Houses of Craft

And the Rest Will Follow — The Evolution of London’s Beer Culture

A decade ago, London was home to just 10 breweries—the lowest number of breweries in the city since the late 1970s. My hometown of the last decade is home to almost nine million people. That’s not a lot of breweries to go around! Life in this city moves forward much faster than in many others, which is why it’s no surprise that when American craft beer started to become increasingly popular around 2010-2011, London responded by creating a new culture of its own almost immediately.

London’s now home to more than 80 breweries and brewpubs, well on its way to topping the three-figure mark soon. This new explosion of brewing creativity from outfits such as The Kernel and Camden Town Brewery, along with rekindled interest in one of the older and most important regional brewers, Fuller’s, has gradually encouraged a niche interest to become the mainstream. The resulting revolution includes a varied and colorful palette of breweries, pubs, bars, and bottle shops that are steadily continuing to define a new beer culture that is now spreading throughout the entirety of the UK. Below, we highlight several of them in an effort to present a snapshot of where we are at this point—a picture that didn’t even exist five years ago.

Hackney is one of the most vibrant and culturally diverse boroughs in London, and at its heart sits the bustling Mare Street. Just a short walk from the nearby train station sits The Cock Tavern. Aside from a sign outside advertising “lots of nice beer and lovely meat,” there is very little to distinguish it from other pubs.

Inside, there’s a deliberately ramshackle décor with cozy, scattered seating, and a modest L-shaped bar. Beer pours from both keg and cask via a row of hand-pulls. The Cock is one of the best examples of traditional British beer culture colliding headfirst with the modern scene—and it works surprisingly well.

It’s surprising because traditional UK beer culture and the modern, U.S.-inspired one are like two pieces of the same puzzle that don’t quite fit together. This gap is predominantly generational, but as this kind of beer becomes increasingly mainstream, this Venn diagram of liquid culture is gradually merging to become a whole again.

“We’re not entirely sure what makes The Cock so special,” Owner and founder Peter Holt says. “There are certain intangible elements that make pubs, or any space, nice places to be. It goes beyond fashionable light fittings or wallpaper.”

After seeing the increased popularity of great beer at his first pub, North London’s The Southampton Arms, Holt opened The Cock in 2011 and installed a brewhouse, the original Howling Hops brewery, in the basement. “The Cock had a huge cellar, and Jasper [Cuppaidge] from Camden Town Brewery was looking for a new home for his old brew kit,” he says. “There was some good beer out there at that time, but the majority was pretty boring. We thought that that if we could brew some good quality ale, selling it would be no problem.”

Holt and his team would go on to brew more than 100 different beers in The Cock’s basement. Beer was served directly from bright tanks in the cellar to make sure it was as fresh as possible—a concept that would be continued as part of their expansion. “We expanded a few times but still couldn’t really keep up with the demand,” Holt says. “We needed to expand again, somewhere with more than 5’10” of ceiling height.”

In 2015, Howling Hops re-launched with fresh, vibrant branding and a fresh, new 15 BBL brewery in nearby Hackney Wick. The centerpiece of this was a new “tank bar”—a taproom where beer is served directly from bright tanks stacked vertically behind the bar. This relaxed, open space channels the ramshackle feel of Holt’s pubs but somehow feels altogether more modern.  And as it turns out, drinking beer served directly from a giant tank in full view of the consumer enhances the overall experience. Beers like the sessionable, bitter Running Beer and the deeply juicy West Coast-Style IPA are just a few of the highlights.

“Moving to the new brewery is like parking your Ford Fiesta and getting into a Ferrari,” Holt says. “It’s a beautiful Bavarian kit with all the bells and whistles. Fourteen fermentation vessels means there’s plenty of room to brew lots of different beers. The mash tun digs itself out, the beers cool down to one degree, everything just flows better.”

Howling Hops’ beer is served at the brewery from 10 bright tanks positioned proudly in full view behind the bar. The establishment is a great example of how demand is driving the evolution and expansion of London’s craft beer culture. It’s just another day in the life for Holt, though.

“There’s so many good breweries in London now,” he shrugs, “all doing different things and, importantly, so many people eager to drink good beer.”

Another place that embodies the spirit of East London’s old-meets-new beer culture is The Five Points Brewing Company. Its two sites—one for brewing, the other for storage—are a literal stone’s throw away from The Cock. Founded by former publican Ed Mason in 2013, Five Points creates beers that straddle the line between the traditional and modern beer worlds.

Five Points Pale is a staple, complete with rounded-out citrus flavors that really shine when it’s on cask. Railway Porter is a solid, traditional Porter, rich with notes of stone fruit and almost-smoky undertones of chocolate and freshly roasted coffee beans. At the other end of the spectrum is Hook Island Red, a beer packed with pithy, piney Yakima hops and at a higher ABV that makes it drink much closer to an American IPA.

The brewery’s marketing manager, Florida transplant Doreen Joy Barber, is one of the most well-known faces in London’s beer scene. When she’s not at the brewery, she’s often sitting at the bar at one of her favorite pubs—or pouring beer behind it. “Although there are many breweries in London, I believe we stand out in our approach to the beer we brew,” Barber says. “I love the exuberant choice from breweries who are constantly changing up their hops and their brews, who play fast and loose with beer styles and brew according to their whims and wishes. However, we are relentless in working with a tight core range, and more often than not, focusing on perfecting those beers in quality, consistency and, importantly, taste.”

Like Howling Hops, The Five Points has expanded to meet the ever-increasing demand for its beers, with three 60 BBL fermenters recently added to the brewery. Impressively, as they’ve scaled up, quality has not just been consistent—it’s actually improved. Five years ago, when the resurgence of breweries in London began, quality often played second fiddle to flavor and experimentation. As more people become increasingly aware of what makes a good beer, there are far fewer places to hide off flavors or poor recipes.

It’s this ability to keep pace that has seen The Five Points become a regular fixture on taps and pumps throughout the entire city. This month they’re set to double their brewing capacity with the addition of more fermentation and storage space, which is just another reason why their growth isn’t slowing anytime soon.

In Bermondsey, South London, not far from the historic Tower Bridge, lies a stretch that’s home to the highest concentration of breweries in the city. The Bermondsey Beer Mile, as locals call it, contains seven small and independent breweries. It’s home to The Kernel—which arguably lit the flame underneath the proverbial melting pot that is London’s new beer scene—as well as other bright innovators, Anspach & Hobday and Brew By Numbers.

But perhaps the most unabashedly ambitious of the new guard is Fourpure Brewing Co. Fourpure conveys a slicker, much more business savvy image than the other beer makers that share the mile. Its taproom is littered with the livery of the many U.S. breweries that owners and founders, brothers Dan and Tom Lowe, have visited on their travels. Even its original canning line was manufactured by Cask Systems Inc., a business based out of Boulder, Colorado.

Fourpure’s bearded, Mancunian head of sales, Rob Davies, is pretty relaxed despite the constant, rapid development of the brewery he works for. “Diversity is what makes London’s beer scene such an important one,” he says over a beer. “If you look at the cluster of seven breweries in Bermondsey, for instance, we’re all very different and diverse. We’re now seeing an incredibly diverse range of people coming to the taproom on Saturday. It’s not just the crusty old craft-beer folk. It’s an all-inclusive scene.”

Fourpure’s beer might not be as exciting or adventurous as some of the wildly different beer being produced in the capital, but it is some of the most solid. A highlight of its lineup that stands out from a core range consisting predominantly of bright and hop-forward pales is a killer Pilsner. Fourpure Pils has the kind of depth, flavor, and accessibility that could replace bigger brands on tap around town. Its expansion also sees the economy of scale come into play, as Fourpure gains the ability to compete in the marketplace on both price as well as quality.

Davies is confident that Fourpure will continue to grow exponentially as it reaches both national and international markets. In fact, he exudes confidence in spades: “I believe we have developed some outstanding go-to beers that people won’t be able to live without.”

Where Fourpure presents a carefully considered and ambitious image, West London’s Weird Beard Brew Co. presents itself as slightly less uniform and more informal. In reality, they’re just two different sides of the same coin. Both businesses are looking to grow their brand in an increasingly competitive marketplace, but they’re each happy to do this at their own pace and in their own style.  

Weird Beard founders Bryan Spooner and Gregg Irwin started their journey as homebrewers. After a chance meeting at the Euston Tap, one of London’s first craft-orientated bars, a partnership was formed. Not long after, Weird Beard was born. “Thinking back, we should have set up in Hackney or Bermondsey,” Spooner says. “We've got a lot more space out here, though, and that's not something we should take for granted.”

It’s safe to say that Weird Beard, and their penchant to throw silly amounts of Sorachi Ace into almost everything, are leading the charge for craft in West London. For their 200th brew, they produced Defacer, a Triple IPA with a flavor profile dominated by a savory, lemongrass-meets-mango Sorachi profile. Not all of their beers are this out there, though—the Weird Beard flagship Pale Ale, Mariana Trench, features much softer notes of tropical and citrus fruits.

With Hackney and Bermondsey becoming the hubs intrinsic to London’s brewery boom, it’s no surprise that Spooner and Irwin have at times felt disconnected from the scene. But their award-winning beers speak volumes, earning honors from parties as disparate as RateBeer and CAMRA in the process.  Meanwhile, the distance between Weird Beard and the rest of the London brewing scene has certainly not hampered its growth. Aside from Fuller’s and its huge Griffin brewery, West London’s scene was sorely lacking before Weird Beard came along. With its older demographic West London was a tougher market to crack than those in the East or South parts of the city. But following Weird Beard’s success, a new wave of brewers almost unexpectedly spring up around them.

“I guess we're the big fish in a small West London brewing community,” Irwin says. “Hopefully we can help this scene expand over the coming years.”

The story of Beavertown Brewery begins in New York City, where a young Logan Plant—son of Led Zeppelin frontman, Robert—discovered what would become his two great loves: beer and barbecue. After returning home, he set up his own BBQ restaurant, Duke’s Brew and Que, in a small part of Hackney known as De Beauvoir Town—Beavertown to locals.

Opposite the smoker in the kitchen, Plant installed a 4 BBL kit so he could upscale his homebrews. There was Smog Rocket, a Smoked Porter designed to pair with the beef ribs being made a few feet away. There was also Neck Oil, which, early on, was a clone of his beloved Batham’s Bitter—a classic local ale produced just outside of his hometown of Wolverhampton.

But the beer that put Beavertown on the map was an American Pale Ale called Gamma Ray. At 5.45% ABV, and full of intensely juicy, tropical fruit flavors, Plant concocted the perfect recipe to capture the taste buds of London’s new wave of beer drinkers. Beavertown hasn’t been able to keep up with demand since pretty much day one, and have been constantly growing because of it.

“The best way to describe Gamma Ray is by applying the old motto of my favorite footballing city, Wolverhampton,” Plant begins. “‘Out of darkness, cometh light.’ I wanted to create a bastion that when seen or drank would resonate ‘Beavertown’ in people’s minds.”

The brewery’s rapid success since brewing began in 2012 is unprecedented, even by London’s standards. They’ve since moved home twice, now brewing in Tottenham, North London, where they’ve also managed to develop one of the most vibrant taproom cultures in the UK. “It’s taken us less than two years to go from brewing 1500 HL [1278 BBLs] in Hackney Wick to 35,000 HL [29,825 BBLs] in Tottenham,” Plant says, smiling. But he’s still down to earth about it. “Starting on my own four years ago in the cellar at Duke’s to now sharing my day with 40 amazing people, each one making us tick and what we are today—that’s a true highlight.”

Beavertown is perhaps the best example of how far brewing in London has come in just five short years. From developing a dependable core lineup, to starting-and-quickly-expanding a barrel aging program, to exporting beer all over the world including Sweden and the U.S., Beavertown is living proof that the face of beer in London, and indeed the rest of the UK, has changed for good.

Down a small, cobbled alley called Paradise Row is a bar that encapsulates all of the changes London’s beer scene has witnessed over the last few years. Mother Kelly’s sits in a refurbished railway arch in Bethnal Green, East London. Along one wall is a row of fridges filled with bottles of beer from all over the world. The other is decorated with graffiti depicting both a London and a New York City taxi. On the back wall are 20 taps pouring beer that has traveled anywhere from 500 meters to 5000 miles.

There’s no cask beer here—its sister pubs, Simon the Tanner in Bermondsey and The Queen’s Head in Kings Cross, handle that. Nevertheless, Mother Kelly’s captures the spirit of this new brewing generation like nowhere else. In fact, if you come here on a weeknight, you’re likely to see employees of several London breweries chatting away over beers.

To an outsider, London’s vastness could appear scattered and disjointed, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. The city’s beer scene is dynamic because of camaraderie and togetherness. The main difference between present day and five years ago is that there are now hundreds of talented, enthusiastic individuals working in beer that weren’t before. Whether they’ve discovered it through homebrewing, studying, or simply by finding the right beer at the right moment, they’ve joined forces to make this city and its beer better.

It’s only just getting started, too. It’s impossible to predict where London’s beer culture will be in 12 months, let alone in five years. But it’s not slowing down. I look forward to sitting in Mother Kelly’s with a Gamma Ray and watching it all unfold. 

Words + Photos by
Matthew Curtis

Matthew Curtis

Matthew Curtis is a British beer writer and photographer based in London, England, giving GBH a unique perspective on the British Craft Beer scene.

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