Column: Why I love London beer so

Duncan Sambrook

Duncan Sambrook - Credit: Archant

There’s a major celebration of London beer this week – and it’s easy for St Albans folk to join in as the event is just a few yards from St Pancras station. The London Drinker beer festival runs from Wednesday to Friday in the Camden Centre, Bidborough Road entrance, reached from Euston Road via Judd Street.

The festival is run by the North London branch of CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, which has its head office in Hatfield Road, St Albans. The name London Drinker comes from a bi-monthly magazine that for several decades has been distributed free to thousands of London pubs with news of beer, pubs and festivals.

The celebration this year marks the amazing revival of brewing in London. When CAMRA was founded in 1971 it dubbed the capital a “beer desert” as a result of the poor choice available for drinkers. Two independent brewers, Fuller’s and Young’s, were mainly confined to their pubs in Chiswick and Wandsworth. The rest of London was dominated by such brewing giants as Bass Charrington, Watneys and Whitbread, who concentrated on keg beer and lager.

Those giants gave up the ghost years ago, making room for new, small craft breweries to emerge. The fillip for the beer revival was the decision made by Young’s in 2006 to close its Wandsworth site and merge the brewing operation with Charles Wells in Bedford. Young’s, with its ram mascot and horse-drawn drays, was a much-loved brewing institution in London and the decision to close sent shock waves through the capital.

Duncan Sambrook was a real ale devotee who worked in the financial sector in the City but decided to make a major change in direction by launching a brewery in Battersea in the heart of Young’s old territory. Sambrook’s opened in 2008 and has been an enormous success, with its beer now widely available throughout London.

Meanwhile in East London, with a large hole to fill with the demise of Charrington, Manns, Truman, Taylor Walker and Ind Coope just over the Essex border in Romford, new brewers there rushed to fill the gap. There are now two breweries in Hackney, two in Leyton, one in Bethnal Green and a small bar and brewery, Tap East, in the Westfield shopping centre in Stratford. The revival of brewing in East London was in part sparked last year by the outrage felt by the decision to give sole beer rights at the Olympic Stadium to the Dutch lager brewer Heineken.

Two young entrepreneurs, James Morgan and Michael-George Hemus, have won the right to use the Truman brand name and Black Eagle logo and will open a new Truman’s brewery in Hackney Wick, a stone’s throw from the Olympic Stadium, in the spring.

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In total there are now 30 breweries operating in London. Together, they have only a fraction of the beer volumes enjoyed by the bigger breweries they have replaced. But they have restored choice and offer Londoners, visitors and commuters a diversity of styles not seen for many years in the capital’s pubs.

Siblings James and Lizzie Brodie run their brewery behind the ornate King William IV pub in Leyton and offer pale beers made with imported American hops that zing with citrus fruit flavours. They ring the changes with a strong black Porter, recalling a beer style that originated in nearby Shoreditch in the 18th Century.

Redemption in Tottenham also brews a Porter and, given the local football connection, also offers a bitter called Hopspur. As a result of Spurs’ victory at West Ham last week, I may pass on that one.

Yet another Porter is produced by Sambrook’s, which also brews a Wandle Ale, named after the local river, Pumphouse Pale Ale and Junction Ale, all beers rooted in the area.

London was once one of the major brewing cities in the world. The likes of Barclays and Courage, both at Tower Bridge, were not only enormous producers of beer but exported to most parts of the world in the 18th and 19th Centuries. Barclays in particular achieved fame and fortune with its Imperial Russian Stout that was enjoyed at the court of the Russian czars and drunk throughout the Baltic States.

You won’t find Russian stout at the Camden Centre but there will much to enjoy and celebrate at the London Drinker festival. It will be worth missing a few trains for.

London Drinker Beer Festival: Wednesday 6 March/Thursday 7 March: 12-3; 5-10; Friday 8 March 12 noon-10.30, last entry 10pm.

Follow Roger on Twitter @RogerProtzBeer. He edits the CAMRA Good Beer Guide.