Hops get an awful lot of attention. These little green cones are the undisputed stars of the craft-beer world: any self-respecting drinker can tell his Citra from his Nelson Sauvin, his Simcoe from his East Kent Golding. Brewers have helped to fuel this hop mania - Brewdog used to advertise Hardcore IPA as having more hops in it than “any other beer brewed in the UK”, for example. Hops are hip.
Malt is not quite so fashionable. Despite being the real engine room of any beer (like Charlie Watts to hops’ prancing, pouting, gyrating Mick Jagger), malt doesn’t appear to excite drinkers like hops can. It’s a shame, especially since Britain can boast any number of beers which give malt the co-billing it deserves (balance, I think they call it).
One of the best examples of this type of beer is brewed here in London – and that’s official. Sambrooks’ Wandle was recently named the best World’s Best Bitter at the World Beer Awards, where judges hailed its “nice fruity nose [while the flavour boasts] fresh tobacco with biscuity malt and floral hops.”
Part of what makes Wandle so good is the malt: Sambrooks use Maris Otter, a type of barley revered for the nutty, biscuity richness it contributes. “We decided right from the off to go for Maris Otter,” says Duncan Sambrook, founder and owner of the brewery. “It’s widely – and rightly – regarded as the Rolls-Royce of malts.”
Anyone who steps inside his brewery – wedged between Clapham Junction station and the grey-brown Thames – will take in great lungfuls of toasted Maris Otter aroma. It’s a traditional scent that denotes a largely traditional brewery, although not one that is stuck in the past: Sambrook’s now have a keg ale on the market, a pale ale that undergoes a period of krausening.
“We’ve produced something that is a cross between a lager and an English pale ale,” says Sambrook, 34. “It was just [about] trying to do something innovative and see how the market responds to it.”
It’s an interesting move from a brewery which has always sought to offer Londoners a taste of traditional British cask ale. Sambrook, who comes from Salisbury and still speaks with a soft West-Country twang, was surprised when he came to the capital at the paucity of breweries. At that stage he was working in the city but when in 2008 he decided to become a full-time brewer, his motivation was clear.
“I always thought that London was an untapped market for craft beer,” he says. “Where I grew up, we had fantastic microbreweries like Hopback, Ringwood, and more traditional ones like Hall and Woodhouse. I was very lucky. I was surprised when I came to London and there was only Young’s and Fuller’s – and then Young’s left.
“Cask ale is an inherently local product. That’s true everywhere in the country – look at the furore over Tetley’s shutting down [in Leeds], for instance. I met the guys from Leeds Brewery last week, and I love their advertising, with the hints from the Tetley advertising – ‘the last brewery left in Leeds’. There’s all these pubs up there now which they couldn’t ever supply – overnight, they’re saying, ‘we want your beer in’.”
For all of his passion for tradition, Sambrook is delighted by the proliferation of breweries across London. More good beer available means more interest in good beer. Sambrook’s has certainly grown over the four years of its existence: they now produce some 5,500 barrels a year, which equates to well over a million pints.
The tide may be turning in Sambrooks’ favour. There seems to be a move back towards session-strength beers, like The Kernel’s much-admired Table Beer, which weighs in at just 3 per cent. It’s a trend that Sambrook (whose brewery regularly produces Wandle, at 3.8 per cent, Junction, at 4.5 per cent, Powerhouse Porter, at 4.9 per cent, and Pumphouse Pale Ale, at 4.2 per cent) is understandably happy to welcome.
“I hope it’s the next thing for craft beer,” he says. “We’ve often debated where the market is going. I’ve not fully embraced the American hop thing – I love those beers but our culture in the UK isn’t about that. My expectation is that over the next two or three years you’ll see brewers asking: what are we good at? We’re good at producing low-abv beers packed with taste, at using British ingredients – more malty drinks, porters, stouts.”
Which brings us neatly back to Maris Otter, and Wandle. Sambrook admits he was surprised at the World Beer Awards triumph. “I was absolutely delighted,” he says. “I’ve always been cynical about beer competitions. I’m delighted that this was picked by a panel of independent judges on a blind tasting. Some of the other competitions you’re a bit sceptical about why things get chosen.
“I’ve always thought that Wandle wasn’t a beer that had the flavour profile to stand out – the best thing about Wandle is that it is a lovely, delicate beer. It doesn’t necessarily stand up against something that is packed full of hops, that has a high abv, and therefore if you’re judging it in a competition you’re likely to go for the other one - but if you’re drinking it on a day-to-day basis you’ll probably have Wandle, because it’s delicious.”