The history of the Craft Beer Co

I (Martin Hayes) opened the CASK Pub and Kitchen in Pimlico (SW1V 2EE) in the summer of 2009. At first it was just me with no staff. A chef joined in the second week and a waitress after four months. My oldest friend, Peter Slezak, joined after about six months, following recovery from a serious illness. Peter and I first met aged 11, at school in Battersea, and have been like brothers ever since. This is very much a family business.

The cornerstone idea behind CASK was that London’s pubs were very poor and far inferior to those outside the capital. In 2009, the pub scene in Sheffield, York and Leeds, to name just a few, was far superior. London pubs were, in the main, all selling the same five or six industrially brewed lagers, with all the atmosphere and hospitality of the bar at Geneva airport. At CASK we would simply pair great cask, keg and bottled beer in a warm friendly environment with genuine hospitality.

CASK is a backstreet boozer built into the ground floor of a Grade II-listed 1960s social housing block. It was at one time a Watney’s house called the Pimlico Tram. At the time I took it over, it was closed, unwanted and was facing conversion to a cultural centre. Once CASK opened, the news spread quickly through word of mouth and via early internet forums which helped build up a loyal and increasing trade.
We decided to expand and build a business we could roll out in London and maybe beyond. In 2010 we started looking for a second site and came up with the name we would use going forward, the Craft Beer Co, which was a term neither known nor understood by 95% of the population – how time flies! The chosen site (not that there was a big range to choose from) was a small, unloved pub on Leather Lane in Clerkenwell. We managed to secure it from Greene King, who were extremely forward thinking at the time. The term ‘craft beer’ is now literally everywhere but, back then, it was a brand-new, mostly unheard of expression and term.

The opening of the Clerkenwell site (EC1N 7TR) was quite an event. On the opening day over 500 people thronged outside this small pub and the occasion really marked a big change in the London beer scene: the first ripples of an earthquake that was about to hit the UK pub and brewing world. The Clerkenwell pub was visited by all the major pub companies and breweries and was a template that has been used across London by many imitators ever since. Despite that, we kept our head down; we wanted to remain independent. The business has always been owned 100% by Peter and myself and we had no interest in changing that.

In 2012 we made a big leap forward. We opened three pubs in one year, Brighton (BN1 3FG), Islington, and Brixton (SW9 8PA), which was very difficult. In the following years we expanded as follows: •2013 – Clapham
• 2014 – Covent Garden (WC1V 7AA)
• 2015 – St Mary Axe (EC3A 5BZ)
• 2017 – Limehouse E14 7JD
• 2018 – Old Street*
• 2019 – Hammersmith (W6 9YD)
• 2022 – Paddington (W2 1JA)

We have always considered ourselves a pub company and our passion is for pubs. We were never about being hipsters (very clearly neither Peter nor I are hipsters!). We have always felt that it is simply common sense that good pubs should sell good beer. One can argue for hours over what ‘craft beer’ is or isn’t, but, for us, it was always simply good beer made by good people with love and care. It is smaller artisanal producers making something great. When we started, we always considered the term ‘craft beer’ to encompass cask ale but the sands of time have separated the two, which astounds us. We feel strongly that the microbreweries (too many of whom have disappeared), who were making cask ale before beer became fashionable, were the pioneers of craft beer in the UK.

Another point has surprised us: all the other people who have jumped on the bandwagon in the years since we planted our flag in the ground and who have often chosen to neither make nor sell cask ale! We have, since day one, always passionately believed good cask beer is at the centre of a good pub. In our newest pub, in Paddington, it is by design the first thing you see when you walk in the door.

We love championing smaller breweries who do what they do well and with passion and we spend as much time as ever curating our beer list. Unlike most operators, we have never bought on price and we have never done any deals with anyone; every beer we sell is a beer we stock simply because we think it’s good or just unusual and worth trying. That’s our commitment to our customers: you can trust us to put together a beer list that is without any compromise. Part of our mission in our bars is to be a never-ending beer festival.

Our other mission as a business was always, from day one, to be the tip of the spear of the coming beer revolution. We knew that many people would copy what we do and that many would do it with less integrity or passion. We were always going to do what we do purely, to be and remain the tip of the spear, which is why you will never walk into one of our pubs and see a beer that doesn’t belong – that is brewed by one of the big industrial brewers. They have literally thousands of places to sell their product; we ensure only the smaller independent producers get a spot on our bars.

It’s almost fourteen years since we started and we have gone from red hot, and being at the centre of the UK beer/pub scene, to being the great pioneering survivors but we love what do as much as ever. This can be seen from our newest pub, the Bear, opposite Paddington Station (on Spring Street), which opened its doors on 1 December, 2022. It is an old bank that was latterly a wine bar and is pictured on the front cover. We have taken all our years of learning and experience to open what we think is the best pub we have ever created. If we quit opening new pubs and this was the last one we ever did, I think it would be a fitting testament to who we are and what we do. We are very proud of it and so far, people seem to love it.

We are very grateful for the support of so many people over the years and this is an appropriate opportunity to particularly thank all the CAMRA members who support our pubs, year in, year out. Covid has been a rough time for the world and pubs especially, but our mission in 2023 is to be better than ever, so stay tuned in to our pubs for great events and a better than ever rotating range of beers!
Martin and Peter
*Clapham, Islington and Old Street are no longer operated by us.