Say Hello to Howling Hops
The Cock Tavern is the antithesis of the faux shabby chic you’ll find in many new pubs. This is a proper boozer in the heart of Hackney. Its ceiling-to-floor dark wood and multiple entrances and exits hark back to the good old days of snugs and indoor smoking. The decor might be stripped back and basic, but the selection of beer certainly isn’t. With kegged brews from the Kernel and Partizan and cask pale ale from Three Friends, one of London’s newest breweries, there’s plenty of choice for even the thirstiest of visitor.
However, the majority of their stellar line-up comes from one brewery in particular; a four barrel set-up that’s somehow been established in the cellar of this very bar; Howling Hops.
‘Do you have any of that craft beer?!’ quips Ed Taylor, holding court at the bar. Former cell biologist turned head brewer Ed likes a lot of things; yeast, fermented soda, but most of all he likes beer. What he doesn’t like is the c-word.
‘Craft is a lazy term that ultimately means nothing. More people need to be using a different term; beer.’ I couldn’t agree more. The term “craft” is being thrown about with alarming regularity. It’s become a catchall idiom increasingly used by many breweries to muscle in on this mushrooming marketplace. But as the macro breweries fire up their “craft” pilot kits, hungry for a piece of the pie, it will ultimately become more diluted than a supermarket value cordial.
Ed talks zealously about the current state of the London brewing scene, describing recent collaborations with other innovative local breweries, such as Pressure Drop, who’s based just minutes from Cock Tavern. Ed is a true ambassador of localism. Three Friends’ first commercial beer was a collaborative saison made with Howling Hops downstairs. We sampled a bottle and it was nothing short of delicious.
When not rustling up beers in his basement Ed spends his time concocting fermented sodas for his other business, Square Root London. Peddling his sumptuous elixirs such as ginger beer and traditional lemonade from an antique tricycle, Ed is passionate about the use of locally sourced ingredients, with the majority coming from within twenty five miles of his home.
Ed got his start dabbling in homebrew; knocking up everything from beer to mead before moving quickly into commercial brewing with a job at the Redemption Brewing Company in Tottenham after finishing his degree. When the Cock Tavern reopened in late 2012, Howling Hops was born with Ed becoming head brewer.
You’re unlikely to ever find Howling Hops bottles languishing in a distribution warehouse. The vast majority of their beer is sold in the Cock Tavern or sister pub The Southampton Arms in Kentish Town. A few lucky stores occasionally find themselves with a case of bottles but it’s far from a regular occurrence.
‘If people want the beer, we want them to come here to drink it’, notes Ed. This is a locally produced product and he doesn’t want it shipped here, there and everywhere. ‘You are relying on so many other people to make sure your beer is just right, and the second it leaves the brewery it’s completely out of your control.’ Like a proud father, Ed doesn’t want someone to fuck up his boozy babies. When you taste them, you’ll understand why.
The brewery itself is a true work of cask and keg contortion. To see the equipment crammed inside such a small space is remarkable. How the hell they got everything down those stairs is a true beery brain scratcher. There’s nothing glamorous about this setup but the small team pushes their trusty kit to the limits, brewing up to three days a week, kicking out just over 1100 pints of beer with each brew.
On the bar we found the delicious Wit, the easy drinking session Pale Ale, the hop laden Export Porter, the richly flavoured Export IPA, the dense and decadent Chocolate Porter and the hilariously named Light Riding Ale, a slightly stronger version of their much loved, low ABV beer AK.
We purchased a clutch of bottles to crack open at home in Newcastle. We were also gifted a bottle of their forthcoming Russian Imperial Porter, described poetically as a black fighting beer. Well aware of their local raison d’être, excitingly for us these may be the only bottles to make it this far north for the foreseeable future.
With more breweries stretching themselves to satisfy UK-wide orders and beyond, many are losing sight of their natural market: the local pub. Howling Hops rightly choose to first and foremost keep their local punters happy, allowing them to set the pace on style and innovation. It is this which keeps drinkers interested and perhaps others can learn a few lessons. Not only do they trump the majority of new (and longstanding) breweries, they do so without giving a shit about what others are up to. Inspiring work has never been so tasty.
All words and images by Sheriff Mitchell.