A short history of London beer

We take a look at London's association with the brown stuff.


Beer has come a long way since it was being brewed in people’s kitchens in the Medieval era. Its history stretches back even further; it’s believed it was the drink of choice for Romans and Greeks before wine was readily available. Lauded as a medicine, favoured by religious clerics, and likened to the devil’s poison, it seems that over the years we couldn’t make our minds up whether to love or hate it. Today it is typically regarded as a man’s drink and a means to inebriation, but experts are now pairing beer with food (a pint of pale ale and a medium-rare steak with peppercorn sauce are a match made in heaven, honest). Add to that the recent growth spurt in microbreweries and craft beer, and these are very exciting times for the beverage.

In the olden days, beer brewed without hops was called ale. Hops were first brought over to England by the Dutch, and once ale was being made it was hugely popular; by the end of the 13th century St. Paul’s Cathedral was producing almost 70,000 gallons of it. It was usual for beer to be made in monasteries and churches – were medieval monks the hedonists of their day?

Beer production swiftly moved out of religious establishments however; the Brewer’s Guild was founded in 1342, and forty years later London had nearly 300 commercial breweries.

Henry VIII was partial to a few bevvies. He had two personal brewers, one for ale and one for beer, who were responsible for the production of 13,000 pints a day for Hampton Court Palac alone. That’s a lot of merriment.

The Great Fire of London devastated 16 breweries, but thankfully it wasn’t all bad news in 1666. This was also the year that Truman Hanbury and Buxton opened on Brick Lane, a company that would become one of London’s largest brewers, and the building is now a famous landmark on a hip thoroughfare.

Despite some initial resistance from purist brewers, by the 16th century all beers, whether ales or not, contained hops, differentiated by the method of fermentation. That wasn’t the only obvious change. Brewers could make huge fortunes. Successful brewery owners were immensely wealthy – London got its first steam engine thanks to Henry Goodwyn of the Red Lion brewhouse in Wapping. But as always in business, a few companies at the top shared most of the profit while numerous small ones eked out an existence. By the 19th century 12 main brewers made 75% of the city’s beer, while the hundred or so remaining produced the other 25%. \n\nThe thought of thousands of litres of beer flowing freely down Tottenham Court Road may sound appealing to some, but in 1814 it ended in disaster. A vat containing over half a million litres of beer broke, causing other vats to topple like dominos, flooding the St. Giles area. Eight people were killed, including a three year old child.

In 1882 the first lager brewery opened on Tottenham Court Road, owned by the Austro-Bavarian Lager Beer and Crystal Ice Company. Meanwhile, London’s breweries were steadily closing down. By 1904 there were only 90 left. Throughout the 20th century, as costs increased, many more closed down or relocated from Central London to the suburbs, or outside of London altogether. Despite this, just before the war Guinness opened a brewery in Park Royal, and most of England’s Guinness supply hailed from here for the next few decades.

In 2007 London had just 10 breweries, the lowest number since the Second World War, however things are changing. New brewers like Kernel have firmly established themselves, and the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) has been tirelessly encouraging the efforts of small breweries while lobbying to avoid takeovers by large companies and closures of valued pubs. To find out where you can drink craft beers (from small breweries), check our guide:

If you’re curious to see the workings of London’s remaining brewhouses you’re in luck, as some of them run tours. The most famous is Fuller’s in Chiswick, who have been producing beer for over 350 years. They make London Pride and ESB among others, and charge £10 for a two-hour tour. Kernel Brewery near London Bridge let you sample and buy ales direct every Saturday.
\n\nTypes of beer made in London

Beer is essentially malted grain and hops. There are different types of hops, which result in different aromas, flavours and colours. To simplify things, beer can be divided into ales and lagers. Lagers are popular in Europe, whereas ales are more traditionally British.

There are different varieties of ale, which can make them seem like a minefield to the uninitiated. Light ale and pale ale are the weakest brews, lighter in colour because they are made with pale malts. Brown ale is considered sweet by some, but if you’re not accustomed to ales don’t expect it to taste like fruit juice. Then there is mild ale, the most commonly drunk type of ale until the 1960s. Old ale is strong-flavoured and dark brown, it’s also fairly rare. Porter, developed around 1718, was named after London’s river porters, and has more hops than traditional ale.

Strong-tasting and with a dry, slightly bitter aftertaste, hence the name. It has a burnt orange colour. Popular brands include Young’s and John Smith’s.

A very dry, bitter brew made with dark roasted barley and hops. It was first brewed in London in the 1700s (known as Imperial or Russian stout). It’s black and intense, and best if it’s draught rather than bottled as it has a creamier, more complex flavour. Guinness is a brand of stout.

How to drink beer
Lager should be drunk cold otherwise it develops an unpleasant (some say chemical) taste. Ale is best chilled, and many brands specify the temperature at which they should be served, but unlike lager it’s not off-putting once it warms up.

Pour beer into a glass - those with long stems will keep it colder for longer. Keep pouring till the glass is halfway full, wait for the head to set and then pour the rest. Don’t let the foamy head go down before you start sipping, as it should be savoured (if a head doesn’t appear, the glass may not be clean). A good beer should leave a lingering taste. The best quality beers are pumped and local, so they haven’t had a chance to degrade during travel. Fuller’s stick to this rule, with the majority of their 350 pubs located in and around West London. And you can of course enjoy beer with food: pair fruity, heavy bodied-ales with meats, cheeses and spicy foods, and lagers with fish, chicken and lighter flavours.

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