Will Hawkes is a freelance journalist and the organiser of London Beer City (@londonbeercity), a week-long celebration of good beer from London and further afield. He’s also the author of Craft Beer London (@craftbeerlondon), a guide to the city’s best pubs, bars and breweries. You can follow him on Twitter at @Will_Hawkes.
It’s hard to avoid the heritage of brewing in this city. A 10-minute stroll from Spitalfields will take you past a number of pubs lavishly decorated in Trumans’ colours, while in other parts of London you can easily spot adverts, pub signs and related, faded ephemera devoted to breweries long-gone and recently-departed. Until the last few years, it must be said, this constant reminder of past glories was rather dispiriting, but things have changed. London’s brewing tradition has been revived – and in some style, too.
But while it’s tempting to draw a direct link between that tradition and what’s happening now, it wouldn’t be entirely honest. Much of the current impetus comes from across the Atlantic rather than the past: plenty of stouts and porters are being brewed, but hoppy pale ales in the American style are a lot more popular. One of the most well-known of the new generation of London brewers told me recently that 75 to 80 per cent of the beer he sells is pale and hoppy.
And there’s another important difference with that 18th/19th century heyday, too. This new movement is not about great brewing families. Ordinary Londoners now are probably more entrepreneurial than at any time in this city’s history. You may have heard about the ‘Flat White Economy’, a term which describes the recent rush of new media, internet and creative businesses in East London, which are soon to be powering the British economy. I think London’s brewing revival, with its creativity and focus on flavour, fits into that bracket.
The beauty of all this, of course, is that its about relatively ordinary people taking things into their own hands. Not just brewers but bakers, cheese makers and distillers, too. Today’s fashion is for the small-batch, homespun, craft product. The humbler the origins, the smaller the producer, the better.
It’s easy to be cynical about this, but consider the alternative. I’ve heard plenty of people say that they don’t care who makes their beer as long as it tastes good. On the most basic level, that’s hard to criticise: but given the context of the past 50 years, during which huge brewing concerns did their best to wipe out smaller rivals and produce beer so inoffensive it became an offense against beer, it seems a little naive. Beer drinkers need small producers, who have the agility and courage to produce more interesting, flavoursome beer than their bigger rivals. When it comes to beer, small really is beautiful.