Throughout most of the 1990’s I now realise I lived in a bit of a bubble. I was lucky enough to run a free house, not tied to any big brewery; I had a fairly lenient boss who was happy for me to choose and buy the cask beers I wanted to feature on the bar each week; I was supplied with a little van to go and pick up a firkin here, a firkin there (little did my boss know I trekked all the way down to the South Coast sometimes, just to pick up a beer one of the regulars had raved about). With hindsight, it clearly didn’t make commercial sense, but this was my world. There were an endless, infinite number of beers I could choose from and I was like a kid in a sweetie shop.
What I didn’t realise at the time was how dire things had got brewery wise in our capital city. From once being the brewing capital of the world with over 200 breweries in the 18th century (for a city of only one million inhabitants), the numbers dwindled over the years, leaving only a handful by the turn of the 21st century. I mean that literally: there were five breweries left (if that) in London at the point the clock struck midnight on the eve of 2000. For a city which, by then, boasted a population of over 6 million.
So if you wanted a beer brewed locally, your choice was pretty limited. It was this situation that puzzled the founder of this week’s brewery.
During the Great British Beer Festival of 2006, two gents sat in Earls Court, looking through the huge list of beers available and they realised with sadness that there was not one beer available from London, other than the ones brewed (excellently, I might add) by Fullers down the road in Chiswick.
One of these chaps was Duncan Sambrook, at that time an accountant at Deloitte in the City. Armed with nothing more than a passion to change this ridiculous situation, within two years he had learned to brew beer, found premises in Battersea, purchased plant and by sheer coincidence, met up with another brewer from his home town of Salisbury. This brewer went by the name of David Welsh, a name some of you may be familiar with. He successfully ran Ringwood Brewery for many years (ironically, this was the brewery I had taken my little van on a jaunt to many years before to purchase some Old Thumper). David and Duncan became sparring partners to revitalise the London brewing scene.
Sambrook’s brewery gave birth to the quaintly named Wandle Ale in November 2008. During this two year set up period, Duncan had continued to work in the City, and only left Deloitte three months before Wandle appeared. That must have been a hell of a task, juggling setting up a new brewery, whilst holding down a high pressure job.
Wandle is named after the Thames tributary which flows past the brewery, and the ale quietly started picking up awards not only for its light, lemony flavour, but also the quality and consistency of its ingredients. At only 3.8%, it presents a lovely quaffable session ale. Other beers followed, a modern interpretation of porter named Powerhouse Porter, and an excellent ‘Pumphouse’ Pale Ale. Each of the pump clips grandly proclaims “Brewed in the Heart of London”. A tribute to a city which should quite rightly be loud and proud about its brewing heritage.
When in London, I always seek out Wandle, as much for its story as well as its flavour. It’s a lovely beer to have with Welsh rarebit (or posh cheese on toast as we know it round my area), honey glazed sausages, and traditional fish and chips. But it also lends itself well to seared scallops with Hollandaise sauce, a salmon steak poached in lemon juice, or some prawns cooked in butter with garlic and chilli. How’s that for a versatile beer?
You may be asking how many breweries there are today in London? Well, having consulted an expert on the numbers, the estimate is there are between 80 and 100 breweries established and thriving in the capital. Londoners have the choice that I once took for granted, and I think Mr Sambrook took a very well calculated career decision at exactly the right time.