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Pitfield Brewery: How Hoxton beer makers were ‘trailblazers’ – decades before Hackney’s craft brewing boom

PUBLISHED: 19:00 13 September 2017 | UPDATED: 10:23 15 September 2017

Pitfield Brewery was featured on the front page of the Gazette on August 14, 1987, when it was granted permission to open its own pub in a building restored by Hackney Council.

Pitfield Brewery was featured on the front page of the Gazette on August 14, 1987, when it was granted permission to open its own pub in a building restored by Hackney Council.

Archant

Hackney is awash with microbreweries nowadays, but it wasn’t always that way. Emma Bartholomew catches up with the trailblazers from Pitfield Brewery who set off the craze for craft beer more than 30 years ago

Andy Skene pulling pints at his bar, the Queen Street Brewhouse in Colchester. Picture: Pitfield BreweryAndy Skene pulling pints at his bar, the Queen Street Brewhouse in Colchester. Picture: Pitfield Brewery

“I think it’s getting a bit too much now – every man and his dog is setting up a brewery.”

Andy Skene, who now runs Pitfield Brewery 35 years after it was launched in Hoxton, is unimpressed by the deluge of craft breweries to hit Hackney.

“It’s just a lot of breweries chasing the same amount of customers. It’s driving down the price of beer in some cases.

“They are like Labrador puppies full of enthusiasm – ‘look at what we’re doing, isn’t this great?’ – but we’ve seen it all before.”

Canadian Andy was part of the new wave of micro-breweries that launched in the late ’70s to offer an alternative to the “bland” beers churned out by Young’s, Fuller’s, and Truman’s.

Founders Brian and Liz set the ball rolling when they installed a five-barrel plant in the cellar of The Beer Shop they owned at 8, Pitfield Street – where an off-licence exists to this day.

“They were doing home brew supplies back then, where there was no internet, and you had to find a shop,” said Andy. “They thought: ‘Let’s just start brewing for ourselves.’ And that’s what they did.”

An original bottle of Pitfield Brewery's award-winning Dark Star beer. Picture: Andy SkeneAn original bottle of Pitfield Brewery's award-winning Dark Star beer. Picture: Andy Skene

They enlisted the help of keen home brewer Rob Jones as the “specialist” and sold Pitfield Bitter – which is still being produced – to a few local pubs.

Brian and Liz soon decided it was too much manage Pitfield along with their other off-licence in Lewisham, where they lived. So they sold the whole concern to Rob, who raised enough money to buy it with his old school friend Martin Kemp.

Sales grew and four years later they moved into a bigger brewery in Hoxton Square, under Silverman’s Woodyard, Timber and Building Materials, doubling production.

The same year Andy moved over from Canada and “started finding out how to be a brewer to see if I liked it or not”.

A three-month trial went well.

“I’m still doing it 30 years on,” said Andy.

He can just remember a handful of other small brewers in London at the time, including the Orange Brewery in Pimlico and the Greyhound in Clerkenwell.

The Pitfield Bitter branding. Picture: Pitfield BreweryThe Pitfield Bitter branding. Picture: Pitfield Brewery

They would have annual meetings with other brewers from across the country in Worcester.

“You got about 40 people together,” remembers Andy. “We spoke about malt and hops and beer duty. That’s the tax you pay to the government. I don’t know how much it was. It was always too much.”

Dave Melaugh joined the team and Hoxton Heavy, a Scottish-style beer and Dark Star, a dark old ale, joined the menu.

Were they experimenting with flavours?

“Not really. We were just getting the ones we had right. They were very traditional and it was about making them consistent. That’s the key thing.

“It’s not hard if you pay attention to your ingredient quality, your processes, your temperature, how you mix things together, the boiling times and fermenting temperatures, making sure all the parameters are kept the same.”

Then in 1987 – as reported by the Gazette at the time – the pint-sized brewery that had just four staff beat off the big companies to win the Campaign for Real Ale’s coveted Champion Beer of Britain with Dark Star.

"It was as high as you could get in the day. It was a game changer – we were chuffed. It gave you national prominence for a start. We had to up production"

Andy Skene on Pitfield Brewery winning CAMRA’s ‘Champion Beer of Britain’ prize in 1987

“It was as high as you could get in the day,” said Andy. “It was a game changer – we were chuffed. It gave you national prominence for a start. We had to up production.”

Soon, Pitfield Brewery had opened its own pub, the Hop Pole. It came after Hackney Council granted them the lease on the derelict building it had spent £140,000 restoring.

The brewery has moved around since: to the West Midlands in 1989, back to Pitfield Street in 1994, and later out to Colchester and then Chelmsford, where they decided to try growing their own barley and malt. It “didn’t quite work out right”, but by 2000 Pitfield was the first certified 100 per cent organic brewery in the UK. The beer is also vegan – meaning there’s no isinglass, made from fish swim bladders, used in the production process.

Looking back, Andy added: “We were doing original stuff back then and resurrecting old styles that had been forgotten and in that way we were trailblazing.”

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