I paid a flying visit to Tap East the week before last to see my brother. While I was there I tried the Pilsner by Pillars Brewery.
“Do you know it’s made round the corner from where we grew up?” asked my brother.
“Brewed on an industrial estate in Walthamstow – isn’t everything these days?”
And then the two of us took a moment to ponder on how weird that is and how far things have come for beer in Waltham Forest, with several breweries and talk of a rival beer mile.
Pubs that were on the brink of closing have been ‘rescued’ and you certainly don’t go short of a Sunday roast and a hazy pale ale.
And while it’s easy to moan about gentrification, this isn’t a case so much of pushing out existing traditional businesses because there are way more decent places to drink now than there ever were.
When I was young, Walthamstow wasn’t really a big drinking destination. It was somewhere young families settled. You might have a few in The Village or The Goose or whichever local pub tickled your fancy but, generally, people went up town for serious nightlife.
And there were no breweries at all, not one, in a borough with about a quarter of a million people. The Essex Brewery closed in the 1970s and the Sweet William brewery at the William IV, later Brodie’s, didn’t come along until much later.
Talking this through with Ray, we concluded that Waltham Forest these days is the perfect combination of shed-loads (literally) of bona fide industrial estates, not just converted railway arches; with good transport connections; and an increasingly young, wealthy demographic.
That must make it a great seedbed for new breweries and a good option for established breweries looking to move or expand.
The latter, editor of the excellent Beer Guide London, confirmed my perception of a recent explosion: “That section has certainly grown remarkably in the last year or two in particular.”
And both Des and Jezza came up with the same overarching explanation. Des happens to have been giving this some thought lately as he’s been working on an imminent new edition of his CAMRA guide to London pubs. Here’s how he expresses the challenge for London brewing businesses and the appeal of Waltham Forest:
Your task is to find an ‘up and coming’ area that already has, or is near to somewhere that has, a bit of hipster buzz, and over the coming years is likely to attract a population who will drink and talk about your beer, but still has relatively affordable industrial space and where you won’t have a problem getting an on-licence… Walthamstow, and particularly the area where all the new breweries are opening up, to the west of the historic centre along Blackhorse Road, is one of the few places that scores highly on all these factors. This is part of the Lea Valley, historically one of London’s largely industrial areas as the risk of flooding from the Lea discouraged housing development.
Jezza and Des also highlighted a point we’d missed which is that the local council has been keen to encourage craft breweries and other businesses, “even to the extent of partnering in a pub that showcases breweries in the borough” as Des put it, referring to the Welcome to the Forest Bar.
What about the Pilsner, though – was it any good? Yes, rather to my surprise, it was absolutely fantastic – really crisp and clean, as if it had been brewed in a Bavarian city somewhere rather than round the back of my old primary school.
Perhaps the next step could be to build a sprawling Munich style beer garden down by the reservoirs…?