London, The Beer City
It has been almost exactly a year since I last put pen to paper for this column, and the pace of change within the London beer scene has only increased in the intervening period. This coming Saturday sees the latest edition of London Beer City kicking off with a big party at Five Points' excellent warehouse space; from then on the selection of open days, tap takeovers, beer dinners and special brews in all four corners of the city is vast. The original aim of this piece was to preview the ten day celebration, but a trawl through the plethora of events tied to the festival got me thinking about how different (for good and for ill) things look and feel twelve months down the line.
It immediately struck me just how international the range of breweries getting involved is. At last count there are eighty five breweries operating on a commercial basis within London, and yet that doesn't seem to be choice enough for us! Amongst the festivities, three pubs are playing "embassy" for New Zealand, Australia and the States, hosting themed nights and a steady stream of beer from their chosen land. The Scandinavians are well represented too, with To Øl and Ӕgir doing tap takeovers, whilst Omnipollo, Lervig and Ebeltoft Gårdbryggeri join the pair at the centrepiece show, the London Craft Beer Festival. Spain, Italy and Estonia are also represented by Basqueland Brewing Project, Canediguerra and Sori respectively.
You only need to have a cursory glance around your local bottle shop to see that this is not a one-off; the range of US beers coming in is ever-expanding, and the continued success of the New Zealand Beer Collective shows no sign of fading. The fact that there are so many more such meccas today highlights the meteoric rise of craft beer right across the capital; every week there seems to be somewhere new opening, with the likes of The Beer Boutique, Clapton Craft and We Brought Beer all expanding as well as the likes of Freshfields in Croydon and Whole Foods both drastically expanding their ranges. We have also seen the birth of The Italian Job in Chiswick, who are about to open a second location in Elephant & Castle on the back of a very successful crowdfunding campaign.
This in turn brings us on to some of the less welcome changes over the past year, namely the big boys swooping in to start cherry-picking some of the more lucrative names. Firstly with Meantime (who have since been sold again) and then Camden Town, the reaction, especially in the case of the latter, has been very strong on both sides. Personally, I believe that the guff we get spun that "nothing will change" is in the long-term nonsense – of course it will change, otherwise why would they get bought out? You only need to look to America and the likes of Elysian and Ballast Point where the people at the heart of the breweries have eventually left; AB InBev et al are after the brand and the prestige that goes with it, nothing more. So will drinkers benefit? The more die-hard craft lovers will turn their backs, but those who just want a half-decent beer will find that they will be able to get a better product far more easily and cheaply.
The final point of note, and thankfully a much more positive one, is a greater acceptance between the more traditional "real ale" brewers and their craft counterparts. The spirit of collaboration and companionship has always existed amongst the new wave, and at last that hand is being extended to their elder brethren. Once again there is a special beer for London Beer City, and this year Fourpure, Beavertown and Five Points have teamed up with Fuller's to brew a pale ale that hopefully the sun will grace with its presence. Given that Fuller's have also joined forces with Yeastie Boys for a one-off, and before that Adnams pairing up with Magic Rock, it appears that the hatchet has been buried almost universally, which can only be good news as experience combines with new ideas to bring us ever better and more interesting beers – cheers to that!