Growth of microbreweries brings a brewing renaissance to Hackney

Pigs Ear Festival pic: Tillie Cox

Ale enthusiasts have been gathering this week in Hackney to sample a multitude of brews from around the world at the Pigs Ear 2011 beer and cider festival.

A fitting location, for Hackney is fast becoming the epicentre of a brewing renaissance, mirroring what it did for independent coffee shops in years gone by.

Bill Green helps to organise Pigs Ear. Talking about why real ale is becoming increasingly popular, Green said: “It is a natural product made from natural ingredients, and this matters to people.”

Green added brewing giants were no longer interested in producing real ale, choosing instead the “supermarket booze that is killing the pub trade.”  This has left a gap in the market for microbreweries: small breweries of only ten or so barrels that brew a handful of ales and sell them to people and local pubs.

London Fields Brewery opened in August this year. As a microbrewery, it benefits from Labour’s progressive beer duty, which cut rates for small producers in 2002. Ian Burgess, who runs the brewery with Jules Whiteway, said: “It’s all going well, we’ve been doing events on Saturdays where we open the brewery up and have live music and a bar.”

You can only buy their beer direct, but there has been a lot of interest from local pubs wishing to stock them. With names such as ‘Hackney hopster’, it is unsurprising the beer has been a hit with the locals.

Yet to find a home, with brewing equipment being delivered in February, Hackney Brewery is another example of the microbreweries springing up in the area. Begun by friends Peter Hills and Jon Swain, it will begin trading in March. Swain and Hills are currently in negotiations with TfL to rent a railway arch, as London Fields Brewery does.

The duo have been craft brewing and all grain brewing for a while, and after extensive research, training and a lot of taste testing, decided to make a go of it. They will brew golden ale, best bitter, and American pale ale, with “no additives to mire the flavour.”

However, Hills is concerned by the distribution challenges faced by small brewers: “Most pubs in London are not able to take our beer, because their leases are tied to big companies.” Beer ties come about when large pub companies lease pubs to landlords, as 51 per cent of UK pubs were in 2009. Landlords that lease the pubs can only buy beer from that company, rather than directly from breweries. A full report on how PubCos are affecting the industry can be found here.

In Waltham Forest, just outside of Hackney, Stuart Lascelles is also brewing; trading as East London Brewery. Having given up his job, he opened up a ten barrel microbrewery five months ago, and now supplies to 65 pubs, mostly in London. Lascelles said: “Things are going well since we started selling in September, we’ve just bought out our third beer.”

Lascelles found that pubs in Hackney were generally receptive to the idea of selling locally produced real ale, despite not making a huge profit from it. The ale goes well with food, and punters are interested to hear that it is made in east London. Lascelles acknowledges beer ties can be a problem, but said organisations like the Society of Independent Brewers were on hand to help.

Lascelles makes a small profit from his business, selling around 30 casks a week, and hopes to steadily expand. Local support is clear, and he is the Dove pub on Broadway Market’s ‘brewer of the week’.

Something all the brewers EastLondonLines spoke to mentioned the sense of community surrounding their ventures. Lascelles was helped out by the local branch of CAMRA, and recalls that yesterday he spoke to both London Fields Brewery and Redchurch Brewery about technical issues. Peter Hills said: “There is a feeling of a movement, rather than a competition.”

Local shops are getting in on the act too. City Beverage Company in Shoreditch, a specialist wine and beverage shop, stock the ale of Redchurch Brewery in nearby Bethnal Green, as well as beer brewed in two south London breweries.  Grahame Parker, who works at the store, said that the ales “sell very well” and the increase in sales over the last year has “at least doubled.”

At Pigs Ear, cockney rhyming slang for beer, the ale is flowing with gusto, 359 people have visited, and it is not even 4pm. Production by small beer makers grew by 8.8 per cent in Britain in 2010, according to CAMRA. If the movement in east London is anything to go by, we are on the fringes of a brewing revolution.

The Pigs Ear festival is on until Saturday December 10, from 12 to 11pm at the Round Chapel on Powerscroft Road.

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