Beer World (part eight): Welcome to Hackney’s Hoppy Valley

I’ll confess, I’d forgotten about Wandle. There was a time, not so long ago, when the simple presence of Sambrook’s best on a bar was reason to relax. But unlike Deuchars or Timothy Taylor’s Landlord, it was brewed in London and allowed me to enjoy a pint and indulge in a little London pride of my own, without troubling with Fuller’s ubiquitous brew.

But in the last couple of years, Wandle has rather fallen off my radar. I was reminded of its impact when I saw Mr Duncan Sambrook himself at a rather unusual event during this year’s Stoke Newington Literary Festival. Unusual because we weren’t there to discuss books, but beer. Sure, there were books at the back, and the panel was chaired by the inimitable beer writer Pete Brown, but that was incidental. The premise of the event was the sudden expansion of London’s craft brewers; there was a nod towards the writing that has surrounded this resurgence, but the point was to talk beer: why and how London’s brewing culture has enjoyed such a renaissance, but also to taste the bounty of that renewal.

When Wandle first appeared in London pubs in 2008, there were just two London breweries. With the flight of Young’s, only Fullers and Meantime (both south of the river) were brewing in the capital. Sambrook’s arrival was a much needed boost. But things have changed and today there are over forty London brewers, most of them producing exceptional craft beers* in a mindboggling range of styles, some historic revivals, others hybrids, many more reinventing US reinventions: Brewdog’s Dead Pony Club, take a bow.

Stoke Newington’s Literary Festival is usually a beery sort of affair, of course. This year, I think I survived on beer alone for the whole weekend as I scuttled between events. The tight schedule and dispersed venues meant that, to get the most out of your weekend ticket, you had to run between sessions with little time to take on solid sustenance. Fortunately, each venue had a bar, well-stocked with good beer. In the main venue, Stoke Newington’s glorious deco Town Hall you could get a pint of Redemption’s festival ale (dubbed Mary Wollstendraft in honour of local feminist literary legend, who established her ground-breaking school on Newington Green). Elsewhere, bottles of Brewdog were plentiful, including the bone-dry, throat-desiccating 5am Saint. Other beverages were available, I suppose, but why would I notice?

Back to London’s Brewing, Saturday afternoon’s non-literary literary event. Packed into a church hall off the High Street, a mixed bunch of Stokey locals were greeted with a small glass of Redemption’s Trinity, only 3% abv, but perhaps my favourite tipple of the moment. Things had started well.

From the stage, Pete Brown introduced beer writer Will Hawkes and four of the capital’s leading young brewers. While they talked, the marvelous Festival crew distributed samples of the beers each had brought along. While the panel discussed the origins and merits of each, we got to try their wares.

First up was an as yet unnamed red ale from Hackney’s Five Points Brewing Company (when it is released it will travel under the name of Hook Island Red). Made with twenty percent rye, it was packed full of flavour, but without the cloying heaviness of some of the Belgian reds I’ve sometimes tried to love. Fruity, hoppy and crisp, I knew at the first sip that this is what I will be drinking at Christmas this year.

Next the deceptively-named Sam Smith of Pressure Drop introduced the shamelessly favour-currying Stokey Brown (Pressure Drop have since left Stoke Newington to find larger premises elsewhere in the Borough). No matter how hard I tried to recall the bottles of Newcastle Brown Ale I drank at university, this tipple refused to disappoint: a lot of chocolate and tobacco flavours and a clean hoppy dryness.

Then came a full-blooded IPA from the Beavertown Brewery (named after its original home in De Beauvoir Town – they have also moved on, to larger premises elsewhere in Hackney). The 8 Ball is a dark IPA in the Californian style (one of the founders, Byron Knight, originates on the West Coast) and is very, very hoppy, and again is made with a slug of rye. If anything, it seems heftier than its 6.2% abv and to my taste it was a little heavy and sludgy.

The final beer of the afternoon came from Sambrook, the most far-flung brewer in attendance. It was not Wandle, but the latest addition to their slowly growing list. Power House Porter was something of a surprise: despite drinking a lot of stout in the past, I’ve never really got on with porter. I mean, I’ve not found it objectionable, simply too leaden to derive much joy from it. This example, however,  was bright and dry, with loads of malts and lots of tobacco – Duncan described it as chocolate, but it was decidedly Galloise to me. Apparently, they use more hops in this than in any other beer they produce and this probably explains its brightness. Power House is a successful reinvention of a London classic; a fitting end point for an event about the complete reinvention of brewing in the capital.

The consensus around the panel was that London had come late to the revival of craft beer. On the evidence of this event, and on that displayed on the pumps at a growing number of London pubs, we’re making up for lost time.

* Personally, I am very glad that we’ve got over the ‘real ale’ thing: I’m less concerned by the precise strictures of the production process than I am by the quality and diversity of the product. That isn’t to underplay the importance of the work done by CAMRA, simply to say that through the ‘dark days’, I got by on decent lagers (often German or Czech) and the pleasures of Belgian brews, many of which would fall foul of the definition of ‘real ale’.

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