Whatever you think of Camden Town Brewery’s beer – and enough people like it to swallow more than 300,000 pints of Hells lager, Gentleman’s Wit and the rest every week – the company’s expansion in under seven years from nowhere to third-biggest brewer in London, with two of its beers, more than any other craft brewer, in the list of top 100 pub brands is hard not to hail.
Now it has made the biggest investment in a new brewery in London since Guinness revealed its Park Royal plant in 1936, 81 years ago. On Saturday Camden Town let the public have a first look round its 57,400 square feet production facility in East London which actually started brewing a month ago, and is capable of producing 200,000 hectolitres a year (122,000 barrels in Fahrenheit), more than ten times as much as the original railway arches brewery in Wilkin Street Mews, NW5, opened 2010, and with the potential to rise to 400,000hl a year. Several hundred people covering the spectrum from hipster to sceptical elderly real ale fan (he knows who he is), including families with toddlers in buggies, took advantage of the free tickets, and the offer of bars, food stalls, music, games, beer at £4 a pint and trips round the brewery (with one free beer), and ignored the rain, to travel to Ponders End to see what £30 million of shiny German stainless steel and other assorted high-tech beer-making equipment actually looks like.
I went along too, and managed to (1) grab a paparazzi-style photograph of Sir John Hegarty, famous advertising guru and father-in-law of Camden Town’s founder, Jasper Cuppaidge, (2) meet three people I knew (nice to see you, Jeff), and (3) nab an interview with Rob Topham, Camden Town’s head brewer. Rob joined the company from Fuller Smith & Turner in 2014, after nine years with the Chiswick brewer, and Jasper Cuppaidge was already planning a bigger brewery than the railway arches in Kentish Town could handle. Progress in finding a suitable site, however, was slower than the company’s growth: “The first iteration was for a 70,000 to 80,000hl brewery,” Rob said. “But each time we couldn’t find the right premises, or we couldn’t get everything sorted, it was going up by 10,000hl, 10,000hl, and we got to the stage where we’d just outgrown all of our own plans.”
Expansion needs money, of course, and Camden Town, despite wealthy backers like Jasper Cuppaidge’s pa-in-law and his pals, still needed financial help from outside. The first step was to appeal to the public, but soon after that came an offer that must have seemed impossible to refuse, even if it brought down wrath and abuse from hard-core craft beer fanatics: an £85 million take-over from the biggest brewing company in the world. “When we had the Hellsraisers [the crowdfunding push in the summer of 2015 that saw Camden Town raise £2.8 million from more than 2,000 investors for 5.4 per cent of the business], that was a fantastic point in time, we had the money to expand, we were making plans based on that,” Rob said. “But when AB InBev came in, they’ve allowed us to do straight away everything that we wanted to get to in five, six, seven years’ time.”
The Belgo-Brazilian overlords don’t interfere, despite paying the bills, Rob said: “We’ve been allowed to be separate from ABI, and to do things the way we want to do them and the way we believe is right.” He admitted that Camden Town looked at some of the kit left over when AB Inbev closed the giant Stag brewery at Mortlake barely weeks before it announced it was buying the North London brewer, but “it was more hassle than it was worth” trying to take it across London and repurpose it for life in Enfield.
The new Ponders End plant has around 25 production workers, Rob said: “We need only 15 to 20 per cent extra people to run this brewery, which is five times the size of Kentish Town. That’s partly because we were running 24/7 down there.” Attempting to keep up with far more demand than the railway arches could cope with has seen Camden Town farm out a huge chunk – 60,000 to 70,000 hectolitres – of its production to a brewery in Belgium. The opening of the new works alongside the Lee Navigation (which once carried 60 per cent of the malt used by London’s brewers) means all the beer sold can now be produced in the capital, and the company is looking for sales at the end of this year of 120,000hl, “possibly close to 130,000,” Rob says. “We’re hot on the tails of Meantime, and we’re hoping to surpass them, we’ll be at looking to hit 150,000hl, possibly 200,000 by the end of 2018.” With the present tank set-up at Ponders End, “we can currently do just over 200,000hl if we go to 24-hour. We’ve got room for another eight 600-hectolitre fermenters and another three 600-hectolitre bright tanks, we will be able to take it up to just around 400,000 hectolitres. But it would take an awful lot of work to do that, and another chunk of investment.”
Meanwhile “we’re going to use Kentish Town as our research and development and innovation centre, and we’ll be able to go back from that being a flat-out production plant – we’ve already started to wind down – to using it for specials, for collaborations, and trials. We’ve got a bunch of ideas, barrel–aged beers, we’ee got some little secret projects that we’re looking at, I won’t say too much. We’ll really be able to capitalise and get ahead of the game by having a second site with a smaller brew size. I was fairly heavily involved with the barrel ageing projects at Fuller’s, we’ve done three releases of barrel-aged beers already, we’ve got the fourth one in barrel at the moment, we change the beer and the barrels each year, and try to match them, and going forward we’ll be able to maximise that, use Kentish Town as the ‘wild’ brewery, if you like, doing the crazy stuff, and keep the Enfield brewery for ‘clean’ experiments. Those wackier yeasts petrify me as a brewer, I want to keep them well away from my mainstream brews!”
Having the original brewery devote itself to the wild and woolly is probably not going to bring back the fanatics who swore they would never touch Camden Town beers again after the AB InBev takeover. But I’d be surprised if Rob, Jasper and the rest of the Camden Town crowd care. They’re appealing to a much broader demographic, which is appreciating craft beer in a totally different way to the lovers of obscurities, one-offs and beers that look as well as taste like mango juice. It was clear that the new brewery was deliberately designed with tours by the public in mind, with “wacky” signs everywhere (“no swimming” above a fermenting vessel, for example) and “jokey” slogans etched into the windows on the coppers and mash tuns where other brewers merely have the company logo, as well as wide walkways capable of coping with crowds and a big bar in the heart of the brewery. (One problem: the “jokes” were clearly coined by someone who thinks they have a sense of humour, and badly needs disabusing. Still, half a mark for trying. And minus five marks for not being at all amusing. The same goes for the “wacky” cartoon murals decorating the walls: I know all the trendiest brewers have funky artists go creative all over their interiors, but if you do it, it has to be done very well.)
Top marks, though, for having an industrial estate brewery that at last has an exterior with some sense of style: Rob says Camden Town was able to work with the developer once the brewery had decided the site fitted its requirements, to have the basic “shed” altered, in particular to make sure all the drainage and other essential brewery services went in as needed, and that seems to have meant tweaking the standard boring box, too. Ponders End doesn’t have many tourist attractions. It might just have a new one.