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A brief history of beer and brewing in London

Jessica Boak and Ray Bailey tell us about the history of beer

Guest | 20 Nov 2018


It was in the 18th century that London became the most important brewing city in Britain, if not the world, thanks to porter, a dark brown beer that was hopped generously and allowed to mature in vats at the brewery. Samuel Whitbread entered the brewing trade in London in 1742, founding a dynasty on the fortune he made from porter, and becoming a household name in the process. The Barclay Perkins brewery in Southwark was, by the early 19th century, reckoned to be the largest in the world, and produced only porter.

London remained important, and was the home base of several big names, notably Courage, Watney’s and Whitbread. Those three were, by the mid-20th century, among the ‘Big Six’ – a group of colossal firms which, by acquiring smaller breweries and crushing competition, had achieved near-monopoly over the UK beer market. There weren’t many independent breweries left in London by the 1970s, Young’s of Wandsworth and Fuller’s of Chiswick being two notable hold-outs.

It was also in the 18th century that Hodgson’s, a small brewery at Bow, was contracted to supply the East India Company. Among the various beers provided was a pale, bitter brew which, buffeted by the sea on the journey, matured at an accelerated pace and arrived in India tasting astonishingly good.

Over the next few decades, the label ‘India pale ale’ was applied to various pale, hoppy beers of export quality. Unfortunately for London, however, though IPA was born there, it was perfected in Burton-upon-Trent. Soon, even London-based breweries, such as Truman’s of Brick Lane, were acquiring facilities in the Midlands in an effort to compete with Bass.

As part of the same push-back against corporate blandness that triggered the rise of the Campaign for Real Ale, however, a handful of new small breweries began to emerge across the country. The first in London was Godson’s, founded by Patrick Fitzpatrick in 1977. It was soon followed by others, including David Bruce’s Goose & Firkin brewpub at Borough – the first of what would become a citywide and then national chain.

But many of that wave disappeared for one reason or another, and even Young’s was finally taken over, with production moving to Bedford. In 2010, beer writer Des de Moor counted just 14 breweries in a city of 8 million people.

That all changed with the coming of the craft beer scene in the mid-00s. Though Meantime had been operating in Greenwich since 2000, it was the Kernel, directly inspired by BrewDog, that really kicked off the boom. The crawl known as the Bermondsey Beer Mile, where it and six other breweries occupy neighbouring railway arches, has become a symbol of London’s vibrant beer scene.

There are now around 80 breweries in the capital, with more on the way, and there is once again a buzz around London beer, even if the volume being produced wouldn’t much impress Samuel Whitbread.

This piece was written by Jessica Boak and Ray Bailey (who write a fantastic blog) and originally featured in our Winter Journal from 2017.

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