Beer Matters

The Very Model of a Modern Traditional Brewery

I’ve been thinking about the merits of conversion recently and no, I don’t mean changing my religion. Bank to pub is good, pub to anything else bad. Church to arts centre, providing it doesn’t involve wholesale modification to the fabric of an ancient building, probably wouldn’t drive me to pitch a tent in the graveyard. Photographic studio to brewery is a jolly good idea too.

Duncan Sambrook is a man converted. He used to be an accountant but now plies the altogether more worthy trade of brewer (although doubtless his former skills come in handy for balancing the books). What precipitated the change of direction was the closure of Young’s Ram Brewery in Wandsworth and the realisation that that left just one established company (Fullers) and one serious newcomer (Meantime) brewing in London. He enlisted the expertise of David Welsh, formerly of Ringwood Brewery, who helped to transform Duncan’s vision into a commercial reality, and Sambrook’s Brewery went into production in Battersea just over two years ago.

Duncan Sambrook at the brewery

Like many new breweries, Sambrook’s occupies a couple of industrial units and uses modern equipment to implement traditional techniques. (All very efficient, it’s a just a pity that overgrown sheds don’t have the same character as those wonderful old brewery buildings with their chimneys and grain hoists.) Capacity is determined by the five 20-barrel fermentation vats (there’s another one on order). There’s only one of everything else (mash tun, copper etc.) but by brewing five days a week they keep those five vats fully occupied. Let’s see, 100 barrels a week, that’s about 28,800 pints.

It was fairly quiet when I visited - well, it was four o’clock on a Friday afternoon. There were a few firkins in the doorway awaiting shipment, a heap of spent hops on the floor and one guy was hosing down the copper - at least I think it was the copper but they are all shiny cylindrical stainless steel things these days. Duncan himself showed me round and explained the Sambrook’s philosophy. Quality and provenance are paramount. All ingredients - and that’s just malt, hops, yeast and water, no additives - are British, preferably sourced within a 100 mile radius. They use whole hops, not pellets, and grind the malt on the premises for freshness. The water comes from the mains but is treated to soften it as London water is very hard.

Unlike some breweries which seem to churn out a succession of different beers, hardly any of which are memorable, Sambrook’s wisely opted to start with a single recipe, concentrate on stabilising the quality and let it develop a reputation before moving on. Their session beer Wandle Ale (3.8% ABV) is brewed with pale and crystal malts from Maris Otter barley and Boadicea hops with some Goldings and Fuggles added late in the boiling for aroma. It was joined later by Junction (4.5% ABV) which uses a slightly darker blend of malts and Bramling Cross hops for a more rounded, fruity flavour.

Wandle is now widely available in free houses across London and, thanks to a deal with Young’s, in many of their tied houses (the company still owns pubs although the beer now comes from Bedford). Perversely the map on the wall of the brewery shop excludes a large swathe of South London where a lot of the pins should be. The shop has a couple of handpumps dispensing Wandle and Junction plus bottled versions of the same and the usual merchandise - glasses, tee-shirts etc. You can order a firkin for a private function for a very reasonable price.

I find it immensely encouraging that there are now so many breweries in this country that I can no longer keep track of them all. Inevitably the ales they produce vary from good to bad to indifferent. As we all know, real beer is a complex thing. What you get in your glass depends on a combination of skills and a poor cellarman can ruin any brewer’s best efforts, but it helps to start with a sound product. Sambrook’s is one brewery that manages to combine ancient techniques with modern hygiene to produce a consistently excellent result - not the only one by any means but a good object lesson in getting it right.

It just so happened that a few days before my visit the very first batch of their third beer, Powerhouse Porter, went into the mash tun. I was given a sample straight from the fermentation vat. At that stage it was understandably a little sweet and somewhat yeasty but the toasty, coffee and bitter chocolate notes of a classic London porter were unmistakably there. I look forward to the finished product with eager anticipation.

Maximus Bibendus

Reproduced by kind permission of The Ringing World.

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