Categories
breweries london

Why so many breweries in Waltham Forest, all of a sudden?

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.

We asked London beer experts Des de Moor and Jezza for their opinions, by way of testing our assumptions.

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…?

Categories
20th Century Pub

When Barclay Perkins tried to evict my great grandad

great grandad as a teenager
My great grandad aged 18

One of the oddest, most wonderful moments researching 20th Century Pub was stumbling across my own great grandfather in the archives.

I was reading through volume after volume of minutes from the London brewery Barclay Perkins, tracing the story of their relationship with the Trust House movement and the development of their enormous improved pubs such as the Fellowship Inn, Bellingham.

Then, suddenly, there was a reference to an off licence round the corner from where I grew up, and a few lines down, the name of my great grandfather.

I don’t know all that much about him although I have photos and the odd document. I know he served in World War I which seems to have screwed him up somehow and during the 1920s he ran a grocer’s shop and off-licence in Walthamstow, which eventually ended badly.

From the minutes, I learned that Barclay Perkins owned the freehold on the shop and leased it to him on a short-term basis, with the lease expiring in 1930. In 1925, Barclays were approached by a wine merchant’s, Yardley’s London & Provincial Stores Ltd, who would pay more rent, and a lease premium to boot. They were also keen to do some bottling for the brewery, as they already did for Watney, although the board were less interested in this as Barclay Perkins did their own London bottling.

There’s an interesting insight into how these things worked: my great grandad bought beer from the brewery and also paid a royalty of 2d per dozen bottles of non-company beer sold. They were rather sniffy about his business generally; “…[Company] purchases were small and the royalty only amounted to some £12 per annum”. Also, the implication in the minutes is that Barclay Perkins would probably find another site and trade the licence.

Someone was dispatched to “inspect the neighbourhood” and report back. The following minutes record that the intrepid company rep had found out that the local magistrates would only issue a new licence if two were given up. In the meeting after that, the decision to grant Yardley’s a 21 year licence was deferred. It then goes quiet for a few months, and then the Board are asked whether they would consider it again – and then that’s it.

My great grandad continued to run the shop after 1930, so I guess the Yardley’s deal fell through and Barclay Perkins had to put up with his disappointing trade for a while longer.

Categories
bristol pubs

Unexpected pubs are the best pubs

This is probably the time to admit publicly that as well as doing #EveryPubinBristol, I have a related mission to visit Every Street in Bristol.

It’s a great way to really get to know our new(ish) home and discover unexpected delights such as an Edward VIII postbox, Roman road remains, suburban substations built to resemble 1930s detached houses, Victorian urinals, municipal murals – you get the idea.

I’d like to pretend it’s something to do with psychogeography and liminal spaces but it’s actually much more to do with my completist tendencies. Anyway, there you go. Confession made.

This is background to explain why, the day after our Filton jaunt, we went out for a walk aimed at ticking streets rather than pubs. Because we felt we’d done our duty the previous day, and because of general seasonal overindulgence, I thought it would be a good opportunity to head into an area I expected to be a pub desert – the 1930s hinterlands between Westbury-on-Trym (AKA ‘WOT’) and Stoke Park.

Experience, and all that research I did into early 20th century town planning and licensing for 20th Century Pub, tells us that these sorts of areas tend to have either no pubs at all, or very large ones at major junctions.

As per my plan, we went through the centre of Westbury-on-Trym, and turned up a large suburban avenue. I had literally just said to Ray, “One thing we won’t find out here will be any pubs,” when we rounded the corner and saw not one but two pub signs close together, blowing in the wind. At a glance, both appeared to be modest sized boozers advertising real ale among other things.

Prince of Wales.

We visited The Prince of Wales first, which had lovely George’s livery outside and inside, and reminded us of a backstreet London pub, perhaps in somewhere like Ealing.

There’s the outline of a two-bar layout arranged around a corner entrance, and although the partitions are long gone, it still felt cosy.

Two small bar areas with a reasonable number of customers make a place feel busy. It’s a Butcombe house, and the Butcombe bitter was nothing short of superb.

Excitingly (for us) there was also Timothy Taylor Landlord, in equally excellent condition. The beer was so good that we downloaded the CAMRA Good Beer Guide App to rate it.

We clinked glasses, delighted in the discovery and baffled as to why we hadn’t heard of this place. We would have stayed for more but there was another pub to visit, as well as some vague hope of getting back to ticking streets while the daylight lasted.

The Black Swan was perhaps cosier again –  more like a village pub, with two small, packed front rooms and a larger (empty) space out the back. The beer wasn’t as exciting but was decent enough and the general mix of people coming and going was fun.

While we were there, we had a look at the excellent National Library of Scotland geo-referenced map of the area to see if we could determine why there appeared to be a village inn in the middle of 1930s suburbia. Sure enough, we found that we were on a little island of an older settlement, unnamed as far as we could tell, and that the Black Swan was marked on the 1880 map.

We also pondered the contrast with these two pubs with those we’d visited the day before at Filton. It seemed a good illustration of the point that it is easier to retain and create atmosphere and a sense of community in smaller pubs.

That is, regardless of the relative economic fortunes of Filton vs Westbury-on-Trym, the two WOT  pubs had the advantage of smaller size and more sympathetic design and seemed better suited to 21st century preferences.

Pubs that can make it past their first hundred years are more likely to survive in the long term.

Categories
homebrewing

Why not make cider?

It all began with a big sign on the window of our local home-brewing shop, the unfortunately named Brewer’s Droop: ‘It’s Cider season! Borrow our cider press!’

We’ve been blessed with apples this year. Or rather, with some extensive YouTube study and a five hour pruning session in February, I managed to get the unproductive tree in our rented property to produce hundreds of absolute whoppers. I have hitherto been almost the opposite of green fingered, so I’m inordinately proud of this.

We had already made pies, frozen puree, made apple butter and eaten apple pancakes for breakfast every day for two weeks. But, still, we had loads.

So I wandered into the shop to find out more and came out fixated on the idea. As in, Ray asking, “What are you thinking about?” as I stared into the middle distance pondering the process. As in, drifting off to sleep with visions of sweet juice flowing freely from the press.

The shopkeeper told me I could hire a scratter (pulper) and the press on a daily rate. I didn’t need any other kit as we already had fermenting vessels and campden tablets. That just left a couple of issues to sort before pressing day.

Firstly, it turned out that, though we were trying to deal with an apple surplus, we’d actually need more apples – “at least five 20 litre buckets to make it worthwhile,” said the helpful chap in the shop.

The poster I put up in the Drapers.

Fine, no problem: I contacted a couple of friends who also have apple trees and then had the bright idea of putting a sign up in The Drapers Arms. This turned out to be wildly successful and mildly stressful.

We had to get them from the pub to home on foot. Garvan, landlord of The Drapers, lent us his sack truck but, still, we still end up scattering apples around the pub and Hansel and Gretel style along the Gloucester Road.

It all worked out, though, and without any planning at all we hit upon a good mix for cider – mostly eating apples, a few cookers and some actual cider apples.

Unfortunately, not many people left their details so I have no way to say thanks to lots of the donors apart from here, and perhaps another sign in the Drapers. So, thank you all, it is really appreciated.

Next, I had to work out what processes to follow and how to use the kit.

Cider production, even more than brewing beer, seems to be a field full of contradictory advice and inconsistencies, with reputable sources disagreeing on methods.

“You don’t need muslin”, said the bloke at the shop – not much of a salesman, with hindsight.

“You definitely need a straining sock or something similar,” said two Drapers regulars, referring to a system for lifting the crushed apple out of the press when it’s done.

“You’ll need Campden tablets and a cider yeast,” said one; “I never use yeast, just let it do its thing,” said another.

I eventually settled on no straining sock but decided I would do the Campden tablet plus yeast thing.

The press in action.

I learned a few things in the thick of it:

> You need at least one other person, and preferably three or four. That way, you can be scratting while someone is emptying the previous pressing, or putting more pressure on the press, or making a round of tea without a break in production.

> Pulping apples in a hand cranked scratter is incredibly satisfying but the juice and pips will fly several metres as the fruit disappears into the maw, so either do it outside or cover everything.

> Yes, you definitely need a bloody straining sock. Digging out compacted apple cheese from a press is a lot harder work than digging out a mash tun, and you have to repeat it several times.

> The press can always be turned one more time, though it might not be worth the effort after a while.

> Size of apple really matters in estimating yield. “About five buckets of apples to one bucket of juice” said the chap in the shop. “About three times as many apples as volume of liquid,” said a cider making expert in the Drapers. I think my yield was more like one bucket of juice from six buckets of apples. I think that’s partly because a lot of our apples were huge – the bloke in the Drapers has a tree that produces lovely little red apples, hence, I reckon, his much better yield.

We learned afterwards, from books:

> As well as size of apple, amount of juice is dependent on when you pick the apples and press them. We don’t really have the room to do what most sources suggest, which is to pick the apples and leave them for up to four weeks before pressing, so we probably couldn’t have done this differently.

> We should have aimed for a balance of sweetness, acidity and tannin in the juice, and should have made adjustments to achieve it. Well, the juice we got was absolutely beautiful, but I’m not sure if it will have enough acid or tannin to make good cider.

We got 30 litres of juice in the end after about 17 hours of hard labour, mostly me but with Ray’s help in the evening.

That juice is, at present, still juice, as fermentation does not seem to be quite kicking off as it ought to.

The fermenting vessel full of juice.

One of the smaller carboys is going fairly well, though not spraying foam everywhere as promised; the other is more sluggish. Our massive 20 litre jar seems to be going nowhere, at the time of writing.

It’s all the same yeast so perhaps I used too many Campden tablets and killed it? We will probably mix up the one that is going with the one that isn’t and see what happens.

At the moment, then, we don’t know if all the hassle was worth it, and by all accounts, even if we do get cider, it won’t be drinkable for another year. Still, we’ve already gone from “Never again!” at one o’clock on Friday morning to “When we do this again next year…”

Categories
20th Century Pub

The Great Age of Steam

Beer signs at the Head of Steam bar in Birmingham.

We’ve been intrigued by the growth of the Head of Steam chain of beer bars for a while and Phil’s recent post prompted me to go out of my way to drop into the Birmingham branch while traversing the Midlands.

Founded by Tony Brookes in the North East of England in 1995, the original proposition of Head of Steam was that the pubs (with bottled beer, flavoured vodka, and so on) would be near city train stations, occupying railway property. In 1998 there were branches in Newcastle, Huddersfield and at Euston in London.

In 2009 when regional giant Cameron’s took over, with backing from Carlsberg, there were seven pubs in the Head of Steam group. There are now 15 bars, mostly in the Midlands and the North, with more on the way.

Based on my experience in Birmingham, the approach is to try to convince you you’re stepping into an individualistic place with personality and taste, not a Craft Pub Chain Concept. The signs are all ther, though: distressed and mismatched furniture, walls that’ll give you splinters, but with all the crucial bits kept conveniently wipe-clean.

Vintage pub seating and wooden walls.

There’s an off-the-peg Eclectic Playlist, of course — breathy indie switches to quirky ska and then, inevitably, to Africa by Toto — delivered through a state of the art Hospitality Background Music Solution.

And the food looks like standard pub grub disguised with a sprinkling of kimchi.

Now, all that might sound a little sour but actually I didn’t dislike the place at all.

There was an interesting selection of beer, for starters.

I was also impressed by the very chatty bartender who for all his patter knew when to pitch a recommendation and when to just pour.

As I was on a tight turnaround I only had a couple of small ones — Horizon by the Shiny Brewing Company, which didn’t touch the sides — hazy, refreshing, tart, and bitter; and an imported German lager, ABK, which struck me as pretty decent, too, in a literally nondescript way.

Cameron’s also spent some of the refurb money on ensuring there are plug points at practically every table which in this day and age is a not insignificant factor in deciding where to go for a pint in a strange town.

My first instinct was to say that it isn’t the sort of place I’d generally choose to go again but actually I had to concede that it made a good pit-stop while changing trains, being less than five minutes from New Street.

Then I found myself going a little further: if I lived in Birmingham, I reckon I’d probably end up there quite a bit.

I can imagine it appealing to non-beer-geek friends and family with its cleanness, friendliness, and vast range of drinks.

And I can certainly deal with the whiff of the corporate when there’s a cage of Orval and Westmalle to be enjoyed.