer (for the technically minded, from 10.6° to 11.5° Plato, or 1043 to 1046, for the barley malt beers), while the alcohol content of the finished beers ranged from a gentle 3.4% to a rather more hefty 5.2% ABV. Hops provided a just detectable background burr of clean resins, with IBUs a very mild 16-21.

More obviously noticeable was the variation in colour. As you’d expect from 100% pale malt beers, most of them turned out an attractive golden-yellow, but ranged from a very delicate straw to a warm burnished gold that would just about pass for a lighter-coloured English bitter (in figures, that’s from 5.6 ERM/11 EBC to 9.4 ERM/18.5 EBC).

The millet beer was always going to be out on its own in flavour, and it looked different too, as the palest and most turbid entrant on the table. It was made with pale white proso millet malt from Grouse Malting and Roasting Company in Wellington, Colorado. The company specialises in gluten-free malts, and founder Twila Henley, who herself has a gluten-sensitive condition, introduced the beer.

Gluten-free brewing has made great progress in recent years and Twila is clearly making a major contribution to this, but for those of us fortunate enough to be gluten-tolerant, even the best of gluten-free beers are difficult to compare with their conventional counterparts. Grouse Pale Millet (4.5% ABV) had a porridgey, sweetish, slightly plastic-tinged and not especially pleasant aroma, though the palate was interestingly smooth and light, with a slightly tart acidity that balanced well, and a gentle hint of lemon in the finish.

The lightest of the barley beers was Valley Pale (3.4%), made with two-row Pinnacle spring barley harvested at Omora Farm in Canastota, New York, and malted at Valley Malt in Headley, Massachusetts, founded by Andrea and Christian Stanley as a specialist supplier of brewing grains grown in New England.

This pale yellow beer had a good bubbly white head, with a smooth, rich aroma of clean, slightly sugary grain. The palate was smooth and rather bland, with a very light finish that just revealed a hint of lemon barley water. You probably wouldn’t want to brew a commercial beer to this formulation with this malt – something true for most of them – but it would give a very clean, subtle cereal backdrop to a more complex recipe.

Frontenac Pale Ale (3.9%) was also notably mild in character, a pale yellow beer with a biscuity, creamy aroma. The graininess was very distinct but unassertive on the palate, again with a hint of lemon, and a subtle, drying finish.

The beer was created with pale malt from locally grown two-row organic Bentley barley supplied by Malterie Frontenac in Thetford Mines, Québec, an artisanal maltings founded in 2006 which champions malt as a “fruit du terroir ou le grain a tiré toute sa substance et son essence” (the product of a locality from which the grain has taken all its substance and its essence).

Appropriately, the ‘control’ beer stood midway in terms of character. Maris Otter (MO), the celebrated English variety of two-row winter barley, is still rated very highly among the world’s brewers as a precursor of top quality pale malt, and Simpsons is one of the best known of the UK’s remaining maltings, with plants in Essex, Norfolk and Northumberland.

Simpsons Maris Otter Pale (4.7%) was one of the stronger beers, and slightly darker than some, shading to an orange glow, with a very good sticky white head. A subtle grainy note and light esters were evident on a creamy aroma, while the light palate had a slightly brittle acidity alongside sweetness. Hops seemed more evident, interacting with husky grain, while the finish also had a light acidity and gentle underlying bitterness. The MO arguably did best of all in enabling the very quiet voice of the hops to make itself heard.

The last two beers demonstrated the depth of character that good malt can offer. Despite the neutrality of the overall recipe these beers were well worth drinking in their own right and might even be worth working up into commercial recipes, perhaps with a few tweaks – they were certainly streets ahead of the sort of timid, sweet, malt (and adjunct)-focused beer that sadly accounts for much of the mass market.

Glowing golden amber Colorado Pale (4.5%), made with Scarlett two-row spring barley malted at the Colorado Malting Company in Alamosa, was the darkest of the beers, perhaps a reflection of the low moisture content resulting from the blessedly dry climate in this part of the world. The highly persistent head was another indicator of quality, and the grainy, chaffy aroma seemed straight out of the barn.

A clean and very soft palate had some fascinating toasty, spicy notes and a hint of fruity acidity. The fruit and spice became more noticeable in a drying chaffy finish, with a late slightly musty note.

The most complex of the lot, and also the strongest, was Riverbend Pale (5.2%), made from a mix of six-row Thoroughbred and two-row Endeavour barley floor malted at Riverbend Malthouse, Asheville, North Carolina. Brent Manning and Brian Simpson started the company after noticing that craft brewers in their home state were importing malt from elsewhere rather than using locally grown grain. The ethically-minded company makes much of its environmental credentials, as well as paying good prices to its suppliers and a decent wage to its staff.

The paleness of the beer belied its impact. The sweetish aroma had an intriguing dusty note, and a very creamy palate was notably spicy, almost like a spiced biscuit, with a natural sweetness. Had I not known differently I might have suspected a handful of rye malt.

The cleansing swallow didn’t quite follow through, turning slightly thin with a hint of lemon, but what a showcase for traditional malt flavour. Brent sung the praises of traditional techniques, theorising that the envelope of carbon dioxide surrounding grains sitting on a maltings floor encourages subtly different characteristics compared to industrial methods where grains are continuously agitated as they dry.

Plaudits are due both to New Belgium and to the maltsters for this fascinating experiment which gave new insights into the flavour profile of beer. I found myself inwardly cheering Frontenac’s Bruno Vachon, who made an impassioned plea for more focus on malt character among brewers, telling delegates “you should be able to taste the grain.”