Friday, 15 February 2013

Brewing in the shopping centre

London has a lot of breweries but not many native brewers. There are a few, most notably Alastair Hook at Meantime, but it’s striking just how many of the city’s most well-known brewers come from somewhere else. Jim Wilson, the East Londoner who’s in charge of the shiny brew kit at Tap East in Stratford, is something of a rare beast.

The story of how Wilson, born in Bow and brought up in Dagenham, came to cask ale demonstrates neatly why this is. “I used to be an avid Carlsberg drinker,” he laughs. 

“That was until I went up to Lincolnshire with my partner to visit one of her friends. We went into a country pub, there was lots of ale; I though, let’s try that. That’s what got me into home brewing and  drinking the usual suspects like [London] Pride and Bombardier.

“I used to go out with my mates and it was always ‘ten pints of lager and one pint of that weird brown stuff’. My mates would say:  ‘oh it’s horrible, why do you want to drink that?’ ‘It’s not, it’s got flavour.”

Wilson’s refusal to give in to public humiliation has prepared him well for his role at Tap East, which, he tells me, is the only brewery in a shopping centre in the whole of Europe. Tucked away in the corner of the huge Westfield shopping complex (which sits alongside the Olympic Park), the brewery is on show to the world – or at least those who wander past on their way into the shopping centre. All that stands between Wilson and a constantly changing cast of smokers, amblers and fascinated toddlers is a large window.

Of course, it means that Wilson, 26, can see what’s going on outside, too. That was particularly handy during the Olympics, when all manner of famous sportsmen and women flitted past his brewery. Some of those taking part even partook of his beer, he says. “I remember there was a Puerto Rican doctor – he was really interested, I showed him around the brewery. We had all manner of East European coaches drinking in here, too.”

If things are a little more humdrum these days on the other side of the window, Wilson’s brewing is going from strength to strength. Yesterday he brewed a Blood Orange Pale Ale with noted beer guru Melissa Cole (“I’d never seen a blood orange until earlier this month,” he laughs) and the size and flexibility of his brewing kit means experimentation is easy. “I’d like to try a Pilsner; Not that many small breweries that have that opportunity – to try different stuff, keep the beer world turning. It’s a case of, ‘let’s have a go and see what we can do’.”

Perhaps Wilson’s late conversion to cask ale has created this expansive approach to brewing. For a number of years, he was a refrigeration engineer – then came that Lincolnshire revelation. He began to homebrew, and a day helping out at Brentwood Brewery in Essex turned into a full-time job. He was there for two-and-a-half years before coming to Tap East in April of last year.  “It was a new challenge, I knew the guys at Utobeer,” he says, matter-of-factly. “It’s a nice place to work.”

Certainly, Wilson takes a lot of satisfaction from seeing his beer being enjoyed. “There’s nothing better than coming in on a Monday and seeing all these empty casks – at least someone has had a good weekend!” he says. “It is very rewarding, that’s the best part of the job.”

He is also quite heavily involved with the London Brewers’ Alliance. “Because we meet each other regularly, we know what everyone is doing. It keeps everyone on their toes,” he says. “We want to improve beer in London. It is an exciting time to say the least." Wilson now lives just outside London, in Chelmsford, but he’s still delighted to be part of the city’s burgeoning beer renaissance. “It’s great to be part of the history of brewing in London,” he says. “To work where you’re from – it’s really rewarding.”

As for the future, Wilson is fairly open-minded. “I’d love to have a restaurant with a small brewery, doing American-style food, not over-complicated,” he says. “Or work for a big brewery. Hopefully by the time I’m there, some of the smaller guys will have grown – but I don’t think I’d ever have my own brewery. Too much stress. All you want to do is make the beer but there’s too much other stuff.”

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