European Capital: How London’s brewing scene is bucking Brexit

Will Hawkes

Will Hawkes

12 March 2018

‘This location is unbeatable,’ says Felix Bollen, gesturing around him at Mercato Metropolitano, a huge street-food market based in a former paper factory in Elephant and Castle, south London.

You can see his point: the places buzzes with gluttonous possibility. There are 40 stalls selling food from around the world (the emphasis is Italian, but it’s not just pasta and pizza) and plenty to drink too, from Italian craft beer to the inevitable prosecco stand.

And now there’s German Kraft, the brewery owned by Bollen and partners Anton Borkmann and Michele Tieghi, which has just made its first beer on-site: Kraft Rocket, a smoked dark lager in the Franconian style. It’s a bold start, but German Kraft’s approach, to make traditional German styles in a city where hops rule the roost, is bold enough already.

Perhaps, though, Bollen and his friends are onto something. Over the last few years a group of London breweries has emerged with a more European focus. Not only German Kraft, but Bohem a Czech brewery based in Tottenham and Beerheadz, also in Tottenham, which is run by four Italian friends. As Brexit rumbles ever nearer, London’s brewing scene is becoming more European by the week.

For 23-year-old Bollen, that can only be a good thing. ‘I think craft beer is ready to move on from very hoppy or experimental brews,’ he says. ‘We’re moving back towards balance, those beers you can enjoy five of in an evening without getting bored. That is what we stand for.’

Kraft's first beer brewed on-site is already under its belt
Kraft's first beer brewed on-site is already under its belt

It’s a very German approach. Bollen was born in Hamburg but much of his family come from Franconia, the northern third of Bavaria, where German beer culture is at its strongest. Until recently, indeed, German Kraft’s beer was made at Steinbach Brau in Erlangen, Franconia, and head brewer Tobias Medla spent a number of years working there as part of his seven-year brewing training (his diploma is on the wall at German Kraft).

He’s putting that education to work on a 20-hectolitre Zip Technologies brewkit that will produce a variety of German styles, with the Helles lager ‘Heidi Blonde’ proving the most popular thus far. It hasn’t been cheap: nearly £1m has been spent on getting German Kraft to where it is now.

One element that Bollen is very keen to talk about is the water, which is purified using ‘exclusive water distillation and mineralisation technology’. ‘The water in London is not good for making lager,’ says Bollen, whose father is the CEO at the Aquiva Foundation, a water charity. ‘We’re using the waste heat from the fermenters to distill tap water.’

The water in London is not good for making lager

Felix Bollen

Across the way from German Kraft is The Italian Job, a craft-beer bar that sells ales and lagers from Italy and the UK. In the fridges you’ll find bottles of beer made by Brewheadz, a brewery run by Vincenzo Conte, Giovanni Massa, and brothers Stefano and Gianni Rotunno, that fits into both categories.

Gianni, the head brewer, came to London 12 years ago and got hooked on beer after trying Brewdog’s Punk IPA. He started homebrewing and got his three friends all from the southern Italian town of Fondi into it too. Eventually they all ended up in London, and Brewheadz funded by £100,000 from the boys’ own pockets was founded in late 2016.

Unlike German Kraft, though, Brewheadz’s beers are modern in conception. There’s Electrobeat, an American pale ale, Sunny Side, a session IPA, and others including a Porter. Ten different beers have been made thus far on their 6.5-hectolitre kit. ‘We want to make beer that we like to drink,’ says Conte. ‘We are not big fans of the fashionable murky beers, the New England IPAs, but we do like hops as long as it is balanced, too.’

The Brewheadz guys
The Brewheadz guys

There is an Italian element, though. ‘For us, it is like cooking,’ says Conte. ‘We’re keen to work with Italian ingredients, like peaches or strawberries.’ They’ve already brewed a couple of beers with Italian ingredients: a Rosemary Rye Saison in collaboration with fellow Londoners Affinity and a Tiramisu Stout with Wild Weather Ales. ‘That went really well,’ he adds. ‘We are going to make it again. Some people are still asking for it!’

Although they’re not specifically Italian in approach, being Italian has helped, says Conte. ‘Lots of Italians work in breweries and bars in London,’ he adds. ‘It helps when you’re trying to sell beer and the person is Italian. The beer still has to be good, though. We have to make good beer.’

Brewheadz’ beer might soon be on sale at the new Tottenham Hotspur stadium, which is less than a mile from the brewery and which will open for the new season in August. The club has been in contact, saying they want to sell local beers which could also be good news for the borough’s other European brewery, Bohem.

In demand 

If Spurs do want Bohem beer, though, they’ll have to join the queue. Having started on a tiny kit in a unit in Bowes Park, the brewery run by Czechs Zdenek Kudr and Petr Skocek has recently expanded in Tottenham.

‘Everything so far has exceeded our wildest dreams,’ says Kudr. ‘Since early autumn [2017], unprecedented demand for our beers has completely outstripped capacity. We have had to turn down pubs and restaurants that wanted to stock our products, and, worst of all, we have often not had bottles available at our own tap-room.’

In a city where tank-beer imported directly from the Czech Republic has become a fairly common sight, it’s no surprise that Bohem’s unfiltered, unpasteurised products are popular. They make a variety of lagers, from a pair of classic Czech pale lagers up to Vasco, a 7.4%  double India pale lager that is conditioned for eight weeks.

Recent developments have seen them move closer to the traditional Czech model. A new 10-hectolitre brewkit bought from Prostějov in the Czech Republic will allow them to use a technique called decoction typical in Czech brewing and they’ve just hired a new brewer, Matej Krizek, who used to work at the Brevnov Monastery Brewery in Prague. There is also Czech-style Bohem glassware, made in the homeland.

They’ve even hired a tapster, Marek Průša, to pour their beer in the traditional way at their pub in Myddleton Road, Bowes Park. He’s got 20 years’ experience and is a certified Pilsner Urquell tapster. ‘I would really urge people who haven’t yet tried our lagers to come to Bowes Park, and experience them as authentically as possible,’ says Kudr.

‘Draught-beer quality depends on three equal, inseparable assumptions: the brewery/brewer, the beer line and the tapster. If the beer is well brewed, professionally-served and the beer line is clean, the drinker’s experience is the best.’

At German Kraft, too, quality is paramount. They won’t be packaging their beers in can or bottle because of their commitment to fresh beer, Bollen says, and they’ll only be selling beer to one or two other venues such as Stein’s in Richmond. ‘We just want to stay local,’ says Bollen. ‘We want to keep it small scale.’ That’s another European idea that might catch on over here, too.

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