London Beer People #3: Will Hawkes - London Beer City/Craft Beer London

Words & Photos - Matthew Curtis

This Friday sees the launch of the second annual London Beer City, a ten day long celebration of beer in the capital. As part of a multitude of events happening between the 7th and 16th of August I'll be hosting a sensory beer tasting at Brewdog Shepherds Bush and Cask is Important, a celebration of cask beer at Highgate's The Duke's Head. I'll also be trying to attend as many events as I can physically and mentally cope with. 

I loved London Beer City last year. In fact it's what inspired me to begin the London Beer People project in the first place. Journalist Will Hawkes, who is London Beer City's founder and organiser, is undoubtedly one of London's most important beer people. As well as London Beer City he's also responsible for the essential Craft Beer London app, which bagged him the British Guild of Beer Writers beer writer of the year award in 2013. I caught up with Will for a beer and a chat before the event kicks off later this week. 

Hi Will! Tell us a bit about yourself and what you do.

Hi Matt! My name is Will Hawkes and I’m a writer and a journalist. I write about beer for newspapers such as the Independent, The Financial Times, The Washington Post and The Melbourne Age. I’m the author of Craft Beer London and the organiser of London Beer City. I’m also married with two kids and I live in Brockley, South London.

So tell us, what is London Beer City?

London Beer City is just over a weeks worth of interesting, engaging and fun events around London. These events are intended to highlight just what a fascinating and diverse drink beer is at the moment and the creativity that’s involved in it. It’s also about the way London’s beer scene has evolved, just as other beer scenes have done the same around the world.

"I don’t want London Beer City to become something that’s seen as snobby or exclusive, I think that would be self defeating."

I think the key is that it’s supposed to be fun and relaxed, it’s a summer event after all. We focus on London, obviously, but also interesting smaller breweries from around Britain and the rest of the world. There are no rigid rules about what is and what isn’t a part of London Beer City, except that we steer away from the huge corporations, as I don’t think that’s really what this event is about.

Would you say London Beer City has a focus on Craft Beer?

Yes, I think so. I mean, I wouldn’t be adverse to the great family brewers getting involved. Right now we’re just focused on trying to get as much happening as possible and in the years to come we can build on that. I don’t want it to become something that’s seen as snobby or exclusive, I think that would be self defeating.

How do you think the Great British Beer Festival (which runs during the same week) fits in with London Beer City?

I think it’s incredibly important. The Great British Beer Festival is the peg the whole week hangs off. It’s a world famous event and it’s always fun, I love GBBF and I can’t criticise it. It’s not just about cask ale too, there’s some amazing Czech and German beers there this year, for example. 

What inspired you to create London Beer City?

London didn’t really have anything like this and it seemed strange. I know things are happening very quickly in terms of London beer and the expansion of its breweries, as well as the increase in pubs who are interested in good beer. I was aware that if someone didn’t do something like this now then something that was a complete corporate clusterfuck, for want of a better phrase, would come along and take its place. So I contacted John Cryne from the London Brewers Alliance and Paddy Johnson from Windsor & Eton Brewery and it just went from there really.

I thought it would be fun, I probably didn’t appreciate how much work it would be but for the most part it’s quite enjoyable work. We’re creating something for people to enjoy. It’s something that I’d want to go to if it wasn’t something I was involved with.

It’s heavily inspired by Good Beer Week in Melbourne, which I went to for the first time this year, that’s just fantastic. I also went to Philly Beer Week in Philadelphia this year, which is the original beer week and that was great fun. The people who are involved with Philly Beer Week are incredible. It has this amazing atmosphere and events where you can just rock up and enjoy great beer. It’s a great mix of events too and the city really gets involved in it. Philadelphia is a very proud city.

London might be a bit different in this respect, especially considering of how much bigger it is. Melbourne on the other hand has a very sophisticated food and drink culture. I think London has taken a lot of inspiration from Melbourne, especially from its coffee culture. These two events were probably the catalyst that sparked London Beer City into being. They also demonstrate what it could become.

If you were an attendee rather than the organiser which events would you head down to?

Oh, loads, too many! The launch parties at Brewdog Shepherd’s Bush and Mother Kelly’s on the first night will be great fun. Lots of breweries are opening their doors on the first Saturday. I know Orbit Brewery have got something exciting planned and Fourpure will be launching the official beer of London Beer City, a 4.3% pale ale with a cocktail of hops including Galaxy, which is one of my favourites. If the weather is as good as we hope, then it’ll be the perfect beer for London Beer City. 

"Beer is a fun part of my life and I want to share that with as many people as possible".

Stone & Wood, who brew one of my favourite pale ales, Pacific Ale, are coming over from Australia to collaborate with Camden Town Brewery. I’m also really excited about Magic Rock coming to The Cock Tavern. They’ll have eight casks of their High Wire West Coast pale, each hopped with a different variety.

There’s so much more going on this year than we had last year, even early on in the week. It’ll be a test with so much going on. Last year the events later in the week got very busy, but hopefully this year with a bit more exposure everything will be more evenly spread out.

What are you hoping that London Beer City will achieve in the short term and then eventually in the long term.

In the short term I just hope that people enjoy it and maybe start to think about beer differently. Even now there are so many people who are probably unaware of how interesting and delicious beer can be. Hopefully we can get them excited about it. I’m not a missionary by any stretch of the imagination but beer is a fun part of my life and I want to share that with as many people as possible. Long term, I hope that it becomes established and people enjoy it for many years to come.

Do you think it could become as well established as something like Philly Beer Week?

Right now it’s hard to say. I think London Beer City is still a long way off what Philly Beer Week is now. There are a lot more people involved with the events over there and some of the city’s best bars such as Monk’s help organise a lot of what’s going on. In the future I’d like to get more people involved, perhaps by setting up a committee to organise and help run the weeks events.

How did you end up getting into beer in the first place?

I think the first time I drank cask ale was when I went to my local pub aged fifteen or sixteen. It was the nineties and no one gave a shit that we were underage. You could get a pint of Well’s Courage for £1.30 when everything else on tap like Foster’s or Carling was £2.00. I was quite a tight teenager and it seemed like a good deal. It was probably only about 2.5% ABV but we didn’t care. The Courage wasn’t very good, in fact it was not good at all but it was cheap and it got me hooked on cask ale. I grew up in Kent so I drank a lot of beers from the likes of Shepherd Neame.

I then spent a year in the States and discovered beers like Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and Anchor Steam. I remember visiting Newport Beach about an hour north of San Diego and couldn’t believe that so many US beer drinkers seemed to be obsessed with Bass Bitter! It was huge over there but it was nothing like the Bass over here. It was thick and treacly with no real hop character. Bass has a sad story, it should be as big as Guinness is now, it’s an icon of brewing and if they hadn’t fucked it up then right now they’d be reaping the rewards.

I’ve always been interested in good food and good wine and when I came back from the US I was interested in good beer too. It just went from there really. I was already a journalist by that point so I spent of a lot of time travelling around Europe, discovering good beer and writing about it. It just made sense to put the two together.

Did you study to be a journalist?

I studied American Studies at Birmingham University and then took a three-month course in Journalism. I then got a job at my local paper and gradually worked my way up to the nationals.

Was beer always what you wanted to focus on when you became a journalist?

Not really, I wanted to be a sports journalist and I did write about cricket for a long time. I used to cover county cricket for the Independent. However, I got a bit disillusioned with the world of cricket. I felt like there was an obsessive focus on the England cricket team when in fact there is a rich cricketing culture among the counties and beyond that, which often gets ignored. When people moan about England players underperforming and who to replace them with, no one has any idea because the county game is so underreported. Most of the people who write about England have no idea who’s any good in the county game.

"Sports journalism has a very narrow culture, which is the opposite of beer."

It was a very narrow culture, which is the opposite of beer. Around that time beer had started to blossom and there was an increasing amount of opportunities to write about it. People were very open to discussing new ideas. I made the switch and started writing about beer in 2006. In 2010 I wrote about the American beers at The Great British Beer Festival for The Independent. I guess I was just in the right place at the right time. I went freelance and it went from there.

What beers have you been enjoying at the moment and where have you been drinking them?

I’ve been loving Fourpure Pils and in this hot weather their new Dry Hopped Pils is fantastic. I think Cloudwater have received a lot of well-deserved coverage recently, they’re making great beer. There’s also a lot of great stuff happening in South London at the moment - I really like Orbit and the Germanic styles they’re interpreting.

Finally, what piece of advice you would give people who are attending London Beer City this year?

I think the only sensible advice is to take it easy. If you end up drinking too much one night then you could ruin the rest of the week. I think if you want to enjoy it, without wishing to sound too much like a killjoy, you should enjoy it somewhat in moderation. Just pick and choose three or four events that you really like the look of. Although, if you want to try and go to as many events as possible then I’m sure that will be fun too!