THE British pub industry may be in crisis, with scores of venues reportedly closing around the country each week, but there’s one side of it that’s bubbling along rather nicely. Bars that are dedicating their trade to the kind of specialist, low-volume beers you can’t find in mainstream pubs are on the rise, as are the tiny breweries that make the beer.
The latest place to open its doors to well-informed drinkers is the Craft Beer Co, Leather Lane in Clerkenwell, in what used to be the rather shabby Clock House pub. Owner Martin Hays explains that the growing interest in beer from micro-breweries and the even smaller “gypsy” breweries – businesses that don’t have their own brewing premises but borrow space from others – can be linked to the surge in interest in local food sourcing and artisan processes.
“People are interested in the provenance and quality of what they’re eating, and it’s only natural that they’d start to look into beer in the same way,” he says. “Beer is the quintessential British drink, but there isn’t the same connection between us and beer as there is between the French and wine, for instance. But it is really on the rise.”
Of course, high-quality, hand-crafted beer has always had its proponents – but it’s no longer ghettoised to the much-maligned, sandal-wearing real ale brigade. Hip young restaurants like Hawksmoore, Spuntino and Byron Burger are making a point of offering craft beers, while even Waitrose is getting on board: the supermarket chain has recently started selling beer from the small Yorkshire brewery Thornbridge.
INSPIRED BY THE STATES
The phrase “craft beer” actually comes from the States, where a micro-brewery industry has been thriving for the past few years. Evin O’Riordan, a former cheesemaker who founded the Kernel brewery in Southwark, says it was a trip across the Atlantic that spurred him to move into beer making.
“Because prohibition killed all the small breweries in the States, the new generation of producers had no history or traditions holding them back, and they could start with a blank slate,” he says. “Their experimental attitude has been very inspiring.”
That spirit has been enthusiastically taken up by O’Riordan and his peers. Boundary-pushing beers like coffee stouts, black IPAs and sensationally strong beers – Scots “punk” brewery BrewDog made headlines with its 55 per cent ABV brew named the End of History – are common. The sandal-wearers are no doubt left snorting into their tankards, but O’Riordan points out this is about quality far more than gimmickry.
“The new experimental beers can sit side by side with the traditional cask ales, while exploring new possibilities,” he says. “We produce 5,000 bottles a week and we can barely keep up with demand. It’s very satisfying.”
THREE CRAFT BEERS FOR SUMMER
Camden Town Helles: that very rare thing, a high quality British lager. Malty, aromatic and cleansing, it’s the very opposite of common pub lager.
Clerkenwell Pale: the house beer at the Craft Beer Co, made specially in a Kent brewery. Fruity and refreshing.
Dark Star: American pale ale made in Sussex – a classic.
WHERE TO DRINK IT | LONDON BARS SERVING CRAFT BEER
The Rake: Tucked away in a side street behind Borough Market, this tiny bar – sister business of Borough Market’s wonderful Utobeer stall – has one of the widest selections of bottled and draft beers from all over the world you’ll find. 14 Winchester Walk, SE1 9AG. www.utobeer.co.uk
Cask Pub and Kitchen: The Cask has built up an enviable reputation since opening in Pimlico two years ago, and was named this year’s Publican Magazine Pub of the Year. 6 Charlwood Street, SW1V 6EE. www.caskpubandkitchen.com
The Draft House: A trio of friendly pubs – two in Battersea, one in Tower Bridge – championing artisan breweries. www.thedrafthouse.co.uk