Why Are People Still Opening Breweries in London?20 Jan 2017
The capital has nearly 100 breweries. Is there room for more?
By Will Hawkes
“We’re the 91st brewery in London, someone told us,” says Archie Village, co-owner with brother Louis of Villages Brewery in Deptford (pictured above), which launched in December. Villages is part of a new wave of London breweries that are arriving at an interesting time for British brewing: some knowledgeable observers expect 2017 to herald a slowdown and possibly widespread brewery closures. Is there really room in London for more breweries?
The Village brothers clearly believe so. Around £200,000 has been spent on their brewery, which fits into two arches underneath Deptford Railway Station, and which combines some second-hand equipment from Gipsy Hill Brewing with plenty of new kit and what might be the handsomest tiled brewery floor in the entire city. The brothers do everything themselves, including serving behind the taproom bar on Friday and Saturday nights. They’ve just four fermentation vessels for the moment but the space can accommodate 10. “All of the engineering is future-proof,” says Louis, 29.
The brothers seem well-prepared, at least on the brewing front. Archie has a MSc in brewing and distilling from Heriot-Watt in Edinburgh and has spent time brewing at the London Beer Factory and Fourpure; Louis has learnt about the back-end of the brewing process - packaging and the like - at the LBF and Gipsy Hill Brewing. They’ve launched with three core beers: Rodeo Pale Ale, Pontoon South Pacific Red Ale and Whistle Pilsner.
“Because all the fashionable hops - like Citra, Mosaic and Amarillo - are contracted out for the next two year, we’ve had to be creative,” says Archie, 30. “That was actually quite good for us because we’re now creating a pale ale that hasn’t got the same flavours - passionfruit, lychee, citrus. It’s peppery, spicy, with elements of those. It’s different. It gives people a bit more variety.”
A mile or so to the west of Villages is another of the new breed, Bianca Road Brewing Company. Like Villages, all the beer goes into keg and can, and there’s a sizeable space for a bar and events, while a decent sum (close to £100,000) has been spent. Owner Reece Wood, who has been brewing since May last year, says there’s still space in the market for new brewers.
“There’s plenty of business out there,” Wood, 31, says. “The level of competition now means there’s no tolerance for what there might have been five or six years ago, you can’t get away with inconsistency. Butterscotch is not tolerated! The level is higher so you can’t brew a sub-standard beer."
Wood used to work as a mechanical engineer, designing and specifying equipment in the oil and gas industry. It’s a background that gives him an advantage when it comes to the mechanics of brewing - “everything is familiar but it’s on a different scale,” he says - even if he acknowledges he needs to work on his recipe development. A brewing consultant, James Stephenson - once of Charles Wells - sat in on the first three brews but it’s been Wood on his own since then.
Bianca Road currently produces four core beers; like Villages, they’re solid without yet being exceptional. Wood is optimistic about the future; customers are still drawn to local businesses, he says. “The first thing that rings a bell with anyone is the locality. In Peckham there’s a passion for the area, local businesses want to support other local businesses. As soon as they hear you’re down on Bianca Road, they want to try it. It’s really promising.”
One potential customer is Salthouse Bottles, a new off-license in Brockley, close to both breweries. Are customers interested in local breweries? “Yes, to a point,” says owner Richard Salthouse. “We do have a noticeable number asking for ‘a local beer’, but these are often customers buying gifts.
“I think for customers buying for themselves, they are looking to explore beers and breweries in a broader sense, rather than specifically seeking out local beers. Beavertown is our biggest selling brewery, but that seems as much about the strength of their reputation for quality, as well as their familiarity, bold packaging and the price point as the fact they’re in London.”
Salthouse sells two of Villages beers, Whistle and Rodeo. “They have been popular, but I don’t put that down to their being a local brewery,” he says. “When customers have picked up Villages, they’ve more often than not been unaware of where it is brewed. Customers find it interesting, perhaps pleasing, to hear when they are told that Villages are a Deptford brewery, but it’s not often the reason they chose the beer in the first place.”
Locality does matter, though. Villages has enjoyed regular visitors since the brothers took on the site - one of 32 they inspected in their search for a brewery, most of them arches - in mid-summer. “We had the rollers open in the summer and lots of people poked their heads in,” says Archie. “One guy used to work here when it was a stables. People are curious as to what we’re doing.”
It’s an interest that appears to extend to bars and pubs, up to a point. Both Villages and Bianca Road have found plenty of outlets. “The big challenge for us is that it’s quite easy to get into places at a guest beer but not more regularly - so we have a lot of accounts but less frequent orders,” says Wood. “We’re starting to see that change now.”
Is there room for these new breweries in London? So far, so good, although only time will tell. “We wouldn’t have opened unless we thought there was still plenty of growth to come in the London market; people are still very receptive to new breweries,” says Archie Village. “The saturation point will come but I don’t think think we’re there yet."