Don’t try this at home – the rise of nanobrewing clubs in London

By Adrian Redfern, BottleShop Beermonger

Homebrewing, in some people’s eyes, is probably about as far away as you can get to #WorldClass beer, right? Yet the beer scene as we know it today would be a very different place if it wasn’t for renegade brewers who threw away the rule book and decided to experiment on a small scale using cobbled together pilot kits down in the garden shed. So in many ways it’s where the true grass roots of modern brewing innovation can be found.
I can’t remember exactly when my fascination for fermentation started but it certainly wasn’t from passing the macro breweries of Burton-on-Trent, although they are quite a spectacle, more likely it was the ‘plip, plip, plip’ sound and the strange smells emanating from my grandad’s fermentation buckets. There’s something quite special about seeing and hearing a liquid which is alive.
Over time this fascination, which I’m sure many of you bottle.shop blog followers share, evolved. As a beer drinker I needed to understand what makes beer so great (or not). The ingredients, the process, the care and the quality.
So a few years ago I decided that I had put it off for too long, it’s time I actually made some beer. This presented a few hurdles of course. First of all, it’s seriously difficult, so I’m told, to make beer to a palatable standard. Secondly I didn’t really have the cash or confidence based on point 1 to splash out on all the gear with no idea. Thirdly I live in a one bedroom flat without such luxuries as a garden shed. I’m guessing there are many beer lovers in a similar predicament. So this is how I became aware of a rising beer culture that, at the time, not many people knew about: nanobrewing. Plus, it just so happened that I was in the perfect location to get involved. That London.

The concept is ironically similar to joining the gym. But much more fun. Head to a brewing club and use their kit, premises, ingredients, recipes, technical support and potentially even sell it in the club taproom (although I had no intention to do anything other than drink mine myself!). I was sold in an instant so I signed up to a class and got stuck right in. So what did I learn? Well brewing is of course very complex but some styles are easier than others to master so if you like a solid Mosaic Pale (who doesn’t) then it’s actually not rocket science to make a thoroughly drinkable beer which is far superior to a lot of the beers served up and down the country.

The biggest thing I took away from the experience is that amazing beer requires meticulous attention to detail at every step, it requires the finest ingredients in generous quantities and it’s a seriously hard and physical graft, even at nano scale. A new level of respect for beer and its manufacture was born within me. Rather than becoming a tight-arse who no longer wants to pay for full-price beer, I was actually far more willing to splash out on #WorldClass beer because I fully respected the effort it takes to make beer at that level and keep it in perfect condition. Not to mention the quality control to make sure the drinker has complete trust that the product is going to be amazing every time.
So, what is the nanobrewing underworld up to these days? Much has happened in the London beer scene in recent years so I’ve been to check up on some of the best places to brew your own beer.
The London Brewlab was set up in a railway arch in central Brixton in 2013. The mission was to create an open source brewing community where home brewers could network and pick up equipment from the brewing shop and enter competitions to up their game. The brew-curious can come here and not only learn how to brew but also buy the set up required to brew at home. Developing affordable home brew equipment has been a big focus here and Karl and the team have developed a starter kit which weighs in at a very reasonable £300, a third of the cost of the much fabled Braumeister but essentially does the same job. Bargain! They’ve also expanded their taproom and bottle shop to include a whopping 14 keg lines so even if you don’t fancy brewing you can enjoy some world class beer on tap.

Over in good old Bermo’ there’s Ubrew, which launched through a very successful crowdfunding campaign in 2015 with big plans to change the world of brewing by creating a platform where home brewers could access the facilities required to brew commercially. Starting out with a group of 60 members, each with an allocated fermenter and sharing time on one of their 50 litre SS Brewtech pilot kits, the site has now doubled in size with 150 members, 45 commercial brewers and access to a range of equipment up to 10HL. I caught up with Matt Denham, one of Ubrew’s founders, last month to find out what’s on the cards next. It certainly sounds like a recipe for #WorldClass beer in the making, with further development of the Bermondsey site to include a 6 degree cold room, a barrel store and a 9 degree lagering room in addition to the existing 18 degree ale fermentation room. New flooring to improve hygiene and lab facilities are also in the pipeline so it’s all getting pretty serious.

If you would rather not jump in with a business plan and you’d prefer to take the Rolls Royce of home brew kits out for a spin for an evening then Brew Club up in Clapton is the place to go. Here you can hire out a Speidel Baumeister and programme it to heat and cool your brew at every stage, with accuracy and speed that most full scale breweries can’t get close to. The results are very impressive and you will get to enjoy tonnes of down time to chill out at the bar and, it you’re lucky, talk beer, snooker and techno with local legend Steve Davis.

It’s not surprising to hear that some real brewing talent has emerged from these grass roots, with the likes of Brick and Burnt Mill welcoming alumni to their brew teams and the unstoppable Big Drop Brewing starting out on the nanobrewing spring board. It’s great to see that not only do the #WorldClass beers we all love here at TBS inspire those starting out on their brewing journey, but that the passion has come full circle with BottleShop distribution for a few of those breweries that started so humbly.

I’ve been very impressed with what I’ve seen around London’s nanobrewing scene and I would highly recommend getting involved with one of the many courses and events out there. Get stuck in, if nothing else you’ll be amazed at how many barbeques you get invited to when you’ve got a stash of high grade home brew at your disposal.

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