London’s next beer revolution has begun02 Dec 2016
Main image: Dianne Tanner
By Will Hawkes
You tell the kids about 2009 now and they just won’t believe you. The details are mind-blowing: there was a Labour government with a Scottish leader, Manchester United won a third title in a row (also with a Scottish leader), the best-selling newspaper in the UK was something called the News Of The World and virtually nobody in London had heard of or tasted craft beer.
Thanks to an Irish-born cheesemonger taking his first tentative steps in the world of brewing, though, that was about to change. Evin O’Riordain launched The Kernel by brewing once a week whilst continuing to sell Gorwydd Caerphilly at Borough Market on Fridays and Saturdays. “The only way people knew there was a brewery was word of mouth. That first year, Neal’s Yard bought 50 cases and sent 10 bottles of beer to all their favourite customers at Christmas,” he told me in 2013.
It’s pretty clear that this small-scale approach would struggle now. The London beer market has heated up considerably, with somewhere between 80 and 100 breweries operating, and what seems like every pub and bar within three miles of Dalston offering a wide range of beers brewed in the capital and further afield. Even those pubs whose range extends to Meantime Pale Ale and no further trumpet their craft-beer credentials.
This revolution began with the birth of The Kernel in 2009. It was the first London brewery to really hone in on New-World-hopped pale beers, and it quickly appealed to customers beyond the cask-ale crowd. The twin focus on American flavour and London’s brewing history appealed to the city’s growing foodie crowd, and suggested a future for beer beyond handpumps offering a variety of nice-but-mostly-bland brown cask ales.
We’re in that future now, and it feels like another big change is in the air. Last week AB InBev hosted a lavish London launch party for Goose Island’s Bourbon County Stout, at which many of the capital’s bloggers and beer writers drank deeply of free (and apparently delicious) beer. Nothing out of the ordinary, you might think, except that only 100 bottles of this stuff had reached London from the brewery in Chicago, to be sold the following day at Clapton Craft.
It was an impressively cynical and effective stunt - and it came as no surprise when it emerged this week that Goose Island was to open a bar in London (Balham, to be precise; a smart choice, given its preponderance of young craft-beer-curious residents, and distance from the craft-beer epicentre of East London). It is to be the first of many around Europe, with one more in London already planned.
“I think the serious money is about to arrive,” one London brewer told me recently. It already has. Camden Town, which is owned by AB InBev, will open its huge new brewery in Enfield in April; Meantime, which is owned by Asahi, has recently launched an aggressive advertising campaign across the city; Stone, one of California’s biggest craft-brewers, now has an impressively large base in Europe, in Berlin; and low supermarket prices on American craft beer, from Brooklyn to Oskar Blues, must keep plenty of British brewers awake at night.
London beer, then, is about to undergo its second recent revolution, but this time it won’t be homegrown. Big money from elsewhere is going to transform the outlook. Expect more American brewers - particularly those who have enjoyed recent investment - to take a serious look at London and the UK. Things have changed.
One example of how much is Firestone Walker. Its British co-founder, David Walker, spends a fair amount of time here now promoting his beer (he is British) but, speaking to me for The Independent in 2012, he wrote off the UK as a market. “Our philosophy is that we’ll take a deeper piece of a smaller pie and focus on Southern California,” he said. “For us to think about developing markets far and wide is nice, and it makes for a nice trip to new York or London, but really it's not a great way to develop a brewery. We’re a regional phenomenon, rather than a brewing phenomenon.” Firestone Walker is now owned by Duvel Moortgaat.
In a way, it’s remarkable that it’s taken this long. In one of the world’s great global cities, craft beer has developed largely unhindered by the big boys. But the recent feeding frenzy in the US and elsewhere, which looks rather more co-ordinated than first thought, will surely change this. AB InBev and others are well aware of what a promising market London is, and they now have the tools - in Camden and Goose Island - to carve out a chunk for themselves.
The implications for independent London breweries are obvious. The advantage from being local only goes so far: those who will thrive over the next few years will do so because their beer is consistently good. Those whose beer isn’t risk going the way of Gordon Brown and Manchester United’s golden era.