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Big Smoke beers on the comeback trail

Once the envy of the beer world, London brewing is making a Lazarus-style comeback.

Years ago, London was a pretty big deal when it came to beer. At its peak in the 18th century, it boasted more than 160 breweries, their smoke stacks smearing London’s smoggy skyline with malty aromas, slaking the thirst of the masses and greasing the cogs of a swaggering British empire.

Barclay Perkins, whose premises were to the south of the Tate Modern, was once the world’s largest brewery, London was the birthplace of Porter, India Pale Ale and Stout and it reigned supreme as the brewing capital of the world.

Since then, however, its brewing crown has slipped somewhat, the result of a shameful shakeout of brewing history. When Young’s abandoned its Wandsworth birthplace in 2006 and fled to a new suburban home in Bedfordshire, just two breweries remained in London, just two in a city with more than 15m people.

But, a few years on, and the capital’s craft brewing scene is making a quiet comeback and  an increasing number of Big Smoke beer drinkers are realising that lush London liquids are being brewed on their doorstep.  

For starters, you’ve got Fullers. Brewing in Chiswick for more than 150 years, it boasts the nation’s best selling premium ale in London Pride and, under the stewardship of brewers John Keeling and former Young’s brewmaster Derek Prentice, it’s recently ventured into more esoteric and ambitious ale-making with Brewers Reserve, a limited edition drop aged in an array of oak barrels.

Equally appealing to ale aficionados is “Vintage Ale”, a bottle conditioned interpretation of its Golden Pride barley wine, and “Gale’s Prize Old Ale”, the nearest an English ale gets to the Lambic liquids of Belgium.

Meantime, meanwhile, has delivered a defibrillating jolt to the heart of London’s brewing past by excavating, restoring and resuming brewing at the old Royal Naval College in Greenwich, one of London’s oldest brewing sites dating back to 1717.

On the former site of the Royal Hospital brewery, where seafarers ‘sickness was once allayed with daily rations of beer, it has opened a restaurant, bar and café containing a micro-brewery on which brewmaster and founder Alastair Hook will not only revive ancient recipes using ingredients such as ‘bog myrtle’ or ‘wormwood’ but also create new avant garde beers such as Mojito Pilsners and Juniper Pale Ales.

Meantime is also set to quadruple its brewing capacity with a £1.5m move into a new 12,000 hectolitre brewery in Greenwich, only ten minutes walk from the O2 Arena. “London has been long been recognised as a major culinary capital, at the forefront of the food renaissance currently taking place in Britain. Beer should properly be seen as a food, so it should be unsurprising that there is also a brewing renaissance in London,” said Alastair Hook.

“London was the brewing capital of the world right up until the late nineteenth century. It was home to the world’s biggest breweries, who then led the way in the introduction of new technology and brewing techniques.

“Here at Meantime we are doggedly sticking to that London brewing tradition, as the two new breweries we are opening in 2010 will clearly demonstrate.”

London gained another microbrewer in 2008 with the arrival of the Sambrook Brewery in Battersea. Disillusioned with both life as an accountant and the lack of London-brewed beers, Duncan Sambrook opened the eponymous 20 barrel brewery with David Welsh, formerly of the Ringwood brewery in Wiltshire.  

Helped by the sliding scale of duty afforded to smaller breweries, Sambrook has filled the local bitter-shaped void left by Young’s and its flagship Wandle Ale, a quintessentially English session bitter, has gained a strong following south of the river.

Ale is being hailed north of the Thames too. Former Bond Trader Andrew Moffat has opened the Redemption Brewing Company in Tottenham at a cost of more than £100k. Using a 12-barrel plant and with a short course in brewing from Sunderland University under his belt, Moffat unleashed his first cask-conditioned beer, a pale ale, in January and more are to follow it into local pubs and specialist shops.

The capital’s brewing contingent is to grow yet again later this year with the launch of a new North London micro. The “Camden Town Brewery” is due to begin brewing in late Spring, crafting a trio of beers on a bespoke, 20 hectolitre state-of-the-art brewery installed within railway arches in Camden.

It’s the brainchild of Jasper Cuppiadge, an Australian whose grandfather owned the Mac’s brewery in Queensland. Jasper, who is also the brewer and owner of The Horseshoe Brewpub in Hampstead, is planning to make a Pilsner with a five week lagering period, a Bavarian wheat beer and an authentic India Pale Ale using British malts.

“We’ve scoured the world looking for the best equipment and money simply isn’t an issue in terms of ingredients,” said Jasper. “Great beer is what people want and you have to make great beer using the best ingredients and the best equipment.

“We want to help breathe life back into London’s brewing heritage but we want to do it in a way that is exciting, innovative and appealing to a new generation of London drinkers” he added.     

Meantime’s Alastair Hook agreed that it’s a good time to be a London brewer. “There is a new breed of consumer,” he said. “They are cosmopolitan, curious, informed and thirsty for beers of great taste and flavour, made with respect for the ingredients used and possessing genuine provenance. Now is a very exciting time to be a brewer in this great city.”

Ben McFarland, 09.03.2010

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