London’s Railway-Arch Breweries
You don’t have to like beer to find interest in the way breweries shape themselves to the unique circumstances of their location. Those may be defined by history, culture, economics, taxes and laws, or geography. In Portland, locals have an expectation that food will be available at breweries (culture), while in Seattle, the expense of real estate puts a kitchen out of most fledgling breweries’ reach (economics). In the United States, we have a three-tier system of distribution to inhibit brewery control—and thus few breweries own many pubs—while in the U.K. pub ownership is allowed and central to the business (law). If you care to look, the number and type of brewery in any given city reflect these circumstances.
Which brings me to London, where thanks to a grand tour led by Mark Dredge, I now understand a strange quirk that’s characteristic of breweries here.
London has among the world’s most expensive real estate (there are different ways of calculating this, but put London safely in the top ten). Brewing, accordingly, is a space-intensive business that requires substantial capital investment. For underfunded start-ups, this can be daunting. A solution chosen by about a fifth of London’s breweries is the railway arch.
Train lines crisscross the city, many of them elevated on old Victorian viaducts. They’re as wide as a city street, raised 15-25 feet above the ground, and supported by a repeating line of arches. As space became tighter and tighter in London (an old problem in a city once the capital of a global empire), people began to make use of provisional spaces. Decades ago, some clever entrepreneur identified those viaduct arches as a huge source of real estate and began leasing them. They’re not located in prime commercial zones, and some run through barren, industrial precincts. The arches vary in size and shape depending on the viaduct, some narrow, others wider, some squat, others soaring. They come with compromises. Interior space is always characterized by a somewhat awkward semicircle, the light is poor, and when a train passes overhead, it sounds like the rumble of distant thunder. But! For the new brewery, they also have advantages. They’re reasonable industrial spaces, cheap, and expandable—once a brewery reaches its space limit, it can occupy the next arch over. The original Camden Town, for example, now occupies several in a row.
Mark did a count this morning and estimates 25 of London’s 120 breweries are located in arches, while another five have taprooms in them. The most famous are located along the Bermondsey Beer Mile, home to ten of them. Some are extremely stripped-down affairs like Brew By Numbers (which last night had an extraordinary Citra-hopped Table Beer), some are vast and spacious, like Fourpure’s new space (nice West Coast IPA).
It is in some ways startling to see breweries crouched in these arches, though not because they don’t regularly find themselves in such spaces: they do, often. Rather it’s because this is England, the land of a million gorgeous old pubs. It’s also London, at one time the global center of brewing, with inconceivably large brewing operations scattered around the city. These railway arch breweries are very much a modern phenomenon, looking more American than English—and not yet attracting the kind of traffic those old pubs receive. Indeed, I was shocked to find that many are open just one or two days a week. (I brilliantly set my schedule so that I will be moving on before the weekend, when they have their rare openings.) They are not what we Americans envision when we think of “London brewery,” but they are no longer oddities and exceptions.
If you happen to find yourself in London, do make a point of visiting one of these so you have first-hand experience. The Bermondsey Beer Mile makes a lot more sense when you see it up close.