Until recently I knew relatively little about beer. I assumed that crystal malt had something to do with Breaking Bad. I was blissfully unaware (vegetarians, look away) that fish bladders are used in the beer filtration process at most breweries. And I had absolutely no idea that Gordon Brown had been hailed as the "patron saint of craft brewing" after introducing tax breaks to small breweries in 2002.
One thing I did know is that London is going through something of a beer-brewing renaissance. Six years ago you could count the capital’s breweries on one hand; by the beginning of 2014 there were over 50. Well-branded, locally brewed craft beers are now served in every self-respecting London drinking hole, and a handful of entrepreneurial breweries have started running tours on the side. As a keen ale drinker, I set out on a mission to visit the breweries that are dutifully keeping Londoners so well oiled.
It felt fitting to start my five-day marathon at the Fuller’s Griffin Brewery, by far the biggest of London’s breweries whose Chiswick headquarters has been churning out real ale for over 350 years. Our five-man group is guided along raised walkways and past the kind of complex machinery that wouldn’t look out of place in Roald Dahl’s imagination.
Our guide, however, most certainly would. Salt-of-the-earth Mart grew up just five minutes down the road, and his knowledge of the Fuller’s institution equals his love for London Pride. He reels off witty myths (apparently Londoners became a city of beer-drinkers because the water was too dirty to drink in the Middle Ages) and facts as we peer into frothing tanks, but he’s straight-faced when he describes drinking a pint of Fuller’s cask ale as “like having a new conversation with an old friend”. He’s not the only fan: 250,000 pints of the stuff are brewed here every day.
My whistle sufficiently wetted after a tasting session, I leave the Griffin Brewery both impressed by its enormity and eager to visit one of London’s smaller breweries. So on Tuesday evening I hop on the overground to London Fields in search of a more intimate experience.
I’m not disappointed. Housed in two train arches just around the corner from Broadway Market, three-year-old London Fields Brewery is now a relative veteran on London’s craft brewing scene. The tour is brief (around 20 minutes, compared to an hour at Fuller’s) and self-consciously unpolished, but that tallies well with the environs – a partially-flooded warehouse where brewers glug pints and passing trains rumble the tanks.
For the tasting session we are led to the neighbouring Tap Room, a woodchipped bar where Hackney hipsters pull pints for other Hackney hipsters. The stronger beers in the seasonal Bootlegger series are a must-try for serious ale drinkers, but it is the hoppy Love not War – first brewed during the London Riots in 2011 – that best sums up the brewery’s unique personality.
On Wednesday I’m lucky to squeeze onto a tour at Battersea-based Sambrook’s Brewery, which only runs one session per month. Bearded, larger-than-life Sean beams as he plies arriving punters with pints of Wandle Ale, answering questions with a level of assurance that only a head brewer could command. When someone mentions the term “craft beer” he flinches and replies: “We don’t brew craft beer here – I hate that word. We brew cask beer”. And that is what sets this one apart from many of London’s other young breweries: there is no pretense at Sambrook’s, just very traditional British cask ale brewed for die-hard beer drinkers.
After the most generous drinking session of the week (Sean serves his “tasters” in pints) I make my way to Camden on Thursday. Best known for its Hells Lager, Camden Town Brewery has seen a surge in popularity since emerging on the scene in 2010, so much so that they’ve been forced to store a number of their towering fermentation tanks outside their Kentish Town headquarters.
We are led around the brewery by Mark Dredge, a leading beer writer who frequently disappears to collect more jugs of lager to accompany the tour. After, we retreat to the buzzing beer garden, where it’s hard to decline a cherry-smoked pulled pork sandwich from the Bare Bones food stall that’s parked outside.
My week finishes in Greenwich at the city’s second-largest brewery, Meantime, where I am greeted with a bone-crunching bear hug from ‘Big Al’. Armed with an endless supply of cockney quips, Alex describes himself as an “enthusiastic customer – not a brewer” as he serves up tasters and instructs us to sample the sweet and nutty barley malt seeds on our tables.
For the tour Alex passes us over to Jethro, a student of brewing who is soon to become the UK’s youngest beer sommelier at 23 years-old (taking the title from Jack Stones, who also works at Meantime). Jethro leads us around the brewery’s advanced machinery with confidence and charm, ending the tour by introducing us to ‘Tankenstein’ – the final rusting remnant from Meantime’s former riverside brewery, and a reminder of just how far the place has come since it was founded 14 years ago.
An evening session sampling Meantime’s finest beers – including the sublime Yakima Red amber ale – brings my brewery tour to an end, but it’s clear that I’ve only scratched the surface. The places I’ve visited all differ in size and style, but one thing they have in common (beside the ubiquitous yeasty pong) is an enthusiasm and respect for London’s up-and-coming breweries. I finish my marathon with a notepad full of scribbled, half-understood facts about the complicated brewing process, but it is the expansive list of recommended breweries that I will be referring back to soon.