London’s Railway Arch Drinking

Beer Without Borders by | Mar 2014 | Issue #86

Illustration by Joe Waldron

As the barman places a pint on the cement bar top at Camden Town Brewery, a heavy rumble lurches above, louder than the noises from the packaging line, and causes a couple of drinkers to look up at the arched ceiling. The barman looks up, too: “Must be a freight train.”

London has over 50 breweries. If you track their timelines, only eight of these were open at the beginning of 2009. Despite being a large city, finding space for these new brewers has seen some move into interesting locations: a barbecue restaurant (Beavertown), an old print factory (Crate), a shopping center (Tap East). And 14 are housed within railway arches.

Criss-crossing the capital, underground and above, are train tracks. Those above ground are often elevated, meaning the space beneath them can be used commercially. Owned by National Rail, they have become go-to spaces for breweries.

Beer and railways have a lot of history in London, dating from the 1830s. At that time, the city’s brewers, just like those in the rest of the country, focused locally and delivered using dray horses. With the ever-expanding train networks, breweries from outside London started to benefit, and none more so than those of Burton-on-Trent, which had a train line into London since 1839, enabling breweries like the indomitable Bass to dramatically reduce transport times of beer and ingredients.

Rail also had an impact on the types of beer drunk: “When the railway came, and [Burton brewers] could access the London market, their unique style of [Pale Ale] became fashionable there and, subsequently, throughout much of the country,” explains David Turner, a doctor of railway studies with the University of York and author of the railway history blog Turnip Rail’s Waiting Room. “Initially, many of the London Porter brewers ignored this new trend, but as their market share fell, they started to brew Burton-style ales.”

Pale Ale, which is what we’d now call Britain’s famous Best Bitter, arrived in London by train and grew from there (bear in mind it was already having much success in export markets, where it traveled from Burton to London and then off to sea). With barrels arriving in London, huge storage facilities were built beneath the major train stations, including St. Pancras, where they’d mature for many months.

So why are this many London breweries in railway arches today? Price is a major factor, as they are comparably affordable for their central locations. On a practical level, “we have a huge amount of stone overhead, which acts as insulation,” explains The Kernel’s Evin O’Riordain. “So in summer, it can be blazing hot outside, and it doesn’t get too hot inside. Then in winter, it doesn’t freeze. It keeps everything cool, so it’s much easier on your fermentations and conditioning.”

Camden Town Brewery— perched within the Overhead line as the largest of the London brewers beneath the tracks—has really embraced its railway heritage. The story behind the castle in the brewery’s logo comes from a (perhaps apocryphal) railway-related anecdote: As the train lines were laid into London in the 19th century, workers from around the UK were brought in to build. In the evenings, they’d drink too many beers, then end up fighting. To try and alleviate this, four pubs were opened around the Camden area: the Windsor Castle, Edinboro Castle, Dublin Castle and Pembroke Castle (all are still open). A castle for each nation meant the fighting could be controlled.

Camden Town owner Jasper Cuppaidge says that commercializing the arches is also regenerating those communities. “The arches were a central London wasteland when we picked ours up,” says Cuppaidge. “Now there’s a vibrant melting pot of hands-on industry. They’re full of like-minded people, making beer, repairing bikes, roasting coffee, baking bread, and all of us working in old red-brick Victorian arches.”

Opened in 2010, Camden Town occupies eight arches; one of them is a bar that’s open on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. “There’s something very London about being under railway lines,” Cuppaidge adds. “You feel connected to a moving part of the city while also being in these great old brick structures.”

Now that a snowball effect has kicked in, and these historic arches are in-demand spaces for new breweries, London drinkers will become even more familiar with the combination of exposed-brick walls and plastic-clad arched roofs. As a train thunders overhead, O’Riordain says: “I often wonder about the actual vibrations.” The train passes before he adds: “The vibrations of a train might also help the yeast a little bit.”