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…?

Anatomy of a Rumour

If you are at all engaged with beer social media, you will be aware that there have been rumours, or at least rumours of rumours.

Though we don’t recall signing up to a code of ethics on this, there are certainly good reasons to be cagy about sharing or discussing such rumours.

First, there’s the risk of things getting a bit ‘lawyery’. We don’t know if this is a real issue, or a borrowed trouble, but who wants to find out the hard way?

Then there’s the question of people’s feelings. Imagine you’re negotiating the sale of your company but haven’t finalised the deal; there’s a non-disclosure agreement in place so you can’t tell your team anything until it’s done; and, anyway, you wouldn’t want to say anything in case it falls through at the last minute. Then imagine how those team members feel learning the news from Twitter, or on some poxy beer blog.

The American food reporter Farley Elliott recently described how, in the early days of his career, he would sometimes turn up at restaurants he had heard were closing down and, over-eager in making his enquiries, accidentally break the news to frontline staff that they were about to lose their jobs. He felt bad, they felt bad… There are better ways.

Finally, there’s the risk of embarrassing yourself if the rumoured takeover doesn’t happen. Rumours are just rumours, and are sometimes just lies. Five or so years ago, we heard a cast-iron rumour of a takeover that was definitely about to happen at any minute now… but didn’t. And still hasn’t.

And anyway, unless you are working for an outlet that thrives on scoops – that relies on being first with the breaking news – there’s no particular need for anyone in beer to be rushing to talk about this stuff.

The only difference a rumour makes, really, is that it allows time to mentally prepare. It can be a jolt to learn that a brewery you like or are interested in has been taken over when 300 hot-take Tweets land within a minute of each other.

Given how things are, though, shouldn’t we all be mentally prepared, all the time, for any brewery of decent size and market reach to sell up? We all know how to spot the pre-eruption tremors these days.

Sure, we’ll still jump when the balloon pops, but at least by now we’ve learned to discern the balloon, and to see someone standing there with pin in hand, grinning, waiting.

Neon Raptor Total Eclipse Jaffa Cake milk stout

We’re trying to drink one beer every week from a brewery that’s new to us and this time round it’s a Jaffa Cake milk stout from Neon Raptor of Nottingham.

We’ve actually found ourselves having to hunt round a bit to find unfamiliar breweries. There might be 2,000 or so of them but it turns out that in Bristol, you only tend to see about, say, 150 of those in circulation.

To find Total Eclipse, we had to go to a pub that’s not on our usual rounds because we haven’t really warmed to it over the years — that is, the Famous Royal Navy Volunteer, or Volly.

What do you expect from a beer with 7.4% ABV, vapourwave branding and a lactose warning? It is not subtle. It is loud, and best looked at through Ray Bans.

One definite point in its favour was that it had the weight of its strength, being positively chewy. It looks like chocolate sauce and, yes, that’s about the texture it achieves too.

The reference to Jaffa Cakes is misleading — the orange and chocolate here are both bitter, and intense. We certainly found ourselves thinking of confectionery, though: Mum’s Christmas box of Black Magic, crystallised ginger, candied peels.

Ray liked it; Jess less so. She detected a dirty background flavour, something earthy, like… potatoes? But overall, once again, it was kind of fun, and we’ve got another brewery to keep an eye out for.

The Distributed Brewery: Simon G and Zero Degrees

Simon Gueneau is a Parisian trained in Belgium, based in Bristol, and brewing Continental-style beer on Italian kit – how could we fail to be intrigued?

We’ve long been fascinated by Zero Degrees, the brewpub chain that predates the craft beer craze of the mid-2000s, with bars that never quite click for our taste. Since moving to Bristol, though, we’ve come to really appreciate the beer, which, if you can ignore the context, is clean, classical and balanced across the board.

We had questions, naturally: who devises the recipes? Is the beer identical on every site? And so on.

When veteran beer writer Tim Webb, who lives in Bristol, mentioned that the brewer at Zero Degrees was a protege of Yvan de Baets of Brasserie de la Senne, our curiosity boiled over: we had to know more.

Simon met us at the bar after his shift, wiping down the final surfaces and pouring himself a beer before joining us on tottering stools in the main posing arena.

He has a dry manner, signalling jokes only with a slight twitch of the eyebrows. He shrugs and purrs, waves fingers that surely ought to have a cigarette between them, and occasionally curls a lip, or pouts. You should see the quiet disdain with which he says the word ‘Prosecco’.

The Q&A that follows is lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

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And we’ll take a quick pause here to thank Patreon supporters such as Nathan Hamer and John Bristle whose generous backing makes it seem less daft for us to spend our evenings and weekends working on this kind of longer post. Please do consider signing up.

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B&B: Let’s start with the biography – where are you from, and how did you end up brewing in Bristol?

I did a lot of science at uni. I did molecular biology. I studied immunology, went for a masters in immunology, didn’t like it so much in the end, so I applied for a food engineering course. Which was strange.

It was specialising in fermentation – wine, beer and cheese. Wine in Burgundy, I did that for three, four months; beer in Belgium; cheese in the north of Italy. There was an internship so I did it at Cantillon.

Then a big science project at the end which I did at Brasserie de la Senne.

B&B: We heard that Yvan de Baets was in Bristol and came to see you recently.

Yes, it was nice. I hadn’t seen him in, like, three years. I spent six months as an intern at de la Senne, with my project to reduce the yeast deposit in bottle-conditioning, four days at the brewery and one day at the lab, every week. I wasn’t doing everything – just cleaning fermenters, bottling, you know… It was a very small team at the time, in around 2012. They’ve got much bigger since. Yvan and Bernard were still brewing back then.

B&B: Are you a fan of de le Senne beers?

Oh, yes, but I can’t find them much round here.

B&B: At the Strawberry Thief, maybe?

Well, yes, but last time I was there it was four months old. I’m not paying £8 a bottle for old beer. If it’s fresh, of course I don’t mind.

B&B: We’ve really enjoyed the banana milkshake IPA here recently.

Ah, I didn’t make it! The special beers, we swap them. The five core beers, every site makes them. Each site makes on special every month. I keep, say, two thirds of it. The last third, I keg it, and a driver takes it to all the four Zero Degrees. That’s what I did today, I kegged the Fruit Picking at Dusk, a, black cherry porter and Thursday, it’s going to be in Cardiff, London and Reading, and I’ll receive theirs.

For February, it’s black cherry porter; in March, English IPA…

B&B: How often do the brewers from the four sites get together?

Every two or three months we have a brewer’s meeting, usually in Reading. The boss, Nick [Desai], lives in West London.

B&B: The core beers – are those the same at every site? Is there a spec you work to, or is there some room for creative interpretation?

There’s a recipe, which we agree at our meetings. There’s original and final gravity targets, ABVs, and stuff like that. If you don’t treat your water, Cardiff lager is going to be better. Welsh spring water! Well, not spring water, but it’s softer, is what I mean.

But then you’ve got the touch of the brewer. And how much they respect the recipes… [shrug]

B&B: It’s the same malt and hops bill?

Yeah, technically.

The beers are all pretty similar now. The beers ought to the same on all four sites these days.

Three kits are the same – Cardiff, Reading and Bristol are really, really similar. London is very different. Our kit is Velo-Biering, so a blend of German and Italian, mostly Italian. It’s computer controlled but the automation doesn’t work anymore.

The brewing kit at Zero Degrees in Bristol

B&B: Do you have an assistant, or do you do everything yourself?

Yeah, everything. Five days a week, eight, nine, ten hours a day.

B&B: If we came in on a Wednesday lunchtime, we’d see you working, would we?

Yes. You get the odd person looking in. But the brewing is not extremely obvious, it’s well contained – the odd bit of steam, some of the smell, it doesn’t make much noise. I’ve found the odd kid trying to get into the brewery as well. It’s not great, huh? Barrels of chemicals… [shrug]

B&B: As you know, we particularly liked the Vienna Lager you brewed last year.

Ah, yes! I brewed it with Marc [Muraz-Dulaurier] from Lost & Grounded. He’s French, too, but he’s left now. He wanted to brew a beer on my kit. It was a good beer. Vienna malt, and then just German aromatic hops.

B&B: Despite being dry-hopped, it seemed a pretty classical, well-balanced take on the style.

Well, the crowd here is pretty normal, let’s say. So if you do a double-dry-hopped 9% IPA, it’s never gonna work.

B&B: The Bohemian… If you’re not interested in beer, it’s lager. If you are, it’s a good example of the style, the Czech style–

Well, I wouldn’t call it Czech. They want to call it Czech. To me, it’s German. It’s a little too bitter. I drink Pils. Or pale ale, it depends… Never the mango.

B&B: If they phoned you up tomorrow and said they wanted to scrap the mango beer, you wouldn’t object?

I’d be happy. But it makes money, it’s a business, I need my wages. It’s a pale ale base with natural mango extract. It sells quite big. It was the second biggest seller but now the American pale ale has overtaken it. Pils, golden lager, is always going to be the bestseller.

B&B: By a significant amount? Twice as much?

Yes.

B&B: What’s your local here in Bristol?

Usually the Old Stillage in St George’s, more for the mood than the choice of beers, but they’ve got Moor on tap usually. Or, well, I don’t mind, I drink Carlsberg or whatever they’ve got. It doesn’t kill anyone, it doesn’t taste of very much, but it’s fine. The Dark Horse is good, too. Open fires, dogs, cider.

B&B: Do you plan to open your own brewery one day?

No! No. I won’t be opening any brewery. I am just happy to offer my professional services to anyone who’s interested.

B&B: Is there enough creativity in it?

As long as the costing is not completely crazy, anything I come up with gets accepted. I could put plenty of hops in a beer if I wanted, but beers are pretty cheap here, £3 in happy hour, so… [shrug]

B&B: Do you use different yeasts for different beers?

Yes, two: lager yeast for the dark lager, the lager and the Vienna; American ale yeast for everything else. Dried yeast, but I harvest and repitch. I use a keg with connections on it so I can sanitise, harvest, refrigerate. I introduced that last year because we were using a lot of dried yeast – like, 200 pounds for a batch of lager. We were trying to save money by reducing a little bit here, changing this or that, and I said, no, no, malt is peanuts – let’s be more efficient with our yeast.

I need a microscope. I know how to do it, but where would I put a lab where I wouldn’t find peanuts or slices of pizza? With the deck across the top, people get drunk and drop glasses, ashtrays…

Cost control is very important. It was a tough couple of years, but we have contracts for all the big American hops. The American pale ale has new American hops, because two years ago we were still using Cascade, Chinook, Centennial. Now, revolution! We’ve got Mosaic, Citra, Amarillo. Still old fashioned, maybe.

B&B: A final question – what would be your three desert island beers?

Orval. Yeah, that’s it.

Three? This is difficult.

Maybe de la Senne Taras Boulba.

Is there water? If not, Budweiser.

I can’t choose three Belgian beers… Oh, why not, something dark, Rochefort 10. Or maybe a pilsner like Flensburger. It’s well-made, it’s bitter, and not skunked like Jever in the green glass.

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With all this information, we paid a return visit to Zero Degrees in Bristol to see if it changed our perception of the beer. It did not, except that we realised that part of its appeal to us might simply be it’s relative conservatism, and the fact that the recipes are a year or two behind the curve. We are, after all, children of the Cascade generation.

Simon is on Twitter @Simonggggg. Zero Degrees Bristol is at 53 Colston Street, BS1 5BA.

News, Nuggets and Longreads 16 February 2019: Beer Duty, BridgePort, Brussels

Here’s everything in writing about beer and pubs from the past week that struck as especially noteworthy, from colonialism to brewery closures.

For the Guardian Dutch journalist Olivier van Beemen offers an article based on an extract from his book Heineken in Africa: a Multinational Unleashed. It offers a glimpse into the practices of a European brewing giant operating in Africa, and how, despite the rhetoric of corporate social responsibility, it cannot help but echo the behaviours of the colonial era:

Further research [into promotion girls] in DRC, the country where the most abuse was reported, revealed that unwanted advances came not only from customers but also from Heineken staff. “The enormous uncertainty of keeping a job combined with the absence of employee rights of legal status makes PW [promotion women] vulnerable for misuse from several stakeholders,” the internal report notes. Often, the women, who earned very little, had to sleep with managers if they wanted to keep their job. But if they needed to see a gynaecologist or get an abortion, which was often illegal and dangerous, they had to sort everything themselves, and pay for it. They also had to drink five to 10 large bottles of beer every working day, in order to persuade customers to consume more.


Sighing bar staff.

This week’s big viral story, for quite understandable reasons, was this expression of righteous fury by Canadian beer writer Robin LeBlanc in response to a bizarre sexist ramble in an American brewing magazine by its publishers, Bill Metzger, who has since resigned:

That’s right, folks. He managed to take a piece about cask ale and turn it into a whiny, self-indulgent, sexist, heavily misogynist, and creepy as hell work. In fact he did this so expertly that it actually broke my brain and I need to break it down and go over most of the particularly offensive quotes with you all because if I don’t I’m going to keep thinking about it until I have a brain aneurysm.

Alright. Let’s start with the very first sentence of the article.

“Like most men, I struggle with my my primal self.”

Oh boy, strap in folks, because we know exactly where this is going.


De la Senne beers in Brussels.

For Brussels Beer City Eoghan Walsh provides a rundown of the history of cult Belgian brewery de la Senne, constructing his tale around five specific beers:

Before there was Brasserie de la Senne, there was Zinnebir. Bernard Leboucq was home-brewing in the basement of a central Brussels squat in 2002, and he was invited to brew Zinnebir as the official beer for that year’s Zinneke parade. Yvan De Baets, already passionate about beer, was a social worker working alongside youth groups on the parade. A meet-cute was inevitable.

“I saw this guy pulling a big trolley of beer,” says De Baets, “and I told the guys working with me to take care of the kids, I have to meet him. He offered me a beer, a second, a third.” Two years later De Baets joined Leboucq as unofficial brewing advisor in their first iteration of Brasserie de la Senne.


The Quest for the Perfect Pub

The Pub Curmudgeon has dissected a largely forgotten book from 1989 in which brother Nick and Charlie Hurt report on a three-month Quest for the Perfect Pub:

The thirty years since the book was published have, not surprisingly, not been kind to the pubs listed. Some, fortunately, are still in existence in little-changed form, such as the Yew Tree at Cauldon in Staffordshire and the Traveller’s Rest at Alpraham in Cheshire. Others, such as the Stagg at Titley in Herefordshire and the Durham Ox at Shrewley in Warwickshire, have very much gone down the gastro route and can no longer be regarded as community boozers, while many, such as the Horse & Jockey at Delph in the former Saddleworth district of Yorkshire and the White Lion at Pen-y-Mynydd in Flintshire have long since closed. Indeed, I doubt whether either of those long survived the publication of the book, and the Horse & Jockey has long been a roofless, crumbling ruin.


Abstract illustration of pubs.

Roger Protz has written an interesting piece about the specific issues faced by those running houses owned by giant pub companies:

“My agreement meant I could buy wines, spirits and minerals free of tie but I was tied for beer and cider. The main Ei beer list had Dark Star Hophead. Jack had sold three 18 gallon casks a week of Hophead but Ei said I couldn’t have it as it was outside SIBA’s delivery area – SIBA has a 25-mile radius for beer orders.”

Courage Best is a popular beer among regulars. Harry found he would have to pay £30 a barrel more than Jack had paid – and Jack had sold 100 barrels a year.


Carling Black Label beer mat.

At Ed’s Beer Site Ed provides some fascinating details of how Carling lager is actually brewed:

Very high maltose syrup is used in the kettle to give 20% of the grist. For those not familiar with high gravity brewing very high maltose syrup is important because it reduces the amount of esters produced during fermentation, something which high gravity brewing raises.


Jim at Beers Manchester is angry about the weaselly ways of the UK’s larger breweries which are lobbying for changes to Progressive Beer Duty from behind the facades of various organisations, such as the Independent Family Brewers of Britain:

Let’s look at the IFBB in more detail.

Richard Fuller. Secretary of The Independent Family Brewers of Britain.

Hang on. Fuller. As in that brewery that is no longer “Independent”? Hmmm.


A notable brewery closure: BridgePort Brewing of Portland, Oregon – one of the first of the modern IPA brewers, launching its flagship hoppy pale beer in 1996 – is shutting up shop after 35 years. Jeff Allworth offers context and commentary here.


And finally, from Twitter:

For more links see Stan Hieronymus’s blog on Mondays and Alan McLeod’s on Thursdays.

Watney’s Red Barrel – how bad could it have been?

You can’t have cops without robbers, or Batman without the Joker, and so the story of the revitalisation of British beer needs its bad guys too. Enter Watney’s.

Watney’s (or Watney Mann, or Watney Combe Reid) was the Evil Corporation which sought to crush plucky small brewers and impose its own terrible beer on the drinking public. It acquired and closed beloved local breweries, and it closed pubs, or ruined them with clumsy makeovers.

Its Red Barrel was particularly vile – a symbol of all that was wrong with industrial brewing and national brands pushed through cynical marketing campaigns.

This, at least, was the accepted narrative for a long time, formed by the propaganda of the Campaign for Real Ale in its early years, and set hard through years of repetition.

But does it stand up to scrutiny? What if, contrary to everything we’ve heard, Red Barrel was actually kind of OK?

This long post was made possible by the kind support of Patreon subscribers like Matthew Turnbull and David Sim, whose encouragement makes us feel less daft about spending half a weekend working on stuff like this. Please consider signing up, or just buy us a pint.

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Brewery Life, St Helens, 1920s: Free Beer and Vitriol

What was life like in a large regional English brewery in the years between the wars? Fortunately for us, Charles Forman asked someone, and recorded their answer.

We picked up a copy of Industrial Town, which was published in 1978, from a bargain bin somewhere and have previously flagged its commentary on spitting in pubs.

The observations of a nameless brewery worker, born c.1902, are no less interesting, describing life at Greenall Whitley’s St Helens outpost:

In the brewery the day turn used to be on at six in the morning. You had to get malt out, which came in hundredweight sacks, and put it in the dissolving tanks. You got a dipstick out which stated the quantity of water that was wanted to dissolve the malt in. When you go that quantity you let them know on the mash tuns where the malt is left. The mixture is pumped up to the coppers, where they used to put the malt and hops to boil. There were three copper boilers altogether – the biggest one held 500 barrels.

When they’re satisfied they’ve got enough hops, they shut that manhole and put the steam on to get it to a certain heat for boiling the brew. They’re supposed to boil it just over an hour, but sometimes you were waiting for empty vessels, so you had to boil it longer. There were only two of us there, so you couldn’t go away and leave it.

There is a bit more detail of the brewing process given – the brewery employed hopbacks, and sent the beer into vessels at 70°F before fermenting for a full week.

One especially interesting detail (well, to us; well, to Jess) is a brief discussion of excise inspections:

There’s a certain gravity to work to in the beer. Once they get it to the gravity they want, you can’t do anything till the excise officers come along and check it… On the job, if you got it wrong, there’d be an enquiry about it. If it was too high, they’d break it down with boiling water to make sure it was the right gravity that they’re tied down to.

Cleaning is the less sexy side of brewing but, by all accounts, takes up a huge amount of most brewers’ time. The subject of this oral history recalls cleaning vats as a job for brewery juniors: “It was repetition work – just do the job till it’s done. We used sand and mixed it up with with vitriol…”

But what was Greenall Whitley’s beer like in the 1920s? It’s always exciting to find historic tasting notes of any kind, but this one is only brief and vague: “The beer was all right”.

[They] had different strengths. They don’t brew any stout now – it’s only bitter and mild. We used to get beer free at half past ten and half past two in the afternoon. The chap dished it out in the cellar. You’d have to take a can with you. Two pints a day, that’s what it used to be. One chap got sacked for pinching it – they were very keen on that.

You can pick up copies of this book for very little and if you’re interested in St Helens, industrial history, or working class life, it’s certainly worth a couple of quid.

Main image: the St Helens brewery in the 1930s, via the Brewery History Society Wiki.

The Secrets of Doom Bar’s Success

This post was made possible by the support of Patreon subscribers like  Nick Moyle and Sue Hart whose encouragement justified us spending several days of our free time researching and writing. If you like this, and want more, please do consider signing up, or just buy us a pint.

How did a beer born on an industrial estate in Cornwall in 1995 become a ubiquitous national brand in just 20 years? And what about it inspires such loyalty, and such disdain?

A few incidents made us really start thinking about Sharp’s Doom Bar.

The first was a couple of years ago on a research trip to Manchester, having travelled all the way from Penzance, when we walked into a pub – we can’t recall which one – to find two cask ales on offer: St Austell Tribute, and Doom Bar.

The second was at a pub in Newlyn, just along the coast from Penzance, where we met two exhausted cyclists who’d just complete the John O’Groats to Land’s End run. They wanted one last beer before beginning the long journey home to the Home Counties. When we got talking to them, one of them eventually said to us: “You’re into your ales, then? I’ll tell you what’s a good one – Doom Bar. Do you know it?”

People love this beer. They really, genuinely, unaffectedly find great pleasure in drinking it.

Sales statistics support that: from somewhere around 12 million pints per year in 2009, to 24m in 2010, to 43m by 2016, Doom Bar shifts units.

So what is, or has been, Doom Bar’s secret? And is there something there other brands might imitate?

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GALLERY: Women Working in Pubs and Breweries, from the Archives

It’s International Women’s Day which seems like a good reason to share this collection of pictures of women working in breweries and pub we’ve been bookmarking in old brewery magazines.

There’s an editorial choice being made here, of course: to find these pictures of cool women doing cool stuff we had to wade through a lot of photos of secretaries sitting on men’s laps, booth babes, hop queens, cheese maidens, and bikini competitions. Don’t think from what you see below that Whitbread, Watney’s or any of these other firms were bastions of feminism.

You’ll also note that the pictures back up what we said in the post we wrote on women in British beer a few years ago: there’s not much evidence of female brewers in the post-war period, women being generally confined to administrative functions, bottling lines and laboratories. In fact, why not start in the lab?

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Session #133: Hometown Glories

Illustration: HOMETOWN.

This is our contribution to the monthly beer blogging event which is hosted this time by Gareth at Barrel Aged Leeds who asks us to think about our hometowns and their pubs and beer.

We have two hometowns to think about, of course, both very different to each other: Ray grew up in a small industrial town in Somerset, Jessica in east London. That led us to reflect on what they might have in common and that, we realised, was the long absence of any breweries.

The Essex Brewery in 1973.
The Essex Brewery in 1973 (cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Chris Hodrien – geograph.org.uk/p/2098447)

Walthamstow was once home to the Essex Brewery, founded by the Collier brothers in 1871 and taken over by Tollemache of Ipswich in 1906. The brewery operated until 1972 after which it was demolished but retained a presence in the form of the brewery tap pub which traded in one form or another until relatively recently when it was converted into flats.

A large Victorian pub.
The Brewery Tap in 2014.

So for the entirety of her childhood and youth, there were no E17 beers — not one beer brewed in a district of around 100,000 people.

The SKF brewery in Bridgwater in 1969. (Via the Brewery History Society.)

Bridgwater was similarly once home to a large ‘proper’ brewery, Starkey Knight & Ford, which was taken over by Whitbread in the 1960s and shut down. Ray grew up around pubs with the SKF prancing horse symbol on their faces, with his Dad sighing over the lost SKF beers he had enjoyed from the age of 12 (!), and with the site as wasteland, then an unloved swimming pool, and finally a car park. A town with a population of around 30,000 had no brewery to call its own, and loyalty to no outsider brewery over any other.

Prancing horse logo.

There might be some conclusions to be drawn from what happened next, though. Things began to change in Walthamstow when the Sweet William brewery at the William IV, just over the boundary into Leyton, began trading in the year 2000. It closed in 2005 and was reborn as Brodie’s in 2008 — a serious, well-regarded brewery whose beers actually turned up in pubs, and whose bottled beers were everywhere for a while. (Disclosure: very early on in the life of this blog, and their brewery, James and Lizzie Brodie sent us a case with one bottle of everything they made.) As of 2018 there are multiple breweries in Walthamstow proper including Wild Card and Pillars, as well as several on industrial states in its borderlands. Beer has come back to East 17.

Bridgwater, meanwhile, still has none. There was briefly a Bridgwater Brewery, from 1993 to 1996, but it was actually in Goathurst and it’s fair to say its beer wasn’t widely available in town. There are some in the countryside around but (as of Ray’s last survey) not many pubs in town that sell any of their products. In fact, we see more beer from Quantock at our new local in Bristol than we ever have in Bridgwater.

You can look at this two ways: optimists will see small provincial towns as the next stopping point for the rebrewerification (which is a word) process already experienced by even the outerest (also definitely a word) of outer London suburbs. Cynics, on the other hand, will suggest they’re being bypassed, perhaps muttering something about metropolitan elites as they go.

We can’t help but think that Walthamstow could support one or two more breweries yet, and that Bridgwater surely has room for at least one, even if like the (currently out of action) Ashley Down Brewery here in Bristol it exists primarily to supply a single micropub.