Everything points east
Matthew Curtis catches up with one of his favourite local breweries
Thursday 14 February 2019
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Ten years ago, you could just about count the number of breweries operating in London on both hands. You now need a lot more hands. As of 2019 there are now over 120 breweries which call the capital home. With a brewing culture that mixes both a centuries-old heritage and cutting-edge innovation, there’s no doubting that London is now one of the most noteworthy cities within the global beer scene. But the essence of what makes London’s brewing culture so vital is not its worldwide reach, but how it’s entrenched in community and what it means to be local.
“My favourite thing about the London beer scene is that it’s so collaborative and friendly,” Ed Mason, founder of The Five Points Brewing Company tells me. “Although there’s never been more competition than there is now.”
Mason, along with business partner and Five Points head brewer Greg Hobbs, established his brewery under the railway arches of Hackney Downs station in East London back in July 2013. From the off, Hackney has not just been a core part of its identity but also home to a loyal base of local customers. It’s even named for the landmark five-way junction that sits 100 metres from the brewery floor, where five of East London’s major roads meet.
Somewhat significantly, in 2018 the brewery acquired The Pembury Tavern, a pub which sits on this junction, and transformed it into its flagship taproom. All the while still managing to preserve the character of this classic Hackney-boozer—maintaining the custom of its colourful cast of regulars to boot. This further cemented its East London credentials and reinforced its sense of identity as a community business.
“We started life as a neighbourhood brewery in Hackney, and we’ve really enmeshed ourselves in the local community,” Mason says. “Greg and I live ten minutes from the brewery, and it’s great to be able to live and work in the same neighbourhood. East London is our home.”
Trendsetters and trailblazers
To understand the significance of a brewery like the Five Points you need to return to a time when London’s modern beer scene was still nascent. There once existed a very special bar called Mason & Taylor. The spot opened in 2010 and had what you might call an adventurous range of beer for the time, including the likes of Moor, Brodie’s and The Kernel. Coupled with its prominent East London location, it was way ahead of the curve in terms of London’s beer culture. You could easily argue that its establishment and subsequent sale is responsible for much of the capital’s beer scene as we know it today.
The bar was named for two of the three young men that owned and ran it: Steve Taylor, who now works for retailer/distributor The Bottle shop—and is something of a legendary London barman in craft beer terms—and Ed Mason of The Five Points. The third partner was one Nigel Owen, who went on to establish the Mother Kelly’s chain of bars and bottle shops.
Following what was rumoured to be a lucrative offer for their bar from BrewDog in 2012 the trio decided to sell. They were then free to progress their own futures to the huge benefit of London’s beer scene. The site of Mason & Taylor still exists today, although it is better known today as BrewDog Shoreditch.
Before he founded The Five Points pubs were Mason’s business. He formerly co-owned the leasehold to York’s The Deramore Arms and still owns the hallowed Whitelock’s (plus the adjacent Turk’s Head) in Leeds city centre. Whitelock’s is a must visit pub if you ever find yourself in Leeds, and something of a bastion for Five Points in the North.
In 2016 Mason would take another stab at running a craft-centric beer bar called Mason & Co. The bar was nestled in Queen Elizabeth Park by the River Lea—home of the 2012 London Olympics—but poor footfall eventually led to its sudden closure in 2018. However, this seemingly unfortunate turn of events allowed The Five Points to double down on its new site, The Pembury Tavern, which after five years in trading became the brewery’s first ‘official’ taproom, enriching the Hackney beer scene in the process.
“I had always had an aspiration to brew my own beer, at the time it felt like there was a real gap in the market,” Mason says of his decision to add brewing to his hospitality resume. A long time fan of cask ale, Mason and business partner Greg Hobb’s were—like so many of us—also inspired by the flavourful modern beers arriving from the United States. Mason comments that even as recently as 2010, London brewers were still predominantly focused on brewing British styles.
“We believed that there was a massive gap in what was currently being provided to UK beer drinkers—the sort of beers that we wanted to drink ourselves but it was hard to find,” he says. “Obviously, the way things turned out, a few other people were having the same idea as us!”
The fifth way
The Five Points still sells around 80% of its product in London. But now, as with many young British breweries The Five Points eyes growth and expansion. In a busy London market short on affordable industrial real estate, this presents a challenge if the brewery is to maintain the Hackney identity that sits at the core of its being. This is all the more true considering that to achieve this desired growth, it will need to break out of its London stronghold and find national relevance.
“If we’d known the rate at which we would grow we would have looked for larger premises at the outset, not to mention a larger brewhouse,” Mason remarks. “We found ourselves buying a new brewhouse at double the size within two years of starting and will inevitably have to find new, larger, fit for purpose premises in due course.”
Maintaining its current momentum and supporting regular customers while also trying to grow into a nationally recognised brand presents multiple challenges for Mason, Hobbs and their team. As they grow they’ll be able to support their community by continuing to offer young people the chance to study apprenticeships at the brewery while they work. And as a London Living Wage employer, there’s further evidence that this is a business dedicated to supporting its workers.
But Five Points has always been a brewery capable of staying the course. For example, in its first 18 months it brewed just three beers: a Five Points Pale, Hook Island Red and Railway Porter. They’ve since won the hearts of hardened beer lovers with Bretted barleywines and double IPAs. However, it’s core range that gives this brewery its identity—something that perhaps even makes them stand out from their craft peers. It’s this that has supported them this far and will carry them forward. In fact Railway Porter remains Mason’s favourite beer to this day.
“We really wanted to help re-popularise what is a classic and famous London beer style which Greg and I both loved as a style but which had fallen out of fashion for a long time,” Mason says of the deep, dark yet remarkably drinkable beer. “It’s so full of flavour and body. Perfect paired with a Sunday Roast at The Pembury Tavern, naturally!”
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