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London’s restaurants have never been so attractive for the beer drinker. Chefs are busy writing special menus that match food with beer, sommeliers are compiling extensive beer lists, and independent breweries are enjoying a boom.
My own favourites include Kernel Beer, based under a railway arch in Bermondsey, south London; BrewDog, originally from Ellon, Aberdeenshire; and Beavertown and Redchurch, both in east London. But none of these quite encompasses the massive change in beer brewing in the UK, or its increasingly close affiliation with good food and restaurants, as much as the story behind another favourite, the Camden Town Brewery in north London. Started by an Australian, Jasper Cuppaidge, its most important product, Hells Lager, is now so popular with British drinkers that each week an extra 50,000 pints are trucked back from a brewery outside Munich.
All of this comes as something of a shock to the 37-year-old Cuppaidge, who cleverly registered the name Camden Town Brewery while surfing the internet from a rented flat in Camden Square.
Beer courses through his veins. His late grandfather was a renowned Australian brewer whose company managed 60 pubs from Rockhampton to Darwin. A surfing trip eventually brought Cuppaidge to England in 1997 and, having missed his plane home, he began work collecting dirty glasses at The Westbourne, one of the first of the new wave of London pubs serving good beer and equally good food.
Six years later and by then general manager of the pub, Cuppaidge realised that though he enjoyed the hospitality business he wasn’t organised enough to run a restaurant. He needed the focus that brewing beer was to provide, and in 2006 took over The Three Horseshoes pub in Hampstead. He renamed it The Horseshoe, improved the food and, most significantly, began to brew his own beer in the basement.
“It wasn’t easy,” he recalls. “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 £2.5m turnkey brewery built to his specification under the railway arches in Kentish Town by Braukon, a German specialist. A 40-strong team brews 80,000 pints a week supplemented by the beer imported from Germany. A significant quantity is enjoyed at restaurants ranging from Gordon Ramsay at Royal Hospital Road and Hix Soho to the Byron hamburger outlets.
Taste aside, Cuppaidge puts the success of the brewery down to four factors. The first is that from the outset he and his team have concentrated on a narrow range of beers. They brew only four year-round: the bestselling Hells Lager, a pale ale, a stout and a white beer with bergamot called Gentleman’s Wit. “Lager is the hardest beer to brew,” Cuppaidge explains, “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 Camden Town name and its association with a part of London that is one of the capital’s biggest tourist attractions. “The name not only 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.”
Then came another break. Brawn, the popular restaurant by Columbia Road Market in east London, had listed the beer and it was selling well. It was also being drunk with great pleasure by Eric Narioo and Doug Wregg, whose wine-importing company Les Caves de Pyrène owns Brawn. They decided to list the beer and 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,” says Cuppaidge.
The final factor in Camden beer’s success has been food, although Cuppaidge has managed to steer clear of the life of the restaurateur. Instead, he and his team have installed The Brewery Bar, and on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, trucks parked on the street outside dispense food inspired by the cooking of Mexico, Italy and Korea.
What delights Cuppaidge, other than the sales, is what his bar has become: “A real focal point for people of all ages. Like a local pub.”
More columns at www.ft.com/lander
Camden Town Brewery
55-59 Wilkin St Mews, London NW5 3NN, 020 7485 1671