London calling: The capital's burgeoning craft beer scene

Will Hawkes

Will Hawkes

16 October 2018

London’s craft beer scene is facing a period of change, with expanding small breweries, dynamic start-ups and out-of-town newcomers all after a slice of the action. Will Hawkes takes a look at a lucrative battleground

Enid Street is not London’s most picturesque road, despite the huge, verdant plane trees on the Neckinger Estate along its southern side in Bermondsey. It’s a place of light industry rather than elegant architecture, distinguished by its railway-arch businesses and the rumble of trains on the tracks above. For beer-lovers, though, Enid Street is special, and it is about to become even more so.

The recent past and immediate future of London beer and brewing is being played out here. Regulars on the ‘Bermondsey Beer Mile’ – a Saturday afternoon bar crawl from South Bermondsey station to the river that takes in numerous breweries and bars on the way – will know Brew by Numbers, which brews at number 79 and has a bar at number 75.

They may know about Moor Beer, the Bristol brewery that occupies number 71. And if they don’t yet, they’ll surely soon know all about number 73, which Cloudwater is turning into a London tap for its Manchester-brewed products.

All of the dynamics driving London brewing as it enters a new era are visible in Enid Street. There are outside brewers seeking a slice of London’s growing beer market; there are plucky idealists brewing in railway arches, which were such a characteristic part of the early years of London’s brewing renaissance; there are brewery taps. And, as it turns out, there’s the desire to move onwards and upwards.

Brew By Numbers started in a Southwark Bridge Road flat, before landing here in May 2013, but could soon be on the move again.

‘We’re constantly growing,’ says co-founder and co-owner Tom Hutchings. ‘This year we’re forecast to make about 3,500hl, up from 2,800hl last year. We were looking at moving this year – before our rent review in August next year – but I think we can hold out for now because we’ve ordered a canning machine, which will help us raise capacity. When we do move, we’ll keep this bar site; we still want to have a presence here.’

Brew By Numbers will not be the only Bermondsey brewery seeking better-value accommodation soon, given the recent news about Network Rail’s rent increases as it aims to sell off railway arches like those on Enid Road. Hutchings has looked at sites in East Dulwich and Greenwich, he says, but wouldn’t want to go any further out than that.

Wherever it ends up, Hutchings wants Brew By Numbers to sell more beer directly to the customer. To that end, the brewery’s website is undergoing a revamp to improve its customer friendliness. This is driven by the success of the brewery’s bar, which is open on Friday nights and Saturdays.

‘On a good Saturday, we’ll get 900 visitors through,’ he says.

‘We sell about 12% of our output by volume, but that’s 25% by revenue. It’s so useful to have that cash flow.

‘We want to try and extend opening hours to attract more people down to the area during the week. We already have a licence to do that.’
Brew by Numbers will have a strong ally in Moor Beer’s owner Justin Hawke. Moor Vaults opened in December last year to help the company to exploit the huge London market.

‘There were three main motivations,’ Hawke says. ‘First of all logistical, as we were struggling with distribution in London. Then we thought, “If we get a site, at least let’s put it somewhere where we can open up a taproom at least once a month.”

London has gone from a place that had a lot of potential to one of the best beer cities in the world

Stu McKinlay

‘Then we ran out of space in Bristol to do our barrel project, so I said, “If we’ve got the space we can do the barrels down there and we don’t have to worry about cross contamination or anything like that”. And if we’re going to do all that stuff, we should be somewhere good. It just so happened that the opportunity came up in Bermondsey, and we took it.’

Hawke helped Cloudwater find its arch, he says, while Hutchings advised both on planning and other details. All three are clearly keen to make Enid Street a destination during the week, as well as on Saturdays. ‘We’re hoping as more places open up, we’ll be able to open Thursday through to Sunday,’ says Hawke. ‘We’ll get the whole area buzzing.’

The bigger brewery picture
Others, some with significantly deeper pockets, are also targeting London. BrewDog has a string of bars across the city, but recently opened its first BrewPub, a huge space in Tower Hill.

Goose Island, the Chicago brand owned by AB InBev, is meanwhile on the point of opening its own brewpub in Shoreditch. And then there’s Northern Monk, for whom a London bar remains an aspiration – albeit at least 18 months off – even if its next opening will be in Manchester.

London breweries are also moving into the on-trade. Truman’s recently took on one of central London’s most historic pubs, the Newman Arms in Fitzrovia, which it intends to use as a showcase for not only its beer, but good cellarmanship, too.

‘We want to show people how it should be done,’ says Truman’s marketing manager Ben Watts Stanfield. ‘Last year, we spent more than £50,000 on sending cellar technicians outto pubs; now they can come here.’

Five Points, meanwhile, has just completed a successful bout of crowdfunding that’ll allow it to renovate the pub closest to its brewery, The Pembury Tavern in Hackney Downs, among other things. It was initially seeking £750,000, but ended up with £1.15m, offering 8% of brewery shares in return. This means Five Points will have a place to showcase its products, including an on-site pilot kit.

Founder Ed Mason is clearly delighted, but don’t expect a chain of Five Points venues just yet. Although Mason has plenty of bar experience – he co-owns Whitelock’s, one of Leeds’ most famous pubs, and Mason & Company in Hackney Wick – he recognises that making great beer is his company’s core purpose.

‘There are economies of scale [in having more than one outlet], but don’t underestimate the time it takes,’ he says. ‘There’s a shortage of skilled hospitality people in London at the moment and there’s so much that needs doing when you’re running a bar. For the next six months, we’re going to be focusing on just this one. We’re not going to rush in. [The next place] has to be the right site.’

To get your foot in the door in the first place, you haveto have deep pockets.

Jenn Merrick

Mason is taking an equally measured approach to finding a new brewery site. The crowdfunding means Five Points will be able to increase capacity at its Hackney home from 8,000hl to 25,000hl, which will allow it to distribute around the UK, as at the moment 83% of its beer is sold within the M25. However, it will still need to move on in three years’ time.

It’s not easy though, as Mason has discovered, having spent the last few years fruitlessly searching for a new site in London.

There are plenty of London breweries in the same boat. Some, such as Fourpure or Signature, have dodged the issue temporarily by taking on new units on their current industrial estates.

‘One of the reasons for the crowdfunding was not being able to find the right site,’ Mason says. ‘There’s a shortage of sites and those that are available are owned by investment or pension funds, or large corporate investors, who can pick and choose. They want blue-chip companies that are rock solid in terms of rental guarantee. They look a lot more suspiciously at young, emerging companies like us.’

Hipsters, hopsters & Hoxton tapsters…
London’s key brewing trends at a glance

It’s no longer enough to have a space where customers can come down and get a flavour of the brewery on a Saturday. American-style week-long opening – pioneered by the likes of Huddersfield’s Magic Rock – is a must for London breweries now.

Flight to the suburbs
Bermondsey has been the centre of London’s brewing renaissance, but the questions over Network Rail’s archway sell-off means its future status is in doubt. A lot of breweries from all over the capital are looking to find bigger sites further out, but it’s not easy.

Pale ales like Beavertown’s Gamma Ray get the headlines, but London is a lager-brewing city, too. Camden’s Hells and Fourpure’s Pils were both recognised at the recent World Beer Cup in the US, which is no mean feat. There are also a few new breweries devoted to lager: Pillars in Walthamstow and German Kraft in Mercato Metropolitano, a street-food market in Elephant and Castle.

Brand London
Plenty raised their eyebrows when Carlsberg and Brooklyn Brewery took on London Fields Brewery, but their logic was sound. London is gradually becoming the European capital of modern beer and, despite Brexit, it still retains an enviable hold on continental imaginations. Here and abroad, London sells.

Our friends from the north (and west)
Who will follow Cloudwater and Moor into the capital? Northern Monk says it’s at least 18 months off, having decided to spend some of its crowdfunded cash on a Manchester bar, but there are others sniffing around.

One option is to work with councils or local regeneration schemes, with the only downside being that it may take longer to find somewhere.

That’s the route that former Beavertown head brewer Jenn Merrick has taken with her new brewery Earth Station. She is working with Create London, an art and community regeneration-focused charity based in East London.

Despite various bureaucratic hurdles to overcome, she hopes to have the brewery up and running on land located above the Crossrail tunnel in North Woolwich by the end of the year. The security of a charity-run site that’s not suitable for housing was very appealing to her, Merrick says.

‘We’ve all read in the news about the railway arches [sale by Network Rail], so it’s great to have the longevity of this site,’ she says. ‘I’ve looked for sites for Beavertown, so I know what the commercial equation looks like. To get your foot in the door in the first place, you have to have deep pockets.’

The brewery will have its own taproom and event space, a must-have for any brewery opening in London at the moment.

‘I think it’s essential,’ Merrick says. ‘Our intention is to use that space for community and arts functions, too, so it will have another life. Somebody asked me the other day how Earth Station is going to make its way in the current brewing climate, but I think we’ll be swimming in a different pond made of varied cultural and community enterprises. That’s inspiring.’

A capital beer city
While it may be proving difficult for some breweries to move, London brewing is nevertheless progressing at a rate of knots. ‘London has evolved very, very positively in the last three years – it’s gone from a place that had a lot of potential to one of the best beer cities in the world,’ explains Stu McKinlay, who came to the UK from his native New Zealand to launch his brewing company, Yeastie Boys, in 2015.

‘It still falls behind the best places on great craft beer in restaurants, but it’s heading in that direction. Quality has risen remarkably since I arrived,’ says McKinlay.

Plenty will happen over the next few years, too, and it’s likely to affect the rest of the UK as much as London. Mason, for example, is considering whether to return the favour and open a bar in another of the UK’s great beer cities, like Bristol or Leeds. ‘Business rates are more affordable and we know Leeds well,’ he says. ‘I lived there for 20 years.’

Whatever happens, Enid Street will continue to attract beer drinkers for the foreseeable future, wherever Brew By Numbers ends up. It’s a special place, says Hawke.

‘You’ve got these three breweries and The Kernel Brewery in such close proximity,’ he says happily. ‘You probably haven’t got such a high density of amazing breweries in any place in the world as you have on this block.’

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