Matters of taste – London Brewing Company & Fearless Nomad

Being a pub brewery can have its difficulties. Space is usually even more of a premium than at the average brewery, thus making the installation of additional facilities such as packaging lines for cans or bottles unrealistic. When lockdown came and the demand for packaged beer soared, it became even more of a challenge. Here are pen pictures of two pub breweries and how they got through the spring and early summer.

The larger – and older – one is the London Brewing Company. It started off as a tiny brewery housed in the kitchen of the Bull at Highgate back in 2011. It was set up by Nick, who had a background in banking, and Dan, who had previously managed the White Horse in Parsons Green. After three years, and with the London beer scene blooming, they started to look for new premises and found a large ex M&B and Antic pub in North Finchley, which had been shut for two years. It was refurbished and renamed the Bohemia. The duo were joined by Senan, who had a background in pubs. This included running the Albany in Great Portland Street and the Marquis of Cornwallis in Bloomsbury; he was also with M&B for ten years.

As always, it took a while to get the new, larger brewery installed. It was 6.5 barrels with two 12 barrel fermenters, which also serve as storage tanks. They started brewing on it in 2015. For a while, the two breweries were run side by side with the brewery at the Bull doing small experimental brews. Unfortunately, the beer sales didn’t warrant keeping two breweries with four brewers, so a rethink was required. The Bull was sold and the small brewery provided the green shoots for the Gorgeous Brewery, who subsequently built a new establishment at the back of the pub. Dan then decided that his future was in running pubs so he left to set up the Arnos Arms in New Southgate and subsequently the King of Prussia in Finchley.

Senan said, “Even with just one brewery, we needed to increase beer sales and needed to look externally. We thought that setting up a sales and delivery team wasn’t a great idea so we decided to do it ourselves with me doing the selling. This led to contracts with M&B and Euroboozer.” But this wasn’t the only part of the rethink, “We rebranded and reduced the beer range. To keep the brewery going, we knew we needed to brew good, sessionable beers with a consistent quality.”

During the lockdown, the brewery did supply some beer to pubs doing takeaways and the Bohemia looked at doing the same but they found that home delivery just wasn’t cost effective. The pub took a slightly different approach and Senan decided to support local charities; every Friday they gave away beer and asked people to donate to that week’s charity. Senan commented, “It got busier and busier but people were happy to queue in a socially distanced way. Sadly, though, we found that some people were walking away without donating so we had to start charging, but it did mean that we were able to give away around £1,000 each week to a worthy cause.”

Senan and his team

Understandably, due to the pub being closed most of the time, staff had to be furloughed and it was a great relief to be able to open on 6 July, albeit with reduced hours and lots of signs with information to keep people safe. Senan explained, “The team really stepped up and we also received some help from the local community. A local artist did all our ‘keep safe’ signs and got them all printed for us, all free of charge.”

The brewing is now done by George Bousterd, assisted by Jack Smithers, who came from furlough before the pub opened to get some beer ready. With footfall being lower than before lockdown, the beer range has had to be is reduced but their core range remains. There are four cask beers: London Lush, Beer Street, 100 Oyster Stout and Skyline. These are complemented by at least three kegs of which Gigglemug, Upright and Chuckaboo are regulars.

Looking forward, Senan feels that the way to ensuring the long term success of the Bohemia, and the London Brewery Company, is to balance economics with passion. Senan elucidated, “The expectations of customers are getting higher and it is harder to make a profit. We may well look at testing cans and probably seek another pub in due course to help economies of scale, but we need to conserve some cash in case of another lockdown.”
And the passion can be summed up by his final comment, “We are proud that we can encourage people to try beer in what is a conservative local market. It continues to be a bit of a challenge to get across what we are about but I love it when people move from a ‘standard’ lager to something like Upright.”

For more information on the pub and brewery, visit www.londonbrewing.com

At the other end of the scale is the Fearless Nomad, a one barrel brewery at the Black Dog Beer House in Brentford. Pete Brew, one of the owners, like Senan from LBC, has a pedigree in running pubs. He came over from Australia in 2000 to work as a conference manager for Hyatt Hotels. Pete thought that he would be here for a couple of years but it didn’t work out like that. He got a little bored and decided to move on. He went to live with a friend who lived in a pub in Kingston and after just six mont hs, the manager left. Pete applied for the job, got it and a life-long love affair with the British pub began.

It wasn’t however all plain sailing. The pub chain he worked for went into administration but, as the saying goes, as one door closes, another opens. One day in 2009, Pete went into the Fox in Twickenham, a pub he knew quite well, although he felt it wasn’t being run to its potential. Pete explained, “It was a real spit and sawdust pub but I wanted to give it a go. I contacted Morgans, who owned the pub, and within a week or so, I was in!” It wasn’t just the pub Pete fell in love with. Shortly after he met Ash, who was working as a manager of a nearby pub, and that was that! Pete continued, “Around this time, I started home brewing and there was a growing interest in craft beer. I do get bored easily. After about 18 months, I was looking for a new challenge and one day during a conversation with the Morgans, they told me of a pub they had acquired down the road. The Sussex Arms was just the sort of pub I was looking for, to take advantage of the growing interest in beer. So, as part of the refurbishment, I persuaded them to put in 12 beer lines and 6 cider lines.”

It was at the Sussex Arms, that Pete began to build on his home brewing skills, which included setting up a 50 litre brewery at the back of the pub. He was assisted by Nick, the assistant manager who came from New Zealand. Nick accompanied Pete on a visit to the USA to look at what was happening with the beer and pub market there. They came back to take over another Morgan pub, the Antelope in Surbiton, where, once again assisted by Nick, they installed a five barrel brewery at the back of the pub. The brewery, named Big Smoke, is still operating but has moved to Esher, where Nick still brews. Pete and Ash stayed at the Antelope for two years before deciding to go back to Australia in 2014. Pete said, “I thought about setting up a microbrewery but was homesick for Britain so, when my father passed away, we came back.”

On their return, Pete and Ash decided that they wanted to work for themselves. They looked at a number of pubs and, in 2018, they eventually found the Black Dog in Brentford. Pete saw it as ‘a proper back street boozer’ and even though it had been closed for years they saw the potential. A 25 year lease was taken out with the owners, Wellington Pub Co, and the refurbishment started. There was a lot of attention to detail. The floor was unsalvageable so they purchased some 100 year old floorboards which they laid themselves.

They also uncovered a working fireplace and had it and a second one cleaned. There is an equally attractive third one but unfortunately it is not useable and is probably too close to the seating in any case.

The pub is very much a family affair with Ash in charge of finances and procurement, James, her brother, doing the cooking and Pete in charge of the brewery, which is at the back of the pub. Pete was keen to continue brewing when they moved into the pub so he commandeered the shed in the garden! After eight months, a state of the art one barrel plant with three fermenters had been installed, producing both keg and cask. Pete explained, “We stopped brewing during lockdown and have just started again. We were a bit later than we intended because we use wet yeast, which we import from Ireland, and the delivery was delayed. We decided to use wet yeast rather than dry because it gives us a better brew.”
Lockdown has, of course, created challenges. The pub was closed and the staff furloughed, “They were great and totally understood”
, said Pete. Although the team did consider whether to do takeaways, like Senan, they decided against it and Pete, Ash and James were also furloughed. Pete explained, “We were fortunate that for the first year we ploughed all of the income into the pub so when lockdown happened we were debt free. To reduce overheads, we hunkered down and turned off everything we could, including the freezers – we ate the contents! The only thing we kept going was the cellar coolers as we had quite a bit of beer with a long shelf life but we had to get rid of all the cask beer and short shelf life cans and bottles. There was only so much we could drink ourselves so it was probably about 60% of the stock.” Time wasn’t totally wasted; the opportunity was taken to do a bit of housekeeping, restaining the bar and floors and giving the pub’s walls a lick of paint.

In the shed

The Black Dog didn’t reopen immediately. “We took some time to look at what others were doing. We wanted to keep everyone safe but also wanted to ensure it felt like the pub locals know. We had to reduce our seating and put in lots of hand sanitisers but have avoided one way systems”, said Pete and he added, “People are getting into their beer around here and we are fortunate that we have developed a reputation as a beer destination pub. On reopening we started to get people back fairly quickly”. Pete then went on to make two interesting observations, “Keg beer has been busier than cask. This might be that people have got more used to keg during lockdown or it might be that older customers, who tend to drink cask, are more cautious about returning. We therefore have only four cask beers on rather than our usual seven. Secondly, we have had a few people comment on the keg prices as being too high although they are the same as pre-lockdown. This could be due to people getting used to take-away prices but the reaction has been a shame.”

Pete is thinking about the possibility of another pub in due course, although for the next year he is looking to spend more time in the brewery and getting his beer into other outlets. This would have the benefit in raising the awareness of the Fearless Nomad name, which comes from Pete’s restless nature.

The last word goes to a local who explained why this back street pub is so special, “It was originally very rough, known for drugs and crime. It’s a million miles away from that now. It’s my local and a pleasure to come to.”
For more information on the brewery and pub, go here.
Christine Cryne

The motif at the top of the frontage refers to the Royal Brewery Company for whom the pub was built. The brewery stood close by, in Brentford High Street. There is evidence of brewing on that site dating back to 1726 and it became the Royal Brewery in 1880. In 1922 the majority shareholder sold out to Style & Winch of Maidstone and the brewery closed a year later. By 1926 it had been demolished to extend the gasworks, which themselves have now gone. The full address of the pub, formerly the Albany Arms, is 17 Albany Road, Brentford, TW8 0NF.

Tony Hedger