Let’s turn the clock back to London in September 2009 and a piece published in the Financial Times.
Off a main road, close by a housing estate in a densely-built corner of south-west London, stands a non-descript 3,000 sq ft industrial unit. It houses two stainless steel fermenting vessels, a large water tank and a neat stack of aluminium casks. Tucked away to the side is a tiny tasting room with a single hand pump serving hoppy Wandle Ale. This is Sambrook’s Brewery in Battersea – one of a number of new microbreweries springing up in the capital.
It was set up 12 months ago by Duncan Sambrook who had been baffled by the lack of craft brewers in the city compared to almost 700 quality craft brewers outside the capital. Fuller, Smith & Turner is now the only major London brewer following the end of production by Young’s in Wandsworth in 2006.
“I grew up in Salisbury and could not see why Wiltshire with 600,000 people had seven breweries while London with millions of people had only a couple,” he says.
A key difference between London and elsewhere, of course, is the high rent. Mr Sambrook says the rent and rates on his Battersea site are three times that of a typical market town. Yet despite this he was convinced the capital was ripe for a new micro-brewer, encouraged by the trend for locally-produced goods. “Our provenance gives us a hook. Customers and landlords always first approach us because we’re local. And primarily our ingredients are all from within 100 miles.”
Unlike many breweries it buys its hops solely from within the UK, currently Herefordshire but the plan is to use Kent as it is even closer, and its barley comes from Hampshire and Wiltshire. The bulky ingredient water is sourced locally and Mr Sambrook is investigating the potential to use nearby bore holes.
Provenance is a key factor behind the current expansion plans of Meantime Brewing Company that is set to re-locate from its south London base (where it produces 12,000 hectolitres or 2.1m pints per annum) to a plant three times the size. This will produce its award-winning brews including London Pale Ale and London Porter that recreates a 1750 recipe.
Alastair Hook, brewer and founder of Meantime Brewing Company, says: “Provenance is central and we’ve a major advantage because whereas a local [brewery] in Norfolk might serve a couple of hundred people we’ve a few million people [to sell to].”
The company makes great play of the capital’s beer heritage. “We’re trying to remind people that London was the brewing capital of the world, where the transition from mediaeval to modern brewing took place,” he explains. Consider that the city was home to 140 breweries in the 1890s.
Another factor that has convinced London’s new brewery owners of the business case for setting up has been the lack of competition in the capital. Mr Sambrook explains: “Around the country there are many more free houses but there are also a lot more breweries competing for their business. We thought we’d struggle to get landlords to take our beer but they’ve embraced it.” In fact they have had to enlist the help of the Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA) Direct Delivery Scheme to transport their goods to Enterprise Inns’ 7,700 pubs.
The success of brewers such as Meantime and Sambrooks has encouraged Andrew Moffat who left his job in the City as a bond trader at Deutsche Bank to set up Redemption Brewery Company.
After finding a unit on an industrial estate in Tottenham, north London, he bought the old brewing equipment from Slater’s Brewery in the Midlands, and armed with the knowledge from a short brewing course, the former trader is confident his business will be a success.
He can take heart from the fortunes of Brodie’s Brewery which makes beers including one which contains orange zest and its best-selling English Best that uses a variety of UK sourced hops. Such is the demand for the beer produced in a former stable block in the back garden of the King William IV pub in Leyton, east London that the pair behind Brodie’s Brewery have come up with an unusual criterion to select pubs to supply their beers. James Brodie and his sister choose only to supply to pubs that are run by “nice people”.
Mr Brodie is confident of the future: “We might buy two more fermenting vessels, add to the staff [of two], and brew four times per week because we could sell a lot more.”
Glynn Davis, editor of Beer Insider