The date is 8th April 2017. It is one of the hottest days of the year so far, and London is basking in rays of the spring sunshine. In weather like this, it is hard to imagine wanting to be anywhere other than in a park or a swimming pool.
However, Lockfield Industrial Park in Tottenham Hale is heaving with hundreds of people, desperate to visit the home of Beavertown Brewery for the annual release of its 7.2% Blood Orange IPA, Bloody ‘Ell. The event is so popular that the brewery is forced to implement a one-in one-out policy at the gates to the industrial estate to avoid overcrowding.
8th April was not an isolated incident. Every weekend come rain or shine, breweries across the capital are flooded by an array of locals, tourists and beer geeks, who come in search of special releases, to meet the brewers of their favourite beer, or just to drink with friends. Spaces for customers to come and drink at the point of production have sprung up at breweries from Brewheadz in Tottenham to Forest Road in Hackney and Hop Stuff in Woolwich Arsenal.
These spaces, affectionately known as taprooms, are now undoubtedly an essential part of London’s beer culture, but what exactly is so appealing about drinking on a barren industrial estate, and what does their rise mean for the future of the more traditional pub?
Part of the surge in interest in taprooms comes from an increased desire to know where and how beer is made, according to James Yeomans, co-founder of Hop Stuff brewery. “People don’t just want to sit in another pub and have another macro lager anymore,” he says. “They’re looking for the authenticity that comes from supporting a small business and being a part of a community. We’re spoilt for choice in London, and more and more people want to go and enjoy their beer where it is made.”
Chris Hall, media and sales co-coordinator for Brew By Numbers echoes this sentiment. “What people really like about craft beer the transparency that comes with it,” he says. “It doesn’t get much more transparent than people being able to walk through the door of a business and talk to the people that own and make the product.
“We make so many different beers, and for people to be able to come and see a range of eight or more of them in one place helps them to understand us and builds a sense of attachment to our company.”
Of course, it isn’t just consumers who have benefitted from the increased proliferation of taprooms across the capital. For breweries themselves, the taproom represents an opportunity to generate income, improve cash flow, develop a better relationship with customers and increase the visibility of their brand.
After first opening its doors to the public in 2013, initially just on Saturdays, Brew By Numbers now generates around a quarter its sales through the taproom site in Bermondsey, with over 800 people visiting every weekend.
“It’s invaluable to businesses like us, to distinguish ourselves from everything else on the market,” Hall admits. “It’s not just a marketing tool but also a way of better making ourselves understood to the consumers. However, it is also about being able to deliver the maximum amount of your product with as little overhead cost, if you can sell at point of production it’s a huge and valuable source of cash flow.”
Without any distribution costs to worry about, and maximum control over the conditions in which the beer is served, taprooms are naturally an attractive prospect for breweries. However, with a few notable exceptions (Magic Rock’s taproom in Huddersfield for example), it is only really in London and a few other large UK cities where the concept has taken off on a major scale. Why is it that the captial has become such a hotbed for the taproom model?
A major factor is clearly the ease of access to brewery sites due to excellent public transport links. The ability to reach industrial estates and retail parks, often the site of breweries due to cheaper rents, is significantly made easier by the city’s tube and bus network.
“There are some very good examples of taprooms outside of London doing very well, but I think the ease of access in London definitely helps to promote the taproom mentality,” Yeoman states. “The fact you can hop on the train and be there is very convenient. If you open a brewery on the edge of a village people will find it more challenging to come and try your beers.”
Another aspect is undoubtedly the sheer number of breweries operating in London (93 according to the latest estimates from CAMRA). Journalist Will Hawkes, who organises London Beer City – a weeklong celebration of the capital’s beer culture - believes the level of interest in craft beer amongst the city’s residents has helped taprooms thrive.
“People thought it (craft beer) was a fad but it just keeps growing,” he says. “It has lost its novelty but it is still getting stronger all the time. If you go for a drink in any part of London you can go into a pub and there will be some decent beer on the bar. Things have improved so much for beer drinkers, and so many people are interested in it now, even if they’re not obsessed with it and waiting in line outside a bottle shop for the latest Cloudwater release.”
“Things like the Bermondsey Beer Mile have really helped to grow that. It’s really fun even if you’re not a part of that craft beer world to go and drink in a brewery and see what it looks like up close. Taprooms have definitely played a huge part in driving interest in beer in London and visa versa.”
In many ways, taprooms are becoming a victim of their own success, and indeed the major threat to the future of brewery open days could be their own popularity. At Brew By Numbers, rents have risen as National Rail (the company that owns the archway in which the brewery operates) seeks to cash in on the popularity of the brewery as a destination.
“The railway arches that were previously quite shady looking MOT garages are now places you can take your kids, have a beer and try some local produce,” says Hall, “and our reward for that has been seeing our rents put up!”
Around the corner at The Kernel, draught beer is no longer sold for consumption on site, as the sheer volume of customers attempting Bermondsey Beer Mile (an affectionate name for the stretch of breweries in the area) was creating too much of a strain for the brewery to continue to operate.
At Anspach & Hobday, complaints have been lodged by local residents fed up with the noise and anti-social behaviour created by the beer tourism in the area. “Bermondsey is a curious blend of industrial units and residential properties and inevitably with residential areas there is usually some concern when alcohol is involved,” Hall says. “But brewery taps do have a social responsibility in the same way as pubs in terms of the responsible sale of alcohol.”
If brewery taps can overcome these challenges and continue to maintain their popularity, it seems reasonable to ask where their rise leaves the place of the more traditional pub. The recent ‘Brewers in The Community’ report from the Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA) suggested that brewery taprooms were helping to fill the void left by the closure of community pubs, particularly in more rural areas. With 10,000 pubs closing in the UK in the last fifteen years, could the popularity of the brewery tap even be helping to accelerate the demise of the traditional wet-led boozer?
In a word - no. There is little evidence to suggest that taprooms are creating direct competition for community pubs, the main threats to the latter coming from rises to business rates, high taxation of alcohol and changes to social attitudes.
“I think the traditional pub obviously has its problems; society is changing and people are drinking less alcohol,” Hawkes says. “There is still a place (for pubs) but they have to be more innovative about what they offer; its not just about food and drink, they have to offer something that people want throughout the day – there are pubs that are post offices and operate as newsagents as well.
“You have to be clever, and its not as easy as it used to be, but I do think there is something about the pub that cant be replicated with a brewery taproom no matter how good it is. Pubs are closing and brewery taps are opening but I don’t think the latter is necessarily replacing the former.”
Yeoman agrees that the taprooms don’t necessarily threaten the future of pubs, and argues that pubs could learn a few things from the taproom model.
“I don’t think pubs should necessarily be worried,” he says. “Yes there are pubs that have closed but I think that is just because we are in such a charged environment now that pubs can’t get away with doing things half-arsed anymore. Quite often you will see poorly run and quiet pubs close, but there’s not a huge amount you can do to fix that.”
“Pubs could do very well if they take influence from the taproom model, but I think it’s fundamentally a different offering. It’s like saying what does a restaurant or a nightclub offer that a pub doesn’t? It’s a different place to go, and I think people like variety.”
With the taproom looking set to become a mainstay of the London drinking network for the foreseeable future, how can we expect their offerings to change over the next few years? Jack Hobday, co-founder of Anspach & Hobday brewery, believes we will see more breweries drawing inspiration from abroad to offer a slightly different kind of taproom experience.
“I think that there’s lots of different ways you can run it,” he says. “Taprooms typically are more focused on the beer than on a particularly comfortable setting because the whole landscape has to be able to be folded away and the brewery reset for production.
“If you draw inspiration from places in Copenhagen like Warpigs or places in America we could see more mini brew pubs, which are complemented by beers produced from the brewery, or you could see something more like a bar or a pub in the traditional sense.
“The USP remains you’re getting beer made by the brewery, but with all the quality from the beer put into the venue and the experience itself.”
Whatever form they make take, taprooms have become an integral part of Briain’ beer scene. Local provenance is king, with 65 per cent of SIBA members’ beer being sold within 40 miles of the brewery. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect that number to rise in the future, as more breweries open taproom sites to sell their beer direct to customers at its very best.
London’s taproom culture has thrived, propelled by the strength of its breweries and their offerings, and if you want to try next year’s batch Bloody ‘Ell then it would probably be advisable to arrive to Beavertown nice and early on launch day.
*This article originally appeared in Issue 16 of Ferment magazine, and has been reproduced here with their permission*