Zombie extra wins CAMRA award!

It is not often that you can make this sort of statement but John Hatch, the brewer at the Ram Brewery in Wandsworth, is exactly that, as you will learn later. I am pleased to announce that John has won the John Young Memorial Award for 2020. The award was created by CAMRA’s London Region to commemorate the long time chairman of Young’s Brewery, and is given annually to an organisation or individual who has done something extraordinary to promote pubs and/or beer in London.

John with the brewing books

What makes John special is a long story. He started working for Young’s Brewery in their micro lab but, after only six weeks, a vacancy arose and he switched to being a junior brewer. He eventually became the brewhouse manager with quality standards and health and safety in his remit. John said, “It wasn’t something I particularly wanted to do; I’d rather have been brewing but it proved invaluable in enabling me to keep brewing on the site.”

The idea for the Ram Brewery began back on John’s 40th birthday in 2006, the day that Young’s announced the closure of the brewery. “Not the best birthday present I have had”, he quipped. John, along with fellow brewer Derek Prentice (now of Wimbledon Brewery fame) was concerned that the unbroken line of brewing on the site would come to an end. There had been brewing on the site since at least 1533, making it the oldest continuous brewing site in Britain. After a bit of creative thinking, talks began with both Young’s and the local Council. “Fortunately”, said John, “the Council were sympathetic to the history associated with the site and they stipulated that any plans for property development had to include a microbrewery.
Although that was well and good for the longer term, the imminent problem was how to continue the brewing until the building works finished. Steven Goodyear, Young’s Managing Director, was approached. He clearly thought the idea of a microbrewery was mad; the quote was along the lines of ‘What the hell do you want to do that for?’ but after John explained the historic significance, he relented. There was however one caveat: they couldn’t sell the beer!

John with his masterpiece

Realising that setting up a brewery, even a tiny one, would take time, wort was taken from batches of the final Young’s brews and put into bottles. This precious liquid was then boiled with hops and fermented so that each brew could be recorded in the brewing book to ensure that there was a record of the continuity of brewing.

The next step was how to maintain brewing once the bottles were used up. It was then that John’s health and safety background came up trumps. John spoke to the new owners of the site, Minerva, the property developers, who agreed to the idea of a nanobrewery on the understanding he became the site manager. This included being the site health and safety manager, a role he had undertaken during the decommissioning of the brewery anyway. Minerva even paid for the first batch of brewing ingredients!

The 42 litre brewery (about a firkin) was put together from bits and pieces found on the Young’s site; the copper was fashioned from a tea urn! Although the kit itself was pretty cheap, brewing supplies are expensive and John could not rely on Minerva’s continued generosity. As he was prohibited from selling the beer under the agreement with Young’s, other initiatives were needed. Brewery tours proved to be a way forward thanks to a request by the London Hashhouse Harriers running club, who call themselves ‘drinkers with a running problem’. They came for a tour and filled John’s ‘honesty box’ with donations.

The honesty box

Their tour was the first of many, which were supported and promoted by the local Council. The idea then extended to events such as birthday parties and each one had a pump clip made especially for them. Inevitably, the tours had to come to an end when the brewery buildings were knocked down but the local community came to the rescue again and a local comedy club took to running events in the bar, which provided another income stream.

Always creative when thinking about income, John had another brainwave and got permission from Minerva to register the site with an agent for use as a film and television set. Over eight years, there were 130 bookings, including music videos and such programmes as Master Chef, Silent Witness, Misfits, Luther (in one episode of which the BBC, rather dramatically, ‘blew up’ the ostler’s house) and New Tricks. There was a beer (and a pump clip) produced each time for the workers and actors to sample. John commented that (perhaps not surprisingly) ‘Dennis Waterman seemed to enjoy it’.

John’s collection

John acted as the health and safety officer for all of the shootings and occasionally was asked to act as an extra, usually in his trademark white coat. The highlight was the film ‘Cockneys versus Zombies’, when he was asked to stand on a roof, hold up a sign and shout for help. John mused, “This caused a lot of consternation. The roof was overlooked by the Council buildings and some of the staff who knew me thought I was in trouble and kept trying to ring me on my mobile.” Very disappointingly, what might have been an Oscar winning performance will never be seen because the film ran out of money and was never finished.

Minerva eventually sold the site to Greenland, a Shanghai based company, who, after being persuaded by John to try the beer, have been protective of the site and the brewery. As John explained, “They fight my corner and have allowed me to continue with the brewery. They even paid for a new brewery book so I can continue to record the brews.”

After fourteen years, the future is more certain. Sambrook’s Brewery are building a new brewery and tap room on the site and brewing will move there before the end of the year. The complex will include a small heritage centre, which will house some of the magnificent collection of Young’s memorabilia that John has been hoarding.

It has been a long road for John and his tiny Ram Brewery. Not many people would have had the tenacity and commitment to keep the project going. John reflected, “I couldn’t have done it without the support of the local community and the two property developers, Minerva and Greenland.”

But what made him start it all in the first place? John sums it up eloquently, “John Young was the reason I joined the brewery. I wanted to brew for John Young. I spoke to him not long before he died and I promised that I’d keep brewing going on the Ram site while there was breath in my body.

What more fitting winner of the John Young Memorial Award could there be than someone who has done everything he could to keep his word to the man himself?
Christine Cryne