If you can make it there…

Matt Curtis looks at the glittering prize that is London, and how brewers across the country are looking to tap into its rich beer scene
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At the recent London Brewers Alliance festival held at Fuller’s – the first the organisation had thrown since 2013 – there was an unmistakable air of calm and jollity. Brewers large and small linked arms in celebration of London’s beer scene. There was no infighting between the Anheuser Busch-InBev owned Camden Town and Beavertown (which recently received a £40 million investment from Heineken for a 49% stake in the business) over who was going to have the biggest brewery in North London. And there was no scrapping between smaller, younger brewers like Boxcar or Bohem over who was going to get their beer on the soon-to-be-vacant taps within independent bars that used to pour Gamma Ray.

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London’s beer scene is one of diversity, inclusivity and – after leaving the London Brewers Alliance Festival with a smile on my face – I feel it’s also one of increasing maturity. It’s home to over 110 breweries, up from just 10 a decade ago. This fresh abundance of brewing talent in the capital has also allowed a rising number of pubs, bars and bottleshops to flourish. As London’s scene becomes ever more pervasive, while also becoming wiser and more experienced, it’s fair to say that the city has charted a course toward becoming one of the most well-regarded beer destinations in the world.

With prosperity, however, comes new challenges. Craft beer in the UK only accounts for 5.5% of the market according to data firm CGA – a paltry figure when compared to the 14% share boasted by the US. The reality is that 95% of the beer market in Britain is still controlled by the largest brewery groups, such as AB-InBev, Molson Coors, Heineken and Carlsberg. Via a network of thousands of ‘tied houses’ – pubs that can only get hold of a limited selection of beer through one or more of these large companies – and a stranglehold on supermarket shelf real estate, the largest players make breaking into the mainstream market very difficult indeed.

This means the UK’s 2000 independent breweries are competing within that same 5% of the market. And much of this market is within London itself. An increasing number of small, independent brewing businesses are looking to London as part of their expansion plans. Bristol’s Moor Brewing Company has already opened a bar on South London’s ‘Bermondsey Beer Mile’, just four doors down from local business Brew by Numbers. Manchester’s Cloudwater has acquired the space directly in between the two of them. Cornwall’s Verdant is to collaborate on a bar in Hackney, East London with Pressure Drop Brewery, while Yorkshire’s Northern Monk has its sights firmly set on a London brewpub. On the surface, competition in London’s beer market seems to be heating up.

EVERYONE INTO POSITION

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There’s little doubt that London’s beer industry will continue to grow over the next few years. But what could all of this increased competition mean for London’s existing independent beer businesses? How much of a good thing is too much?

“The London brewing community is pretty tight. We’re more likely to be having a beer together and borrowing stuff than working out how to beat each other,” Ben Duckworth of London’s Affinity Brewing Company says. “I don’t really see other breweries as competition, and the addition of more top-class beer can only be a good thing for us all and our collective offering. If the new influx of breweries are doing things for the right reasons, I’m sure they’ll fit in just fine!”

Duckworth is full of positivity about the interest fellow small brewery owners are showing in the London market. He’s also brimming with excitement at the prospect of the new Verdant taproom. He also says that as his brewery expands he too would like to establish Affinity taprooms in other UK locations, but warns of the dangers of comparing his business to others. His point is salient: what might prove effective for one brand may not click with another.

“For us, as long as we’re consistently releasing product we love, we don’t need to worry about what anyone else is doing,” Duckworth says. “We tend to ignore trends and back ourselves, in the belief that flavour and balance will win out.”

Bristol’s Moor Brewery opened the doors of its London venue and distribution warehouse, ‘The Moor Beer Vaults’ in December 2017. It’s less than a mile away from Affinity’s space, in Bermondsey, one of London’s biggest beer hotspots, now home to more than 10 breweries. It’s also home to a cider maker, wine shops, distilleries and restaurants, making the South East London district one of the city’s must-visit attractions. Its London space also allows Moor to expand its barrel ageing project.

“[The taproom] has had a positive impact on the scene and the neighbours have been very welcoming,” Moor founder Justin Hawke says of his business’s London experience so far. “When you do the Bermondsey Beer Mile, you really see how everyone is doing their own thing, which is very complementary. We remain very distinct and unique with our modern real ale.”

The very existence of an increasingly interesting range of beers is having a beneficial effect on all the breweries who trade on the mile. Taprooms used to open exclusively on a Saturday, but as space increases, facilities improve and awareness grows, these businesses are able to operate for longer hours. Fourpure, at the very end (or start, depending on your route) of the mile is already opening its taproom six days a week. As its peers also begin to do the same it means not only will they be able to increase their revenue streams, but they will also create more jobs, demonstrating how the competitive nature of the scene is actually to its benefit.

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HAND IN HAND

One thing that’s evident from the moves being made by the likes of Moor and Verdant is that the direct-to-consumer model is becoming ever more popular among the UK’s small breweries. This isn’t surprising. In the US, Trillium in Boston is able to sell near 99% of its product direct from its own bars and retail outlets. Not only does this increase profit margins but it also keeps quality control firmly in the hands of the producer. Better product at better pricing is win/win for the consumer. But how does this affect other independent retailers?

“I understand some retailers may be fearful that this direct-to-consumer model will hurt their sales, looking, perhaps, at the queues-around-the-block action seen at breweries like Treehouse and Trillium in the US,” Jen Ferguson of South London bottle shop Hop Burns & Black says. “In reality, though, I suspect it’s only likely to be a small percentage of our customers who will be regularly hitting the brewery tap rooms to get their beer fix. I don’t think good retailers have much to fear.”

Ferguson goes on to say that, in essence, the modern bottle shop is more than just a bottle shop. These days the best kind of beer venues act as community hubs, much like a traditional public house has done for the past few decades. The evolution of those classic boozers just means that they now take many guises, be they taprooms, bottle shops or a great many other forms. And, in trying to unearth the grim, competitive side of London’s modern beer scene, instead I found one of mutual support and camaraderie. The capitals beer scene is definitely busy, but a long way from its saturation point.

“The future of the London brewing scene depends on the quality of the product coming in and the integrity of the individuals involved,” Affinity’s Ben Duckworth says. “If the beer’s great and people are being honest, where’s the downside?”

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