Friday 9 November 2012

Are London Breweries Good Enough?

     At the last count the number of London breweries was up to around 30, from just a handful a few years ago. At first glance this is great news, not only for Londoners but UK beer in general. Those of us who live here can enjoy a wider, more eclectic selection of beers made locally, often direct from the brewery, which is great for freshness and engagement with the people who make the stuff. It creates jobs, competition, and makes it possible for more events and new bars to showcase beer in all its glory. On a wider scale, as a centre of population and wealth the potential for innovation, growth and impact is huge, hopefully leading to a surge in popularity of beer across all demographics throughout the UK, and a rise in the level of respect and esteem given to brewers. However these benefits will surely only be felt if the majority of brewers are producing good beer that people will not only want to drink when they see it, but actively seek out. And right now, that is not necessarily the case.
         One benefit of starting a brewery in a big city is the ready-made audience for your product and an abundance of investors to help you get started. Another is that there are plenty of talented people around with skills required for a new business, like marketing, branding, sales, business development and management. You can see these skills on show as a swathe of new breweries have started selling their beer across the capital. Camden Town, By The Horns, Rechurch and Moncada have great bottles and cool websites. Several have blogs, Facebook pages and twitter accounts. Crate and London Fields have created trendy bars around the brewery in the right locations to generate buzz and instant income. Sambrooks have done a brilliant job of getting their product to a huge number of pubs and off licences across town, and Tap East simply opened in Europe’s biggest shopping mall. For sheer passion and innovation, look no further than Beavertown and Brodies. There is a lot of enterprise going on here, and yet perhaps the one skill underrepresented is brewing.
         Brewing is generally not one of the skills in which there is an abundance of qualified personnel, so when 20 odd breweries arrive in less time than it takes to earn a degree or complete an apprenticeship, it seems likely that talent will be in short supply. While there are many of our breweries that succeed online, on the phone, in the accounts, on the bottles and at the pump clip, too few succeed in the glass. The ones that do are self-evident and the ones that don’t will not be named here as many of these are small, new enterprises that are rapidly improving. But learning on the job is not really acceptable when many of these businesses are charging in excess of £3 a pint and supplying to off-licences and pubs across London. Beers can range from simply dull to badly conceived, poorly executed, and even infected. In the last year alone, I have had under-conditioned lagers, diacetyl bombs that taste like best bitter with packet of Werthers Original dropped in it, endless sorry attempts at hop heavy beers that seemingly forgot about the malt, the odd vinegary pint, a few muddy swamps of yeast with beer hidden in it, and even 2 ‘pale ales’ that were dark enough to be stouts. This leads to the question of whether there are enough quality brewers to fill the demand.
       On the whole, the proliferation of London breweries is an exciting, positive development, and it looks set to continue. But this is only sustainable and desirable if quality beer is being made and an audience of craft beer drinkers are not dissuaded by high prices and an inferior product. Conformity and absolute consistency is not necessary but if too many bad beers reach our glass then the pursuit of the higher pleasures and elevated intrigue of craft beer is simply not worth it. I certainly hope that the majority of drinkers are not concerned and that standards continue to rise; my next pint will be a local one. But will yours? Is the current set of London breweries brewing to a high enough standard and if not is this due to a lack of talented individuals?


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