Based at the oldest site of continuous commercial brewing in the country
Saturday 20 November 2021
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There are many breweries that would claim to be a link between London’s brewing heritage and its present-day craft scene, but few if any have as strong a case as Wandsworth’s Sambrooks Brewery. For a start, it recently moved into the former Young’s brewery, The Ram Quarter, thought to be the oldest site of continuous commercial brewing in the country. It took over the site in February 2021, from John Hatch, a former employee of Young’s, who had brewed one firkin of ale a week there since 2006, in order to maintain the continuity of brewing history.
It was also in the vanguard of new London craft breweries, opening in 2008, at a time when the city had fewer than ten long-standing incumbents, as founder Duncan Sambrook explains.
“It’s been crazy watching it happen, the whole thing has gone from strength to strength. There’s some fantastic tap rooms operating across London now, with breweries pioneering their own styles or looking at beer in a very different way. I’d say we’re probably on the more traditional end, with a focus on cask ale. For me, that’s really important; it’s central to the heritage of British brewing, and we’re the only country in the world that has that.”
The new brewery at Ram Quarter has been designed specifically with cask in mind, with 50% of its capacity designated real ale, including traditional open top fermenters with flat bottoms, as opposed to modern closed conical fermenters.
“I think cask ale unfortunately, looking at the trends, is in decline in Britain,” he continues. “It was hit pretty hard by the by the pandemic, because of its shelf life and being very pub-based. I also think it has been a little bit tainted by some maybe some quality issues over the past 10 years. So we’re trying hard to reverse that, and it’s as much about rehabiliting the image as it is about the beer in the glass, because if it’s well kept well and looked I genuinely think there’s, there’s no better pint to drink in a pub.”
In the wider London scene, Duncan has noticed a gradual shift away from the more “eclectic” styles, back toward the classic beers that everyone knows and loves; the styles you turn to for comfort. He’s particularly happy to see the quality of craft lagers picking up, after a couple of years in which renewed interest wasn’t necessarily matched by high quality
“If I look at some of the craft lagers I’ve drunk over the past five years, I don’t think they’ve been nearly as good in terms of quality as some of the IPAs and New World beers. That’s changing though – I think there’s some really good lagers coming out of the craft beer scene now. Certainly we’re seeing that in our tap room; people want to try something really interesting, but actually, they’ll tend to go back to something which is a little bit more sessionable,” says Duncan.
Speaking of the taproom, this is a new (and distinctly modern) move for Sambrooks. While its previous industrial estate brewery had a tiny tasting room upstairs, the Ram Quarter site has a large, purpose built space, constructed around three of its 30-hectolitre fermentation vessels in the centre of the room.
“We’ve tried to bring out the industrial feel of the site, and emphasise the features that are already in there. It’s a beautiful grade two listed building, and it’s got all that heritage. And there’s really very little around us offering anything like it – it’s mostly Young’s pubs in south-west London, which all feel quite similar.
“In terms of the demographic, being in a residential complex means we’ve had quite a young crowd, a lot of women – not necessarily the people you’d expect at a traditional brewery. They’re enjoying coming down and exploring the beers, and I think we’re seen as a bit of a social hub in Wandsworth, which is cool.”
Cool it may be, but Duncan is keen to draw a distinction from the self-consciously “grungy” taprooms of Bermondsey and East London. He also hopes the venue at Rams Quarter will provide a template for other Sambrooks bars across the south-west of the city, catering for those looking for a more comfortable experience.
You need to have your craft beer supported by a really clever mix of food and comfort
“I think we’re trying to create more of a beer cafe type affair, like you get in Europe. Particularly as everyone’s trying to tempt customers back out, I think one of the things that could be a trend is a move away from that grungy, pallet furniture model. I think you need to have your craft beer supported by a really clever mix of food and comfort; it’s just an overall improvement of the quality of the environment, which I think will be important to sustain that interest in going out.”
While Sambrooks has always been a very locally-focused brewery, Duncan says that visitor numbers from outside of Wandsworth are definitely picking up, thanks in part to the brewer’s new heritage centre, which celebrates the history of the site and London’s brewing heritage more generally.
“It only opened in August, but the heritage centre has proven to be a big draw for people,” says Duncan. The team there is led by John Hatch – the guy who kept up brewing on the site after Young’s moved out in 2006 – and he’s an amazing guy, a really interesting character and a legend of London brewing. It’s a fascinating tour, particularly I think for people who got into beer through the London craft scene and are now learning more about its roots and traditions.
“Having all of these things on one site has been a huge deal for us. It’s the first time that we’ve been able to say ‘come and see what we’re doing – this is our place and we’re your local brewery.’ We’ve been around for 13 years, and people still come in and are surprised that we’re in Wandsworth!”
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