Craft Beer Pubs

Since this blog was created, indeed probably since the last time it was updated, the term “craft beer” has become a much-ballyhooed part of the beer scene in London. There are still only a handful of pubs that might justifiably be called “craft beer pubs” according to the recent use of this term, but I’ll need to address what exactly it is before I can address the pubs themselves.

The Euston Tap (Euston NW1)
Figure 80. The Euston Tap (Euston NW1).

Definitions

The term “craft beer” originally came from the United States, ostensibly coined by the American Brewers’ Association, and developed in the 1980s and 1990s to distinguish the microbreweries and other small brewers from the major nationals (now all incorporated into global multinational drinks companies, the three largest being Anheuser-Busch InBev, SABMiller and Molson Coors). There’s no hard and fast rule, but annual outputs of less than 6 million barrels of beer are generally considered “craft” in the American context.1

Britain, though, has always had a strong relationship with beer at a local and artisanal level. The product which has come to be known as “real ale” has a long history (lagers only became more prevalent in the UK around the 1960s and 1970s), and the vast majority of brewers have been small operations. In fact, in the 19th century and into the earlier part of the last century, there were few pubs who didn’t brew their own beer for sale. After a period of 20th century consolidation into a small number of very large brewing conglomerates, the older, more localised production of ale began to be kickstarted again by the formation of consumer rights group the Campaign for the Revitalisation of Ale (CAMRA, which soon changed the word “Revitalisation” to “Real” when it became clear that some kind of definition for the product they were lobbying on behalf of was required, and to make it easier to say). In the last few years, a rash of new brewers have started up around London (and the UK), often in convenient spaces under railway arches or in industrial units (Sambrook’s, Kernel Brewery, Redchurch Brewery, London Fields Brewery, East London Brewing Company, et al.).

Therefore, it is clear that the term “craft beer” can happily include most “real ales” — perhaps all if we use the American definition, as even the largest producers such as Greene King or Marston’s only make around half a million barrels a year.2 And yet it is unlikely that many of the pubs I will look at below would stock these breweries’ products,3 implying a British definition of “craft beer” with a distinctly smaller output threshold.4 However, even some of these larger brewers like to experiment with beers: in this country, Fuller Smith Turner has their Vintage Ale range,5 while at a far far larger scale, in the United States Molson Coors has its “craft” brand, Blue Moon (though it should be noted that in the UK, Molson Coors have similar brands, brewing Worthington’s White Shield, as well as owning Sharp’s, the brewers of Doom Bar). Whether “craft beer”, then, should be considered as a level of output or as a matter of ethos already points to some confusion in the application of the terminology (and is, of course, a source of much heated debate). At a more emotive level, “craft beer” is often considered to be beer with taste or flavour, as opposed to what is sometimes affectionately derided in the United States as “lawnmower beer”6 even by those who drink it (perhaps a rough equivalent to our own “cooking lager”).

An argument could also perhaps be made in the UK that the single-minded focus of CAMRA and the “real ale” lobby means that there is no adequate space in the marketplace for those who want to feature the beers of quality independent brewers which do not conform to CAMRA’s “real ale” definition.7 Despite this, awareness of other beer styles has been around for a while now, and pubs such as The Dog and Bell (Deptford SE8) and Quinn’s (Kentish Town NW1) have had significant holdings of bottled European lagers for some time, while specialist beer retailer Uto Beer in Borough Market has been trading since 1999. With an increasing trend towards artisanal food and drink production at the same time as further importation of beers from the United States and the rest of the world, it was only natural that there would be an increase in the range of beers being brewed in the UK. With these trends as a background, the “craft beer” label was seized upon by those seeking to differentiate their non-“real ale” beers, and by the pubs serving those products.

The Pubs

There have long been pubs which have been championing ales from smaller British breweries (like The Wenlock Arms, Hoxton N1, or The White Horse, Parsons Green SW6, fig. 65, both frequently showing up in CAMRA’s Good Beer Guide), as well as those mentioned above which had relatively early started stocking selections of imported beers. The reason they are not commonly called “craft beer pubs” is partly one of age (they were around before the term “craft beer” caught on in the UK), but also one of marketing. If a definition of a “craft beer pub” was one that stocked a large range of American “craft beer” (i.e. beers consciously made and marketed as such), then The White Horse would surely qualify (it even holds a regular and excellent American Beer Festival). The Rake (Borough SE1), dating back to 2006, would surely also do so, owned as it is by Uto Beer importers.

The Craft Beer Co. (Hatton Garden EC1)
Figure 81. The Craft Beer Co. (Hatton Gardon EC1).

However, the recent tranche of “craft beer pubs” are primarily ones that have claimed that name. Aside from Scottish brewers BrewDog (who have yet to open a London outpost, but have designs on Camden Town), the strongest push has come from The Craft Beer Co. (Hatton Garden EC1, fig. 81), an incipient chain with its own branding, spun off from The Cask (Pimlico SW1). Other pubs which share much in common in terms of beer range and quality with longer-established outlets, but which seem more apt to the term, perhaps from attracting a younger clientele in a louder, more bar-like environment, are the three Draft House pubs (for example the branch at Tower Bridge SE1), along with The Jolly Butchers (Stoke Newington N16) and The Southampton Arms (Gospel Oak NW5).8

Mason and Taylor (Shoreditch E1)
Figure 82. Mason and Taylor (Shoreditch E1), since closed.

With a younger target demographic clearly in focus for these bars, one outcome has been a change to the layout of the pub space (though this is something that has been happening gradually for several decades). Both The Jolly Butchers and The Southampton Arms were long-standing locals’ pubs, but the respective spaces have been opened up, with carpets as well as partitioning removed, to create an open and vibrant (if not simply noisier) space. Other recent ventures have made a virtue of their modern spaces and lack of historically-suffused atmosphere, successfully importing the style of American beer bars (simple furniture, long tables, metallic trimmings) to the receptive yet fairly bland modern developments in which they are housed. Something of this style (along with the selection of craft beers) could be seen in earlier spaces like Microbar (Lavender Hill SW11, later The Ink Rooms, since closed) and Bünker (Covent Garden WC2, now closed) and has since been taken up most successfully by Mason and Taylor (Shoreditch E1, fig. 82), though Uto Beer have been in on the act with their shopping centre-based Tap East (Stratford E20).

This New World style can also be found in recent bars which have been set up in much older buildings. The Euston Tap (Euston NW1, fig. 80) is the best example of this, even using the “craft beer” handle in its logo, and which has adopted (partly out of necessity, due to its cramped English Heritage-listed space) a gleaming stainless steel American-style beer dispensing system, largely doing away with old world accoutrements such as pump clips, in favour of chalkboards. Not long after, The Old Red Cow (Smithfield EC1), another pub tucked into limited space, adopted a similar dispensing system to maximise the number of beers available. You can also see some of this modern style in The Old Brewery (Greenwich SE10), run by London brewers Meantime, much of whose output has fallen beyond CAMRA’s strict definitions.9

All these pubs are thriving, so clearly the “craft beer” label has popular cachet at the moment and is shaping the style (and, more interestingly, the beer range) of many modern pub and bar developments. Whether the trend such as it is, lasts, or effects any great change in beer-drinking tastes beyond merely the urban middle-class cognoscenti, remains to be seen.

UPDATE (Sep 2012) Mason & Taylor has now succumbed to commercial forces and closed. Despite garnering much critical acclaim, and hardly being empty on my visits, it could not generate enough income to make the site viable. BrewDog have stepped in to take it over, continuing its craft beer focus (craft keg, anyway).

Footnotes
[1] This information is taken from Wikipedia. By comparison, the smallest of the three brewers mentioned above (Molson Coors) has an annual output of around 42 million US barrels (which equates to 30 million UK barrels).
[2] Information taken from Beer Pages.
[3] Interestingly, some of them (such as Cask and The Craft Beer Co.) are actually in buildings leased from Greene King, though they are free of any beer tie to the Suffolk-based brewer, and therefore conspicuously do not feature any Greene King products.
[4] An excellent post attempting to sketch out some meaning for the term “craft beer” can be found on Pencil and Spoon, and expanded upon by Dave HardKnott.
[5] See the Fuller’s website.
[6] In other words, beer that perfectly complements a hot sunny day spent in the garden, under which conditions I personally quite like a fairly low-complexity lager as well.
[7] I should state that although I am not a member of CAMRA, I do not personally believe that there is any need for CAMRA to widen its remit to lobby on behalf of these new beers made via a different process to the one they have defined as “real ale”. The term “real ale” has meaningful currency for describing these cask-conditioned beers, and no one can deny the efforts CAMRA has made on its behalf since its foundation in 1971. Although there might be some sniping in insider circles, there’s no reason that a focus on “real ale” should thereby deny the quality or value of non-cask-conditioned beers, and indeed one can even find such beers dispensed at their annual Great British Beer Festival. However, this is a hotly-contested topic (provoking lengthy and impassioned discussion among my friends when I mentioned it in passing on a mailing list), which I have thus relegated to a footnote.
[8] And don’t make the mistake of thinking they are both run by the same outfit, despite surface similarities.
[9] Though Meantime has not by any means done away entirely with cask-conditioning (as BrewDog seem to have largely done in their bars), and The Old Brewery still has several handpulls dispensing ale, including their own London Pale Ale.

2 responses to “Craft Beer Pubs

  1. Does it really matter? (I know it does). Just playing devils advocate here. How many people these days even know where or how their beer is brewed? I’d be interested to know!

    • I think the people who drink the beer pulled in pubs like the ones above do care about where or how their beer is brewed. It’s part of a whole movement (admittedly, middle-class) that’s arisen over the last decade or two focusing on how food/drink is made and where it comes from. Obviously, most people drinking Stella probably have no idea that the beer they’re drinking is brewed under licence in this country, or that Carling is a Canadian brand, et al.

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