John Keeling has seen the ebb and flow of London’s brewing tradition. First came the ebb: when Keeling joined Fuller’s in 1981, Courage was about to become the latest great name to abandon the capital. Some 25 years later, Young’s made their belated, much-lamented departure and left the Chiswick brewer as the sole survivor of London’s brewing heyday.
Then came the flow. Of the 30 or so breweries in the city today, only Fuller’s, Meantime and a handful of brewpubs have been around longer than a few years. It’s a remarkable state of affairs. “I can’t keep track of them,” Keeling admits with a laugh. “I don’t know how some of them, like Brodie’s, can keep track of all the beers they produce, either.”
That’s not meant as a criticism: Keeling, 56, is evidently delighted with what’s happening around him. He’s as interested in flavour as any craft-beer upstart, as those who’s enjoyed one of Fuller’s recent series of Past Masters beers will know. “The rise of the new breweries means you have to produce more interesting beers,” he says. “You can’t rest on your laurels. You want to try and do more.
“My job is more interesting now – this is the best time to be a brewer. Now, rather than looking at the haze of the beer, the question is: what does it taste like? For brewers like myself who are interested in flavours, that’s a great thing.”
Keeling is popular with many of the new brewers: more than one has told me how useful they've found talking to him at meetings of the London Brewers’ Alliance. The admiration appears to be mutual.
“I like drinking in the company of brewers,” he says. “Even with the new wave of brewers, there’s no ‘our beer is good and your beer is crap’ attitude. It’s more ‘that’s an interesting beer, how do you do that?’ it’s always like that with brewers – you only get a more competitive edge when marketing gets involved.”
Keeling has plenty of knowledge to impart. He has been part of the brewing world since he joined Wilson’s Brewery in his native Manchester in 1974. After three years’ there, he moved onto to Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh before accepting a job at Fuller’s in 1981. In 1999, he became head brewer.
It’s a role he relishes, even if the Fuller’s head brewer no longer gets a town-house at the heart of the complex as part of the job. Walking around Fuller’s part-historic, part ultra-modern site, he enthuses about the brewery’s tradition. “Microbrewers can make beers from the past, but a brewery that existed in the past can make it better,” he says.
“We have a certain amount of brewing books, we don’t have to use anyone else’s. It’s made right next to the plant it was made in originally. We try very hard to make it the same way – we’ve looked at how we made it, we realised in 1893, we didn’t sparge. Everything here is designed to sparge, but we couldn’t do it because they didn’t. We had to change the way we brew.”
You don’t have to go back to 1893 for a different way of doing things: much has changed since 1981, Keeling says. Back then, they had two basic recipes. “One mild, one bitter,” Keeling says. “From the bitter recipe we produced Golden Pride, ESB, London Pride and Chiswick Bitter. From the mild recipe we produced two other beers.
“In the 1990s we started creating new recipes: Mr Harry, 1845, we revived London Porter. Now we’re actively looking at a huge variety of beers. Our autumn seasonal has been around for 10 years but there’s no demand to get rid of it – people want something extra as well.
“When the Hock Cellar [Fullers’ brewery tap, where tours of the complex end] was originally designed, there was only three hand pumps. We've got six, and we probably want ten.”
It’s not just about cask ale. Fuller’s have produced a variety of superb bottled beers in recent years, from the Vintage range to the Past Masters beers. Then there’s the Brewer’s Reserve range of barrel-aged beers.
Next, it seems, is a serious stab at high-quality keg beer. “Keg beer is the next big thing,” he says. “If you think about it, cask beer is seven per cent of the beer drunk in Britain. The best beer in Britain is cask beer but the worst beer in Britain is cask beer too. there’s many places who cannot serve it because they’ve no idea how to look after it.”
Some of these places – particularly in central London – serve London Pride. It’s clearly something that frustrates Keeling. “It does worry me. But if we don’t work with them, do something with them, they’re never going to have cask beer. But now we’ve got an opportunity to sell them keg beer that is equally as interesting.
“The thing you have to learn is that keg is a different environment to cask – just as you have to design a beer for cask, you have to design it for keg. I have no truck with people who say keg beer is rubbish, or people who say cask beer is rubbish. If you say cask beer is rubbish you simply haven’t drunk any good cask beer – the same with keg.”
It’s a move that will bring Fuller’s into line with the likes of Meantime and Camden Town, whose keg fonts are increasingly common across the city. More and more of London’s new beer fans expect to find good beer on keg as well as cask; Keeling is well aware that any new Fuller’s product must be of the highest quality. “Craft beer is bringing new drinkers in, and they’re coming in with a relatively open mind,” he says. “They’re quite happy to appreciate cask, can, bottles, keg.
“I do think there’s a load of lager drinkers who are searching for an interesting flavour but can’t find it because it doesn't exist in their environment. Now Meantime are trying to fulfil that need, so are Camden.
"I think Fuller’s can enter that market. But we won’t put cask London Pride in a keg. It won’t be very good, it would be underselling us and them. It would be perfectly possible to develop a London Pride that is very good in keg but there’s nothing wrong with developing entirely new beers that are designed especially for keg.”