On the map: Margate
Colin Drury’s new tour of the UK’s lesser-known beer hotspots continues on the Kent coast
Saturday 27 August 2022
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On 7 May 1660, Samuel Pepys – famed diarist and noted enjoyer of a drink – wrote of partaking in a small session with friends.
“Mr Sheply and W Howe came and sat in my cabin,” he wrote. “I gave them three bottles of Margate ale and sat laughing and very merry till almost one o’clock in the morning.”
Five months later, he mentioned the same tipple once more. “My father and [cousin] Dr Thomas Pepys dined at my house,” he wrote. “The last of whom I did almost fox [over-inebriate] with Margate ale.”
This Kent seaside town was, along with Derby and London, one of Restoration England’s great brewing centres. Now, almost 400 years on, there is something of a revival afoot.
A new generation of brewers and bars are turning this coastal resort into perhaps one of England’s finest ale hot spots. Places like NorthDown Brewery and Xylo Brewing, as well as a seafront full of micro boozers – including Little Swift, Two Halves and Ales of the Unexpected – have all added to the sense of a beer utopia beneath what JMW Turner called “the loveliest skies in Europe”.
A new generation of brewers and bars are turning this coastal resort into perhaps one of Englandís finest ale hot spots
Throw the net four or five miles wider, indeed, and you also have Four Candles – Britain’s smallest brewpub – in neighbouring Broadstairs as well as Wantsum Brewery (where every drink is named after a pivotal person or event from Kent history) in St Nicholas-At-Wade.
“Margate is very deprived in parts, there are real pockets of hardship,” says Katie Spanjar of the aforementioned NorthDown. “But it’s a really beautiful, joyous, place too. Very eclectic. There’s a lot of positivity, lots going on. And, of course, it has the most amazing sunsets. So, you put all that together and it’s a very inspiring place to create and to drink.”
She and husband Jonny opened their brewery – complete with destination taproom – in 2018 after seven years running an East London bar. They were attracted by the sea, the sand and the cheap rents. Now, they’re knocking out some 5,000 pints of cask and keg a week while their Pale Ale Mary – a fruity, earthy drop – has been named Kent Beer of the Year.
Yet the most exciting thing, reckons 49-year-old Katie, is the future. “Margate is a land of opportunity,” she says.
This is something Ben Atkins and Neil Wright agree with. They’re co-founders of Xylo Brewing and good friends with NorthDown (“Get them and Jonny talking and you can’t get a word in unless it’s about hops or yeast,” notes Katie).
“Until the Eighties, this was where everyone from London came on holiday,” says Ben. “Then flights to Spain got cheap and it went into decline. But now – the opening of the Tate, more staycations – it’s just a great vibe. It feels reinvigorated.”
Xylo itself is based in a flat iron building – a former hotel – looking out across the bay. The four-barrel brewery is in the basement with a taproom upstairs on the ground floor.
Today, it’s thriving (their Sabro Pale is especially wonderful) but it was not the easiest start to life: just months after opening in late 2019, the first coronavirus lockdown was ordered – meaning Ben and Neil, both 40, suddenly found themselves with lots of beer and no bars buying. What did they do? Got canning up and started selling online.
“We were literally having to fill the cans by hand and use a manual seamer,” says Ben. “At one point, we had 2,500 orders but we could only do 200 a day.”
Suffice to say, theirs was not a pandemic filled with boredom and banana bread baking.
Xylo is just one seafront venue in what may be one of England's most scenic craft and cask pub crawls
Now, fully reopened, Xylo is just one seafront venue in what may be one of England’s most scenic craft and cask pub crawls. Another is Ales of the Unexpected, opened in 2016 and run by former city worker Jeremy Goodsell – who has his own theory about why the beer scene here is booming.
“When they changed the licencing laws in 2012 so pubs could open in old shops, that really helped,” the 62-year-old says. “Because there were a lot of empty shops around here back then.”
His place is a good example: it’s in an old wet fish store. Inside, it’s pretty tiny – just four cask lines and not many more seats – but it’s perfectly formed, and, right now, has Tiny Rebel’s Peloton on tap. “We’ve been getting a lot of envy [from other bars] because it’s a beautiful drink but very rare,” says Goodsell.
Along the road at Little Swift – also opened in a former shop – there may be no Tiny Rebel on cask but there are 10 lines of rotating craft beers, more than 60 different kinds of cans, and (if you must) a summer cocktail menu. It also has a specialist serving hatch where you can buy drinks – in eco cups, no less – and take them onto the beach.
“We call it the biggest beer garden in England,” says owner Charlotte Kimber, 34. “It’s glorious. On a summer’s day, I can’t imagine a more perfect place to drink beer.”
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