Crate Brewery: craft beer on the River Lea
If you think back to the summer of 2012, when Olympic fever swelled and London was inundated with tourists, you might have been too immersed in the Games to notice Crate Brewery. But it was there, popping up almost overnight in Hackney Wick, serving beer out of an old East London print factory.
Pitched alongside the River Lea, they saw very little of the footfall for the Olympic Stadium, despite being only a few minutes away. This is mostly because of how pedestrians were driven through the area.
Crate is the brainchild of New Zealander siblings Tom and Jess Seaton and their business partner, Neil Hinchley. The story goes that they met at a bar in 2012, where discussions of opening a brewery ensued, and the lease was signed almost the next day. The brewery taproom set-up was swift and frugal, relying upon local and recycled materials. The actual bar was formed from railway sleepers, old bed springs are used for light fittings and wooden pallets were ideal tables. It only took six weeks to construct the space with the help of local artists and a hearty dose of Kiwi ingenuity.
It wasn’t long before Crate became a hub of activity in Hackney Wick, driven by its sublime location, where drinkers can lounge by the canal, taking in the clash of vibrant street art and industrial fixtures. It’s picture-perfect East London. Crowds flocked unreservedly to the brewery on a sunny afternoon, making it increasingly difficult to get a seat. By 2013, I remember wait times of almost 45 minutes to get served. Thankfully, staff numbers improved as the brewery found its feet.
From their first beer, a golden ale on cask, the brewery has come a long way. In the first six months of production, they made 60,000 litres of beer. Now in 2017, they’re producing half a million litres every six months. They’re an ABV-driven brewery, meaning that they replicate the same gravity when brewing – the gravity refers to the density of the wort at all stages of brewing, which depends on the presence of sugars. This helps determine the final alcoholic content of the beer, which generally ranges between about 4.5% in their Pale and 5.8% in their IPA.
Crate now offers tours of their premises, which provide an interesting overview of the brewing process, their origins and the history of the area. Beginning by sipping on their single hop Pale with Galaxy, our group was led through the tasting process with a guide and taught the fundamentals of tasting beer. Moving outside the bar, the differences between dispense methods were elaborated upon as the rye ale on cask was poured. Standing in Queen’s Yard, which was once annexed to the Clarnico chocolate factory, the building where the bar is located – The White Building – was once shut down for printing illegal money. Before the regeneration of the area in 2012, Hackney Wick was said to be home to a fridge graveyard and the occasional brothel.
Now, Queen’s Yard hosts the Crate brewshed and a number of small businesses. It’s also home to Howling Hops Brewery and Tank Bar, another brewery that moved in during the summer of 2015, who have the distinction of being the UK’s first dedicated tank bar. Howling Hops pour their beer directly from fermenter tanks lined up against the back wall. Crate now laugh off their initial trepidation at the news of the arrival of another brewery in the area; it seems that there are plenty of drinkers to share. The breweries now co-exist and lend each other a hand when they’re caught short of supplies.
This Utopian existence can't last, however; the brewshed is set to be demolished in the next twelve months, meaning that Crate’s brewing site will have to be relocated. Their lease on the bar is secure, however, as the White Building is a listed building. They’ve outgrown the current set-up in any event and use the adjacent building to the brewshed, which hosts Mick’s Garage, a collaboration between Crate Brewery and Berber & Q, as their warehouse.
Now with 17 fermenter tanks, each of which hold 4,000 litres on average, Crate no longer has the capacity to brew their lager on site and this is now outsourced to Antwerp. Their Pils, however, is brewed onsite, heralding the return of lager to the brewery. They use finings in their beer, making it technically not vegan due to the addition of isinglass - made from the swim bladders of fish and added to improve clarity of beer. Any of the purees used in brewing is made entirely from real fruit, however, and their sours showcase this: their Forrest Fruit Sour is intensely jammy with a nice hint of tartness, making it an easy drinking option. While the Mosiac Session IPA wasn’t to everyone's taste, overpowered by floral and pine notes, the American Nut Brown was a nice rich bouquet of flavours, from hazelnut, chocolate and strong coffee notes.
A tour of Crate Brewery is a great way to glean some history of the brewery and the Hackney Wick area over a couple of hours. As you sample their beer, a good range of styles is represented and nothing is too challenging, making their beer accessible to even the most casual beer drinker. The location simply can’t be beat and, if you get there early enough, you can both find a seat and hunker down with one of their tasty wood oven pizzas. These beers are best enjoyed in situ, so when the summer finally arrives in East London, you'll find us by the canal.