Streets of London

Beer52’s Phil Hall takes a spiritual journey through this year’s Brew//LDN festival


It's probably too early to start drinking, but I always find little else to do in an airport. I’ve followed the duty free trail. Stared in awe at the ranks of bottles of whiskies. Saluted the processions of tartan clad shortbread boxes marching down the aisle. I’ve watched the conveyor belt of sushi dishes wind its meandering course, like my uncles train set I had watched in my childhood. Fascinated eyes to follow, and forbidden to touch. 

I’ve weaved through the various boutiques that line the terminal concourse. In and out of the newspapers stands and paperback books. Strolled by the suitcases on sale, piled up pringle jumpers, perfume bottles and cut price hiphop headphone boxes stacked up on high, and slunk straight into the arms of the Sir Walter Scott Wetherspoons bar. 

Wetherspoons claim they have cracked the formula of the busy pub with this chain location. I sip on a £5 pint of Tennents looking out over the captive drinkers, ducking and weaving round the waiters’ outstretched arms holding aloft plates of haggis, bangers and mash, fish and chips, British beef. 

I always find something unsettling about drinking in a Scottish themed pub in Scotland, but, somehow wetherspoons have gone a step further and produced a facsimile of the parochial local within an international airport. To be fair, it is an airport bar. A kaleyard, Scotland themed, pub themed, airport waiting room. With a dedication to one of the nation's most important cultural figures.

The last decade has been good to the chain pub. An austerity of the authentic is big business. Other locations in the chain may do slightly better than The Walter Scott, but what culture could form in the formulaic and themed? Edinburgh, like many towns in the U.K, owes much of its most crucial history and culture to its pubs.

Could the Scottish Enlightenment have happened if it had been hosted in a Spoons? 

Memory embeds itself in the surroundings. Each person, and generation reshapes its environment, adding to the layers that already exist, like a fresh coat of paint, or they deepen and widen its significance, like a worn tenement step. 

Pubs, like all good buildings, say something of the people that once inhabited them, as much as they do the people they host now. It is in this way community and culture are fostered in the local pub

This thought slowly sinks to the bottom of my pint glass as the departure board annonces it’s time for boarding. I’m en route to Brew//LDN, 2020s starting gun of the festival calendar, and the culmination of seven years of Craft Beer Rising. 

Swinging on and off planes, buses and trains I emerge from Aldgate East station, stretching legs creased and crumpled by transport atrophy and the attendant medicinal G ‘n’ Ts. 

I pass by the Whitechapel gallery, and the former Passmore library. Created to give the poor access to art and literature, it became the first the U.K to employ a specialist Ethinic librarian, it was known as the ‘University of the Ghetto,’ by the jewish migrants. 

Around the corner I slink, and down Osborne street, rolling and tumbling through the archway of Banglatown, skipping over Fourier street, sits Gilbert & George’s studio, restored to its 18th century glory, and absorbed into their art. Past, future and present stir within the bricks and mortar, conjuring, what they call, the ghosts of time. 

I press on, by the Brick Lane Mosque, a house of devotion for hundreds of years. First a huguenot church, then a synagogue, now a mosque. The same facade home to the changing forms of faith and faces of the neighbourhood. The sundial, mounted high on the wall, the inscription reads Umbra Sumus, we are but shadows. 

Skipping off kerbs, my destination is at last in sight, the smokestack of the old Truman Brewery guides my way to the party. For 322 years the neighbourhood of Spittalfield grew around this brewhouse. From its opening in that fateful year 1666, to its closure in 1988, it was the area's largest employer. As the industry grew, the east end grew. Originally named the Black Eagle brewery, it became one of the worlds largest breweries under the ownership of Benjamin Truman.

With the creation of a heavy hopped, dark malt beer, named Porter by the landlord of the Old Last Blue, a Truman pub in Shoreditch, (on account that it was popular amongst the market porters) the mass production of beer began. Porter was the first beer that could be aged on site and dispatched in drinking condition immediately. 

The site expanded quickly over six acres of malt and hop lofts, huge warehouses filled with copper vats for storing the porter that had made them internationally famous in the 18th century. 

Such an impact the brewery made on London and the world, that Charles Dickens had the ever optimistic Mr. Micawber inquire about a job at the brewery in David Copperfield.

‘Look at Truman, Hanbury and Buxton! It is on that extensive footing that Mr Micawber, I know from my own knowledge of him, is calculated to shine; and the profits, I am told, are e-NOR—mous!’ 

Although Micawber failed to gain employment in the industry, his wife was not wrong. Proprietor Sir Benjamin Truman’s fortunes were such that he built himself a georgian townhouse next door, 91 Brick Lane, and commissioned Thomas Gainsborough to paint his portrait. This likeness hung in the wood panelled boardroom of the house until 1977, when it was auctioned off by its inheritors. 

Since the painting left the brewery, it is said, Truman's ghost stalks the halls, raging at what has become of his brewery. Workers started a tradition of leaving out a jug of Imperial Stout every evening to placate the angry spectre, and every morning the jug was empty. 

Other stories have the ground floor haunted by a huguenot silk weaver. Sadly, nothing is known of his drinking habits. 

I arrive in time for the trade session, sample glass and copy of Ferment in hand, I climb the staircase and head out into the giant hall holding over 150 brewers. The whole place buzzes with the exuberance of an east end market. Lights, colour, laughter and booze reel around the hall in a ready chorus. 

The smallest of the craft brewers to the biggest backed breweries in the world come together here, camaraderie and celebration of beer unites all. Brew//LDN kicks off the festival beer calendar and sets an incredible standard. Long out into the spring, summer and beyond many of these brewers will set up shop across the U.K bringing their brightest and best. They pour their core offerings, special releases and those hard to find beers in communion with welcome glasses. In an ever expanding industry, friendships are struck, maintained and renewed here. Spirits are high, while the beer flows like wine, to quote Lloyd Christmas.

Throughout the day, articulate and engaging guest speakers, eager to enthuse about their ideas, processes, and produce give lectures and round table events to captivated audiences. At night, DJ Artwork pours pints from the taps in front of his decks for the dedicated revelers on the dancefloor. The food court takes up the lower floor, full of stodge and fancy surprises to satiate the beer filled bon vivant anytime of the day. 

Beards and beanies have thinned out a bit

Brew//LDN welcomes the beer geek and party animal alike. 

As the public session begins, a fresh crowd of enthusiasts enter the festivities. They mix and explore, finding friends and favorites within every row of the brewers wares. Bringing new life to the bon amie by the beer taps.

Craft beer festivals have moved on. Beards and beanie hats have thinned out a bit. Craft beer is no longer niche. It is not the preserve of a dedicated cliche in turned up skinny jeans, no socks and severe haircuts. Quality, exciting and satisfying beer crafted by brewing devotees is part of a complex community of diverse tastes, it is now a solid part of the furniture. Craft beer rising naturally had to give way to Brew//LDN, it's the way it goes, nothing is lost. 

I think of what the ghosts of 91 Brick Lane would make of all of this, before spotting Ben scooping a pint of Bullhouse Brew Co. 10% Stout out and the Huguenot weaver spin drinking a Sence Hard Seltzer. 

I spill out onto Brick Lane once more and roll back toward the station, drunk on things being various. Brew//LDN brings a renewed spirit to the festival calendar and to the Old Truman brewery. It is a celebration of beer. Of life, art, and tradition. The ghosts of time.

As I walk through the streets, I think of Scottish artist, author, spiritualist, and UFO conduit, Benjamin Creme. In 1982 Creme proclaimed to the world’s media that the second coming of Christ, the world teacher, was alive and well and living somewhere in the Bangladeshi community here. You never know who you might meet. 

I meet smoky, a new arrival to the neighbourhood. He’s stolen a bucket of chicken and offers to share it with me. I don’t write him off, and I buy him a beer. Another story, another thread in time, a coat of paint, a worn step. Enjoy your surroundings. Get out to a beer festival this year. Meet your brewer.

Photos: Khris Cowley

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