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.