Tom Byng’s London patrons wash down their burgers with 11,000 craft beers a week, paying 13 percent more for the privilege of supping artisanal Camden Town Gentleman’s Wit rather than mass-produced Peroni Nastro Azzuro.
“Craft is really accessible, it’s made with passion,” said Byng, founder of the Byron restaurant chain which has 29 London branches. “Craft brewers do it for love and consumers really embrace that.”
The London Brewers Alliance says there are more than 40 microbrewers within the M25 motorway that encircles the U.K. capital. That’s a 13-fold increase in less than a decade as Michelin-starred restaurants including Restaurant Gordon Ramsay in Chelsea and St. John at Smithfield Market add bottled beers to their drink menus.
“I used to be able to name on one hand craft beer bars, and on the other restaurants offering the beer,” said Duncan Sambrook, who founded Sambrook’s Brewery in Battersea in 2008 and counts Lavender Hill ale among his brews. “Today, it’s almost incalculable. I’m amazed at the transformation.”
The U.K. tax system provides incentives to small brewers by imposing lower duties on those producing no more than 60,000 hectoliters, or 10.6 million imperial pints, per year. Sambrook, for example, produced 10,000 hectoliters of beer in 2012.
“2013 has been a coming of age for London’s microbreweries,” says Neil Walker, of the Campaign for Real Ale, an advocacy group started in 1971 that promotes traditional beer. “The boom in interest is in the nature of a city that pushes people toward smaller operations.” He’s expecting 55,000 people to attend this week’s Great British Beer Festival in Kensington Olympia, a 10 percent increase from last year.
Premium prices help the smaller brewers compensate for lower volumes. Byron charges 4.25 pounds ($6.60) for a 330-milliliter bottle of Camden Gentleman’s Wit, a Belgian-style lemon-flavored beverage, 50 pence more than for a bottle of SABMiller Plc’s Peroni.
Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen restaurant has a dedicated beer menu to match the correct ale to its flat-iron steaks, pan-roasted pork chops and rotisserie chicken. Trevor Gulliver, co-founder of St. John restaurant and early importer of French wine into the London restaurant scene, sells London cask ales including Rock the Kazbek, Hopspur, and Kernel pale ale from Bermondsey to accompany sweetbreads and rabbit dishes.
“For us, beer is food,” said Gulliver. “We’ve always treated it that way, consumers are doing the same.”
Total U.K. domestic beer sales declined 4.8 percent in the second quarter from the year-earlier period, according to figures compiled by the British Beer & Pub Association. The four largest companies, Belgium’s Anheuser-Busch InBev AV, Molson Coors Brewing Co. of the U.S., Denmark’s Carlsberg A/S and Heineken NV of the Netherlands, have almost two-thirds of the British market, according to retail research company Euromonitor International.
“I hear industry whispers that craft is growing in the high single digits,” says Spiros Malandrakis, an analyst at Euromonitor. “But it’s very debatable how much these figures can be validated.”
The Society of Independent Brewers, based in Ripon, England, said micro brewers make up 86 percent of its membership, which has trebled in the past decade to more than 650.
“Beer was the last bastion of the banal and now that’s been broken,” said Alastair Hook, head brewmaster of Meantime Brewing Co., which was founded in 1999 in Greenwich and has the capacity to brew 105,000 hectoliters a year. “Wine set the agenda, educated people about the intrinsics, talked about provenance, and the history of those who made the grapes.” Meantime has about 50 different beer recipes this year, Hook said.
The so-called locavore movement, which encourages restaurants to source produce locally, is helping London’s beer revolution, according to Zoe Wulfsohn-Dunkley, a spokeswoman for the Camden Town Brewery Co.
“As people are interested in tracing it from manufacturer to the table, it’s only natural London restaurants want to source their beer nearby,” she said.