Yesterday, I took a day away from the building site that is our home to visit London and sample some beers with my friend Russell, of Hooksmith Press. It being London Beer City, along with the Great British Beer Festival and the London Craft Beer Festival, it seemed almost rude to not go to London and drink beer.
Although I lived in London from 1997 to 2011, I already feel like an outsider, a country mouse, when I visit. All major cities have certain consistent qualities – a winding river, a dominant old building, a hill – but cities that launder channel large amounts of money also change fast. London is no exception. The number of ego monuments going up at the moment is extraordinary. London was never a highrise town, but the money men seem determined to turn it into one. It’s just plain weird – there are only so many empty offices and flats for the mega rich one city needs.
Back down on the ground, however, another way in which London is changing fast is its beer scene. Small independent breweries are popping up right, left and centre. Back when I lived in London, there were very few. Fuller’s had, somehow, survived the culls and takeovers*, and still operated as a fair-sized independent, offering beers like the easy drinking, organic golden Honey Dew that helped me transition to ale appreciation. While Fuller’s was founded in 1845, new breweries were rare. One that led the way was Meantime, which was founded in 2000. Where I lived in south London, meanwhile, The Florence pub in Herne Hill began producing its own beers on-site in 2007.
The new beer scene arguably took off in London, however, with The Kernel, which started brewing in 2009. The growth since then has been incredible. According to beer writer Des de Moor, “By the beginning of 2014, despite a few losses, there were well over 50 [breweries] – a quintupling of brewery numbers over five years.” All this happening after I’d left the city. No wonder I feel like an outsider now, with all these new buildings, and new beers.
The first place we went to was Russell’s local in Leytonstone, the grand Red Lion (640 High Road, Leytonstone, London E11 3AA). Even pubs like this exemplify how our beer culture has changed the past decade. Part of the Antic chain, it has an excellent selection of beers, keg, cask and bottle, including Meantime and The Kernel but also Beavertown (purveyors of my favourite recent beer, Gamma Ray), Camden Brewery and London Fields Brewery. I’d never had anything from the latter, which was founded in 2011, so tried their Love Not War, cask. It’s reddish, with a fairly full, chewy, malty body and a big slap of hops.
That second place we went to was Crate on Fish Island, Hackney Wick, east London. This is an area defined by old warehouses, canals, 2012 Olympics facilities seeming to lumber on the horizon like weary daikaiju, grafitti and hipsters. Lots of hipsters.
I suspect fairly quickly me and Russ felt old. We’re not, really – we’re half-way between the twenty-something hipsters and the sixty-something CAMRA crowd. Which isn’t a bad place to be, as I reckon it makes us old enough to have some knowledge, and some memories of when beer was really bad, but young enough to be receptive to extreme hop forwardiness, weird adjuncts, and even beer in kegs and cans.
Indeed, Russ is more inclined to colder, fizzier beers from kegs (at say 6C). Personally, I favour the Great British pint hand-pulled from a cask, carbonated by the live, active state of the yeast, and served at cellar temperatures (say 12C). Luckily, the real beer explosion the past few years, and particularly in well-served places like London, means we can both be satisfied in the same bars and pubs. The old guard might poo-poo all keg beer, but you can’t argue with the craftsmanship of these beers.
We were both broadly after more hoppy brews so the comparisons were interesting. To my mind, 6C is still a bit too cold, neutralising some of the aromas and flavours, but as Americans will always tell you, colder beer is more refreshing. I reckon a keg beer, clasped in body temperature hands (37C ish) will get to just about the right temperature when you’ve drunk half a pint.
Crate, a brewery with a canalside bar and pizzeria, has been open since 2012. We jumped over a fence and sat by the canal, which was remarkably clean and only partially cluttered with dilapidated barges. Russ informed me these were the local hipsters’ accommodation of choice, and that it wasn’t unusual for them to arrive at the bar from round the corner in mini speedboats. This really wasn’t my London at all. The beer was good though. My Pale Ale was rich and almost meaty in its taste, along with hints of coconut, pineapple. Russ had the IPA, which was also good… though a bit cold and fizzy initially. We had to agree to disagree on this one. Being a New Zealander Russ probably can’t help himself.
After Crate we wandered around Fish Island some more, checking out the new Truman’s brewery, with its sign saying “Established 1666 / Closed 1989 / Re-established 2010”. I’ve got mixed feelings about this. Truman’s was a familiar name growing up even if I didn’t drink it, but I do wonder whether it was really necessary to re-cycle an old brand when you’re joining a new era of brewing and asserting your own identity with new brews. We went round the corner to the brewery’s tap room, The Cygnet, on Swan Whaft, another canalside location with a similar hipster presence and cartoony, grafitti-ish wall art. Here, the hipster boy serving couldn’t do the mental arithmetic for the change from a £20 note from two £4 beers, and the beer Russ had was the only duffer we had that day. It was an NZ Pale from Hackney Brewery. It was packed with NZ hops, so we had to try it, but it was badly kept, posisbly spoiled, and far too warm – around room temp, 20C ish, despite the casks being wrapped in thermal skins. I had Truman’s Lazarus, a 42% ABV golden pale ale that was delicious. The site says, “Lazarus is our celebration of the rebirth of Truman’s”, which again seems slightly odd when it’s all about the quintessentially American Cascade and Chinook hops – not exactly characteristics of traditional English beer.
Afterwards, we headed across town to meet Fran at the Cask near Victoria. Thanks for the connections, orange Overland. Public transport as it should be: rationalised, wide-ranging, clean and functional. Why can’t more British trains be like this?
I’ve written about the Cask before, but wanted to visit this evening as their part of London Beer City was a New Brewery Showcase and Meet the Brewers event. Of the six breweries flagged up on the flyer, one was Burning Sky, one of my two most local in Lewes, while Atom is in Hull, with the remaining four – Strawman, Hammerton, Anspach & Hobday and Bullfinch – being in London. Although the first one I had was London Session, from London Beer Factory, an outfit based on West Norwood, southeast London. According to a post on A London Beer and Pub Guide from June 2014, “London brewery count rises to 70 with the addition of London Beer Factory, who have just started brewing.” The beer was good and wholesome, like apple crumble and custard.
Next up I had Strawman’s 3.9% ABV Saison, from a keg. Russ said it tasted of pears and almonds. Along with bubblegum. And “soap – the kind of soap you get in a B&B” and “Parma Violets” according to Fran, who was drinking Bullfinch’s Rascal, a 4.8% ABV session IPA that was massively hoppy. The site says it’s “Currently featuring Kazbek, Simcoe, Ahtanum and Colombus hops”.
Russ was drinking Burning Sky at my recommendation, but as I generally drink either Burning Sky or Harveys when I’m at home I was favouring the London brews. Though I did get to meet Burning Sky’s brewer, Mark Tranter.
I think we started losing track a bit by this point. Not because we were especially sozzled, but more because we were busy chatting, as we’d not seen Russ for years. And eating. The Cask is the only place I’ve ever been that can make the non-meat burger equivalent that is a mushroom in a roll into something really good, with stacks of halloumi. (I won’t call it “the vegetarian option” as just cos you eat meat doesn’t mean you always have to choose meat; I eat meat, but fancied halloumi more.)
Our last round was all about the hops, with some almost eye-wateringly bitter beers. We had Hammerton’s N7 Pale Ale, which Fran said was reminiscent of “sweaty armpits”; then Anspach & Hobday’s The IPA; and Atom’s This Is IPA. Lots of astringency, sweat and sweeties, specifically pear drops.
Personally, I’d say the latter two were actually APAs, or British APAs, BAPAs, not IPAs. IPAs simply aren’t that aggressive, or at least they weren’t historically. It’s all in flux, and very dynamic. And really, with this half-day wander round London, guided by Russ, I barely even began to scratch the surface of what’s been happening since I moved out of London. I’m not sure how often I can justify going up to London to booze, but each time I do, the prospect of yet more new beers and new breweries is exciting. Sure all these places won’t last, and things will have to bed down to match the market, but what amazing times. It’d almost be possible to forget most of Britain is still dominated by shit industrial lager.
* CAMRA probably played a notable role in this survival. It had been founded in 1971 and within five years was a significant, influential body. In ‘Brew Britannia: The Strange Rebirth of British Beer’ Jessica Boak and Ray Bailey write, of CAMRA’s mid-1970s successes, “The rot had been stopped, and breweries such as Young’s and Fuller’s were no longer simply under threat but were booming.”