London, now beer capital of the world?


This article was also published in the Financial Times.

London’s restaurants have never been so attractive for the enthusiastic or curious beer drinker.

Chefs are busy writing special menus that match food and beer. Sommeliers are compiling an ever-growing number of increasingly large beer lists. And the sheer choice of which beer to try next grows as the growing number of imported beers meets the growing number of independent breweries of which there are now over 50 in London alone.

Kernel Beer brewed under a railway arch in Bermondsey, south London; BrewDog, originally from Ellon, Aberdeenshire in Scotland; Beavertown and Redchurch, both brewed in east London, are particular favourites.

But none of these quite encompasses the story of the massive change in brewing beer in the UK, or its increasingly close affiliation with good food and restaurants, as much as the story behind another particular favourite, the four beers brewed by Camden Town Brewery in north London.

Initiated by an Australian, greatly in demand in bars as far afield as Stockholm and Tokyo, its most important product, Hell’s Lager, is now so popular in the UK that each week one of its brewers is sent to an under-utilised brewery outside Munich to supervise the brewing of an extra 50,000 pints which are then trucked in 600 kegs back to the UK.

All of this comes as somewhat of a shock to 37-year-old Jasper Cuppaidge who cleverly registered the name Camden Town Brewery while surfing the internet from a rented flat in Camden Square, north London.

Beer courses through Cuppaidge’s veins. His late grandfather in Queensland, Australia was a renowned brewer whose company managed 60 pubs from Rockhampton to Darwin. A surfing trip eventually brought Jasper to London in 1997 when, having missed his plane home, he began work collecting dirty glasses at The Westbourne, one of the first of the new wave of pubs serving good beer and equally good food.

Six years later and general manager of the pub, Cuppaidge realised that the hospitality business was for him but that he was not organised enough to run even one restaurant let alone more than one. Professionally, he needed the focus that brewing beer was soon to provide.

In 2006 he took over The Three Horseshoes pub on a sunny corner site in Hampstead, north London. He renamed it The Horseshoe, installed an open kitchen that significantly improved the food, and brightened up the interior. Most significantly, he began to brew his own beer in the basement.

‘It wasn’t easy,’ Cuppaidge recalled, ‘although I didn’t appreciate that by inheriting an old pub we also took on the wakes whenever one of the regulars passed on. We called it “Heaven’s Waiting Room”.’

Today, Cuppaidge’s HQ is a £2.5 million turnkey brewery built to his specification under the railway arches in Kentish Town by Braukon, a German specialist. A team of 40 brews 80,000 pints a week supplemented by the beer of a similar quality imported from Germany. A significant quantity is enjoyed before and during meals at restaurants that range from Gordon Ramsay Royal Hospital Road to Hix Soho, Whole Foods, Caravan and at the seemingly daily growing number of Byron hamburger outlets.

Taste aside, and with perhaps atypical Australian modesty, Cuppaidge put the success of the brewery down to four very disparate factors.

The first was to concentrate from the outset on a narrow range of beers. They brew only four year-round: their best-selling Hell’s Lager, a pale ale, a stout, and a beer they call Gentlemen’s Wit, a white beer with bergamot. ‘Lager is the hardest beer to brew,’ Cuppaidge explained, ‘because there is no surfeit of hops or grain to mask the flavour. It has to be absolutely correct, but when it's good – like ours is, I feel – it’s very, very good’.

Then there is the added bonus of the name. What Cuppaidge didn’t appreciate when he first registered the name Camden Town Brewery is its immediate association with a part of London that is now one of the capital’s biggest tourist attractions. ‘The name not just opened doors for us, particularly in Japan, but it also anchored us in a very specific geographical location. It put us on a par with the Brooklyn Brewery and Sierra Nevada in the US, although they have been brewing beer for far longer.’

Then came another break that Cuppaidge had not expected. Brawn, the popular restaurant by Columbia Market, east London, had listed the beer and it was selling well. The beer was also being drunk with great pleasure by Eric Narioo and Doug Wregg, whose wine importing company, Les Caves de Pyrène, owns Brawn. As a result they decided to list the beer and to distribute it to their many other restaurant customers. ‘Being a distinctive beer on a respected wine merchant’s list rather than just one more beer on a wholesaler’s list has been very sweet indeed,’ Cuppaidge confessed.

The final factor in Camden beer’s growing popularity has been its association with food, although Cuppaidge has managed to steer clear of the life of the restaurateur. Instead, when they built the new brewery they installed a long Brewery Bar. Behind the bar is the full range of beers on tap while just outside, on Thursday, Friday and Saturday parked in the private road is a different sequence of food trucks that dispense food inspired by the cooking of Mexico, Italy and Korea.

What delights Cuppaidge, other than the sales, is what his bar has now become. ‘It’s become real focal point for people of all ages. Like a local pub.’

Camden Town Brewery,
55-59 Wilkin Street Mews, London NW5 3NN tel +44 (0)20 7485 1671

The photo of John Cuppaidge was taken by Jon Cardwell and reproduced by kind permission of the FT.