In the shadow of the Westway

London looks after its own


Knowing that Portobello Brewery’s co-founder Rob Jenkins had been living off Portobello Road for over 30 years, I didn’t expect to find a gentle Welsh accent, carried by a gravelly voice on the other end of the phone. Rob moved to London in 1985 to study, and finding LSE then without campuses, he fell in love with normal, residential life among locals, and never left. He says London was a great place to live in the 80s; while Thatcherism was rife, and political life was defined by the widened division between haves and have-nots, Rob used to go out protesting on the weekends, and found community easily. The Portobello Brewery, the only brewery in W10, would come much later, and be the product of the places and people with which Rob would become acquainted over the decades that followed.

I am amused to learn that Rob got into brewing by way of his love for Newcastle Brown Ale. “There was a job advertised in the careers office to be the graduate trainee of Scottish and Newcastle breweries, so that’s what I did,” says Rob. “I guess my passion for the product was to come through.” 

Over his years in the industry, he watched brewing endure so many consolidations and shrinkages that he eventually reached the conclusion “when you work for somebody else, you become unemployable in the end. You have to do it yourself”. With that, he took a redundancy package from Charles Wells, and founded the Portobello Brewery with co-founder, Farooq Khalid, in 2012. 

So, why Portobello? “I've always loved shopping on the market,” says Rob. “There's so many characters there. Markets have changed a lot since COVID but there is still something about the Portobello Road market on a Friday and Saturday. I’m not talking about the antiques and the tourists, but the fruit and veg, the provisions, the essentials. This area isn’t just about posh sandwich shops, and posh coffee, around here is a bit more gritty.” He tells me that when the brewery moved in there was plenty of space, which isn’t the case now, and that the development of brown field sites into residential properties has made the area a lot less diverse. 

The community he knows and loves was forged under the Westway, an urban motorway built in the 60s to connect west London with the center of the city. “In the space between every pillar holding the road up, there was something going on for the community,” says Rob. “It could have been a pop up music venue, or it could be a skateboard park. This is not necessarily a wealthy area. The old Victorian houses had been refurbished into rooms and flats, so you just had lots of different people living in the area, so it was very diverse and very creative.” 

London is changing of course, not always for the better, but the Portobello Brewery is holding tightly to community. Over the last 12 years, the brewery has worked alongside an estate of 19 characterful pubs across London and the South East, one of which in particular, John the Unicorn, has steered the brewery toward its overwhelmingly successful fundraising efforts for Stonewall Housing. The charity helps young LGBTQIA+ people who have either been thrown out of, or otherwise had to leave their family homes, to find housing, a cause near and dear to the brewery team, as well as management and clientele at the pub. 

Last year, the combined efforts of the brewery and pubs raised over £68,000 for Stonewall Housing, a sum Rob hopes will reach £100,000 this year. The brewery produces a Pale Ale, Polari, in aid of fundraising efforts, with 10p of every pint going to the charity, so if you’d like to support the cause, the best thing you can do is take someone you love for a pint of Polari.

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