A version of this post first appeared in the autumn 2017 edition of the Campaign for Real Ale’s quarterly magazine BEER and is reproduced here with permission.
To brewers, publicans and drinkers, there is undoubtedly something almost irresistible about the idea of making, serving and drinking beer within the same four walls.
If you’d been around three hundred years ago and ordered a quart of beer the chances are you’d be served something brewed metres away from where you drank it. The brewhouses weren’t necessarily on display but anyone who has ever visited the Blue Anchor in Helston, Cornwall, will know how a brewery makes itself known even from behind closed doors – with tumbling steam that carries the aroma of malt and hops. It seems to make the beer taste better and certainly adds to the romance.
Then, in the 18th and 19th centuries, industrial brewing developed, with production becoming ever more centralised in ever bigger facilities. By the mid-20th century a handful of big brewing concerns were operating across the country and the number of ‘homebrew houses’ had dwindled to fewer than ten.
But in the 1980s, as part of the post-CAMRA real ale boom with its rejection of the industrial and mass-produced, the ‘brewpub’ was invented. The primary driver in that was a brewery in the basement of a South London pub, The Goose & Firkin, set up by David and Louise Bruce in 1979. They opened several more pubs with their own breweries in the decade that followed, mostly in London. The Firkin chain made the Bruces’ fortune as they sold strong beer brewed on site to pubs rammed with the type of customer happy to pay a little more for something truly unique.
The national brewing firms, flying in the face of their own big-and-central tendency, copied this approach and launched their own chains. For example, Grand Metropolitan (incorporating the hated Watney’s) put a young woman called Kim Taylor in charge of a basement brewkit at The Orange in Pimlico in London. This was such a success that they opened four more under Taylor’s supervision, including one in Northampton. Whitbread and Allied joined in too until, by 1986, there were 76 new brewpubs operating up and down the country.
The Bruces’ influence spread far beyond the UK, however. Charlie Papazian, one of the godfathers of the American craft beer movement, has described the Firkin model as the direct inspiration for ‘the worldwide brewpub revolution’. At the 1982 conference of the American Homebrewers’ Association David Bruce gave a talk entitled ‘The English Brewpub and the Resurgence of the Small, Local Brewery in England and America’. This, as Papazian recalls, ‘electrified the audience’ and within a year the first wave of American brewpubs had appeared. There are now almost 2,000 brewpubs in the US.
In Germany, too, the availability of smart-looking, compact, often semi-automated brewing equipment led to a boom in brewpubs, especially in those parts of the country where the native small brewing tradition had died away through consolidation and industrialisation. In places such as Stuttgart and Hamburg you will find vast, folksy dining rooms built around gleaming vessels. They generally serve up remarkably similar, often quite unexciting beer, which nonetheless offers an alternative to big regional or national brands. Where those tend to be yellow, fairly bland, and perfectly clear, German brewpub product often comes in a variety of shades from black to gold, and is often hazy – good for the digestion, the blurb implies. Wholesome and natural. In France and Spain, too, most cities have one or two brewpubs, which distinguish themselves by offering rustic British, Belgian and German style beers as an antidote to the standard big brand lagers sold elsewhere.
In Britain, however, the 1980s brewpub boom withered away. The Bruces sold up and Allied took the Firkin brand national, sucking away its charm in the process, and winding it up at the end of the 1990s. The Whitbread and Grand Met chains folded too. The orphaned brewkits found second lives in the blossoming microbreweries of this century’s boom but the brewpubs reverted to being simply… well, pubs.
At the same time, a new wave emerged, distinguished by its rejection of homely pub-like features and its embrace of ‘brewery conditioned’ beer – that is, not CAMRA-approved real ale. Brewmaster Alastair Hook, best known as the founder of Meantime Brewing, made a splash in the late 1990s when he helped restaurateur Oliver Peyton establish Mash & Air in Manchester. Inspired by American brewpubs more than any English tradition it occupied a former industrial building and put sexy space-age brewkit at literally the very centre. Through heavy duty portholes behind the bar drinkers and diners could see the Kubrick-esque bright orange fermenting vessels where the peach beer or blackcurrant porter they were drinking was born and bred. Writing in 1997 journalist Peter Haydon suggested that this was something distinct from a brewpub:
The latter is a pub with a brewery attached. The brewery may or may not be visible… A boutique brewery, however, is an integral part of the pub. Possibly made of steel or clad in copper, the visual appeal of traditional brewery plant is incorporated into the structure of the premises, in such a way as to form a centrepiece or add to the ambience.
A London branch of Mash later opened under the name Mash 2 and the high profile of the Peyton-Hook project, along with its pointedly modern approach, surely inspired what is now the longest surviving chain of brewpubs in the UK, Zero Degrees. It was founded in South London in 2000 by entrepreneur Dipam Patel starting with a single bar-brewery in Blackheath. Despite the Victorian gentility of the surrounding neighbourhood the bar itself was almost brutally industrial, all grey and polished metal, rough surfaces and girders. The brewkit faced on to the street through the huge picture window advertising to the world that this was something special. Also different was its emphasis on German-style lagers, setting it apart from the world of real ale which was by then entering comfortable middle age and distinctly lacking in youth appeal. Perhaps unsurprisingly it was popular with crowds of twenty-somethings who on any given weekend evening could be found spilling out of the doorway in their best shirts and clubbing clothes. In the decade that followed the chain expanded at a rather sensible rate, gaining branches in Bristol, Reading and Cardiff.
Zero Degrees was, however, a rare exception in a field of failures. Both branches of Mash closed within a decade of opening. Another 1998 opening, Bünker in Covent Garden, limped on to 2009. Meantime’s own brewpub, the Old Brewery in Greenwich, looked magnificent and prompted plenty of coverage, but that managed only five years before brewing ceased and it was sold on. Other ventures have been announced, brewkit even being purchased and installed, only to be scuppered by bureaucracy, cost and planning issues. Occasionally what starts as a brewpub morphs into a ‘proper’ brewery at the first chance – this is exactly how the now feted Beavertown began, in the basement of founder Logan Plant’s barbecue restaurant in Hackney, east London.
Brew Wharf was part of the Vinopolis restaurant-bar complex at Borough Market which operated from 2005 until 2014. Phil Lowry was part of the brewing team there and now runs his own brewery, Breakwater, in Dover, Kent. We asked him why brewpubs seem to struggle in Britain while they thrive elsewhere:
Fundamentally, this is a small island where real estate is extraordinarily expensive compared to other places like America and Germany. There’s a general lack of suitable spaces, too – they’re often too small, or already in use more profitably as shops or restaurants. With a brewpub, you’re basically putting a manufacturing setup into a valuable retail space. Brewpubs work in the US for various reasons. The tax framework there is much more generous than in the UK for one thing. There are incentives for breweries and brewpubs to open where once there was a suspicion around businesses that brew and sell alcohol. American civic bodies see brewing as OK – as an asset to a community – whereas here, you get no help or support. Opening Breakwater was a frustrating education in the civic machinery.
He also confirmed our suspicion that brewing with customers hovering around has its downsides:
At Brew Wharf it used to be practically a full-time job in its own right to handle the customers who wanted an impromptu tour or to ask questions. It’s much safer to get the brew done and out of the way before the customers arrive, and to keep it behind glass. I don’t just mean protecting them from the industrial process – I mean protecting the brewery from them.
In other words, operating a brewery in a place where food and drink are also consumed is a risky business. When we interviewed him in 2013 David Bruce recalled that in the Goose & Firkin cigarette ends from the gents toilet would fall down into the damp basement brewery forcing him to scramble to cover the vessels. By the same token, a brewery permanently on display has to look spotless or risk damaging customer confidence. Even a mop and bucket or a cloth left in the wrong place can give a bad impression. In other words, a working brewery cannot afford to look too much like a working brewery and requires a certain level of pretence. Pete Hughes, AKA ‘Swazi Pete’, head brewer for a chain of 17 Brewhouse & Kitchen pubs from Chester to Portsmouth, acknowledges this tension diplomatically:
The constant scrutiny means that only good brewers can cope. We do have to make sure that the brewery is always looking spotless and that we’re personally well presented at all times but any good brewery should be the same behind closed doors too.
This perhaps explains why it’s so rare, in our experience, to actually see any brewing underway on visits to brewpubs. The kit usually sits there, often behind glass, bright and clean but slumbering, its work completed long before the doors opened to admit the lunchtime crowd.
At Zero Degrees in Bristol the brewery is a dominant physical presence even when dormant forming a backdrop to the bar – an art installation in polished metal. During service it is further enhanced by ever-changing ambient lights which turn it green, then purple, then yellow, always drawing the eye to the space-age surfaces and endless pipework. It’s so cold and so clean it feels almost eerie, like a set from Doctor Who lit by Mario Bava.
Across the city, at the Brewhouse & Kitchen in Cotham, the vibe is warmer – more like one of those German brewpubs but with touches here and there of the 21st century craft beer bar. Again, the brewkit had been put to bed on both of our visits, thus resembling a museum exhibit more than a living brewery. Still, there is something pleasing about the sight of burnished copper and malt and hops in jars and sacks – a sense of a connection to the brewing process, of sizzle to go with the steak.
Casting our minds back to the early days of our own serious interest in beer we remember being particularly fascinated by brewpubs for this very reason. Quite as much as theatre there is education to be found there: where else can you look at a mural depicting the brewing process (a common decorative touch in such places) then compare it to the real life brewhouse, before taking a sip of the product itself. And for beginners the stylistic diversity of those products can be helpful, too. Tap East at the Westfield Shopping Centre, for example, is one of few places in London regularly serving dark mild, brewed a few steps from the bar. (Disclosure: Jessica’s little brother works there.) And Zero Degrees makes one of a handful of dark lagers in regular production in the UK, alongside accessible but interesting fruit beers and IPAs.
Accessible but interesting – if brewpubs have a niche in the UK, that’s it. The crowd at Tap East, at the Brewhouse & Kitchen in Bristol, or at the Zero Degrees bars we’ve visited, is not made up of the kind of serious beer geek you might find at a specialist multi-tap craft beer bar or real ale pub. Rather, they tend to be people of various ages out in groups, drawn by the novelty of the surroundings and the easy-to-sell premise: ‘They make their own beer, you know.’ Phil Lowry again:
The type of people that enjoy brewpubs are what I would call slowly adventurous, floating past rather than being seriously into beer. They’re ‘normals’. Let’s not forget, it’s easy on Twitter or wherever – just like in politics – to mistake a hardcore of loud individuals as being representative of the wider world, when they’re not. There are a lot of people who want a beer with a bit of something extra on the side, whether that’s nice food, or it being local, or whatever.
Phil has a lot of admiration for Zero Degrees in particular. To obsessives (like us) it sometimes seems like a relic of the Britpop era, despite recent bar makeovers and rebranding, but Phil says: “They’ve stayed on target, not chased the zeitgeist, and I think that’s to be applauded.”
From the brewers’ perspective there are advantages too. “Brewpubs are great because the beer is as fresh as it can be,” suggests Pete Hughes. “The brewer has direct control of the beer from grain to glass.” And at the Sheffield Tap, in the gorgeously renovated Edwardian refreshment rooms at Sheffield station, the products of the onsite Tapped Brewhouse supplement the already wide range of draught beers on offer, and at relatively competitive prices too.
Ironically, given Phil Lowry’s observations about property prices, developers increasingly semm to see the value in brewpubs as they add ‘soul’ to building projects and generate positive PR. Tap East was a developer-led initiative, for example, and in south London the installation of a microbrewery to be run by the Laine’s chain is a key part of plans for the restoration of the Fellowship Inn, a colossal, semi-derelict inter-war pub on the Bellingham estate.
The water has been muddied in recent years by the emergence of brewery tap rooms, a more or less alien concept in the UK where licensing laws, until recently, made them difficult to set up. They aren’t pubs – most open only sporadically, occupying bare makeshift spaces, in the shadow of serious brewing kit designed for heavy use rather than as ornamentation – but the appeal is similar. In Totnes in Devon the New Lion taproom amounts to little more than a picnic table or two and opens for a few hours after brewing is done for the day, but there is something magical about drinking a fresh pint of Pandit IPA served by one of the brewing team as evening light cuts through the steam rising from still-warm, just-cleaned brewing equipment.
Whether the UK will ever have as many brewpubs as America, or whether all of the current crop will survive, remains to be seen. Still, they keep coming, with a slew of new openings in the last year and more on the way. The London Beer Guide keeps the most accurate hands-on count of London breweries and, at the time of writing, it reckons there are 23 brewpubs operating in the capital alone.