“What had always been just products, good or bad, now reveal themselves as so much more than that—as achievements, as expressions, as relationships.” – Michael Pollan, 2013
When I arrived in London last fall, my initial impression of English beer was one of disappointment. I come from the hip and trendy, microbrew focused Pacific Northwest and have thus become accustomed to bitter, “hopped”[i] beers. As a result, I found the subtle English ales immensely unsatisfying. This was doubly disappointing because beer is a key component of social life and culture in the UK, London included.
After a series of bland ales, coupled with my concern over achieving social inclusion, I was inspired to discover some local breweries. A simple Google search yielded nearly 80 breweries located in London, including a half dozen situated walking distance from my residence Hall in Borough (Londonist 2017). This discovery inspired me to learn more about London craft[ii] brew culture, with special emphasis on the layered history, infrastructure, and meanings contained within.
Research questions and themes of study
I have narrowed the scope of this project to six breweries and two taprooms located in Southwark. Together, these comprise a single pub-crawl dubbed the “Bermondsey Beer Mile” (Seemer 2017). First and foremost, I wanted to find out how there came to be six breweries clustered along a few streets in Bermondsey. More specifically, I wanted to gain an understanding of the Beer Mile’s identity, along with its meaning according to producer and consumer stakeholders.
These research questions formed the basis of my inquiry. Drawing inspiration from my experience of the craft brew culture in Portland Oregon, I found my queries to be embroiled in the themes of creative economy, identity, and processes of making place. Thus, I chose to orient my investigation of the Bermondsey Beer Mile palimpsest around the spatial, temporal, and community dynamics of this social space.
The aim of this paper is to show how the Bermondsey Beer Mile palimpsest is a site of three different layers of connectedness: personal, spatial, and temporal.
I begin to show this by giving some background literature on Bermondsey’s local history, along with an account of the culture and politics of brewing. In the following section I employ a combination of social theories to situate my argument and frame my research methods. After a description of my methods, I recount my data and analysis of the connections located within the site as follows.
First, my research reveals the brewery taprooms to be a social spot of personal connection between producers and local consumers. Second, I show how the Beer Mile forms spatial connections that span the global and local by drawing on two establishments whose mission statements embody a space-time paradox. Finally, I examine the temporal connections within the Bermondsey Beer Mile, evident in the physical infrastructure, which serves to echo the area’s industrial past. I conclude this report with a brief reflection of my own positionality towards the subject, followed by suggestions for further research.
The history of leisure and production in Bermondsey
Due to the subject of my research, the aspects of Bermondsey’s local history that I have chosen to highlight are those that relate to industry and leisure. In the 18th century, the neighborhood maintained sufficient draw to have its own Pleasure Garden, (City of London Metropolitan Archives 2017). The “Bermondsey Spa” grounds were originally developed in the 1790s by local publican, Thomas Keyse. The gardens featured live music, an exhibition room, and even a tap house. However even at their height, the gardens remained on a much smaller scale than Vauxhall or Ranelagh (ibid). Today, a park by the same name exists a few minutes walk from the Bermondsey Beer Mile site.
Bermondsey was badly bombed during the Blitz relative to other London boroughs (Bryant 2017). While back gardens in Kensington were equipped with private bomb shelters, such structures were impossible in Bermondsey as a result of the “water logged terrain” owing to the nearby Docks (ibid). Thus, Bermondsey residents were forced to “make do with huddling together underneath vulnerable railway arches” (ibid). The archways remain to this day, adding to the physical character of the neighborhood.
After the war, the Bermondsey Spa area remained rundown until its regeneration at the end of the 1990s (Southwark Council 2017). Rife with vacant buildings in poor condition, the area had been overlooked “as something of a forgotten backwater” (ibid). However, the 1999 construction of the Jubilee Line extension improved Bermondsey’s transport connections to the rest of London. As a result, the Southwark Council commissioned an urban renewal project dubbed the “Bermondsey Spa regeneration area” (ibid). Fifteen years later, the area has gentrified to a level comparable to the rest of central London in terms of desirability and expense (Dyckhoff, 2017).
London: a city of breweries
A 2016 mapping survey conducted by the Londonist identified nearly 80 different breweries in London (Londonist 2017). The city not only provides a market for breweries, but also on occasion formally embraces its own history of beer production by commemorating heritage sites. One such example is the “Brewery Conservation Area” located on Chiswell Street between the City and Islington (Corporation of London 2000). The aim of the report that defines the area was to “identify key characteristics of the area and particular planning considerations” (ibid 1). These efforts demonstrate the historic value attributed to historic drinking sites in the city.
Local craft in a globalized market
The consumption of beer and alcohol is an intrinsic part of social life in Britain (Yongmei Zhang, Topolansky Barbe and Baird 2015). The craft beer market in the United Kingdom grew by a stunning 79% in 2014 (ibid). Also in 2014, craft beer availability across the UK increased by 25% in terms of stocks and 19% in terms of tap-space taken up in bars (ibid). In 2015, the industry was estimated to be worth £225 million (ibid). Despite its growth, craft beer remains a relatively niche market due to its small-scale production and an emphasis on creativity.
In the US, craft brewing has developed a competitive market advantage in the face of declining large-scale brewing enterprises such as Budweiser (Murray and O’Neill 2012, 899). This is thanks in part to marketing efforts, including frequent menu changes and tasting events (ibid). As a result, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of American small specialty brewers since the 1980s (ibid 901).
Globally, researchers find that this niche and emergent market runs the risk of soon becoming over-saturated (Yongmei Zhang, Topolansky Barbe and Baird 2015, 25). Globalization and digitalization have heavily impacted the modern production and consumption of beer (ibid 28). Studies observing the “trendiness” of craft beer have found that this market caters to a specific demographic of brewers and enthusiasts, namely the young with high levels of education and annual income (Murray and O’Neill 2012,905). This has initiated an academic discussion of the consumer politics of craft beer.
Beer and Bourdieu: the politics of identity and taste
Indeed, consumption patterns cannot be summed up by individual taste. The craft and micro-brew markets have emerged from an “identity movement” that involves the images of producer organizations and consumers alike (Pozner at al. 2015, 4).
In popular culture, the emergence of the craft beer market is heavily associated with the tastes and values popularized by “young, urban creatives,” or ‘hipsters’ (Barajas, Boeing and Wartell 2017, 3). These post-modern consumers achieve social prestige by negotiating paradoxical fashions that exist “between trendiness and authenticity” (Michael 2015, 8). Collectively, craft breweries self identify as authentic and distinctive. Thus, it is natural that their products would appeal to a counter culture consumer who rejects mainstream beers and pubs. In particular, the industry’s emphases on small-scale production, local craftsmanship, and traditional methods engage consumers hoping to “signal” a relationship with these values (Pozner et al. 2015, 2). In that way, consuming craft beer is a way for this population to “engage in creative acts of self-expression” (Campbell 2005, 24).
With regard to Boudieusian theory of class reproduction, taste and consumption are liked to status (Thurnell-Read 2016, 15). One scholar helpfully coins the phrase, “the embourgeoisement of beer” to describe this recent shift in the prestige and cultural capital associated with craft beer (ibid, 1). Within this process of “embourgeoisement,” beer preferences serve as markers of social status and thus have the potential to exclude certain consumers on the basis of taste (ibid). As a result, beer consumers who can successfully navigate the ever-shifting meanings and competencies of this market are “elevated in the hierarchy of cultural prestige and legitimacy” as defined by Bourdieu (ibid).
Gentrification, breweries, and making place
The social politics of craft breweries extend beyond the relationships betwixt producers and consumers. Indeed, hipsters have become synonymous with gentrification and resulting social exclusion (Hubbard 2016). While hipsters promote “authentic” place making through “local” forms of consumption, they ironically contribute en mass to the tide of retail gentrification whereby locally oriented, often “ethnic” stores are replaced by coffee shops and microbreweries (ibid).
Urban planners note breweries for having a disproportionate affect on changing neighborhoods. One case study in Brooklyn, New York found that the “strongest predictor of whether a craft brewery opened in 2013 or later in a neighborhood was the presence of a prior brewery” (Barajas, Boeing and Wartell 2017, 1). Based on this insight, six breweries along a single row in Bermondsey seem like less of an anomaly. Like Bermondsey, Brooklyn’s hippest neighborhood, Williamsburg, is full of warehouses on account of its own industrial past (ibid 2). Indeed, warehouses provide the ideal setting for breweries on account of cheap rent and abundant space (ibid 4). Ultimately, This case study found that breweries are at once, an indication of and catalyst for, urban regeneration.
In addition to having a heavy impact on the development of surrounding space, craft breweries require a sense of place for the purpose of their brand. Many craft breweries tie local landmarks into their overall image. This enables newcomers to “share in the cultural history of a place through consumption of a distinctly local product” (ibid 3). In that way, “geographic entanglement” in terms of “spatial associations and connotations” are unavoidably linked to craft brewery brand identities (Pike 2011, 206) and succeed in fostering an emotional connection with consumers (Hede and Watne 2013). These findings serve to illustrate how crucial the element of consumer and producer identity is within the craft beer industry.
In her article “Super-diverse Street” Suzanne Hall advocates for a “trans-ethnographic” approach to her fieldwork in Peckham. She finds the migrant community to be a “series of distinct but interconnected spaces” and therefore a single-sited ethnographic approach is not sufficient (Hall 2013, 24). I find the same to be true for my own field site of multiple breweries on and near Druid Street. For that reason, I have drawn inspiration from her trans-ethnographic approach which seeks to “engag[e] within and across… urban localities” (ibid 22).
Hall examines three dimensions of space, symbolic, collective city, and intimate city (ibid 25). I have attempted to combine this macro, meso, and micro range of observation within my own project by encompassing greater Bermondsey, the Beer Mile collective, and finally the individual breweries.
One of my research themes is the idea and practice of “making place.” The concept of “place” refers, at once, to a specific location with physical borders as well as a “less explicit temporal and socially constructed boundaries” (Sen and Silverman 2014, 3). “Place-making” is the idea that “only our consciousness, actions, and interactions” form our conception of the physical landscape around us (ibid).
For the purpose of this research, I aim to focus on the process of “embodied placemaking” which refers to the ways in which individuals and societies reproduce place via their own habits, memories, and bodily practices (ibid 4). More specifically, I want to observe the practice of “placemaking” on the Beer Mile as an identifying, transformative, and thus agentive activity.
Place, time, and phantasmagoria
In a space as dynamic and changing as Bermondsey, there are bound to be echoes of the past written on the landscape and local consciousness. Alan Mace refers to this phenomenon in his discussion of “phantasmagoria” in the city and suburbs.
Mace observes that time acts as a function of becoming attached to a place, while place makes time visible when it serves as a memorial to a past period (Mace 2013, 87). He describes how personal memory can be embedded in a place, and how meaning making exercises such as retaining memorabilia and the listing of historic buildings assists in people’s fostering a deep attachment (ibid). The metaphor of “phantasmagoria” refers to a projected, shadowy effect caused by lamplight, which speaks to the haunting capabilities of past memories (ibid 88). Another way of conceiving of this is “nostalgia.”
Based on the literature and theoretical frameworks that I have given in summary, I devised the following research methods for the purpose of gathering data to support my argument.
As a student of anthropology, this method is the most familiar to me. I visited my palimpsest field-site on multiple occasions, at different times of day and on different days of the week. The bulk of my observations, however, were taken on a few Saturdays between the hours of 11am and 5pm when all the brewery taprooms are open. On these occasions, I took special note of the appearance of consumers and producers, in addition to the ways in which they interacted with the space, products, and one another.
Informal interviews with brewers and bar staff
While I planned to conduct more extensive interviews, the time I had to complete the project proved too limiting to get a wide enough sample. Instead, I relied on a variety of informal discussions and interactions I had with brewers and servers at each of the breweries. During these discussions, I attempted to get an idea of how long the brewery had been on that site, why that place was chosen, and what the Bermondsey Beer Mile meant to that brewery or individual.
By taking pictures each time I visited, I intending for the photos to serves as documentation that could be compared with old images of the neighborhood (see page three.) This was an attempt to capture the physical palimpsest of the neighborhood along with a record of the street and brewery aesthetics, which I consider to be an essential element of making place and creative economies.
Data and interpretation
Bermondsey Beer Mile: a site of personal connections
It was apparent from my interviews and observations that the Saturday taprooms on Druid Street and beyond are the stomping grounds for young, white, hip locals accompanied by their partners, dogs, and babies. The dogs and babies confirm their “local” status due to the challenging transport logistics. These “regular” locals act as weekly patrons for the breweries and in doing so “make place” by preserving these businesses. In return, the breweries are considerate of their nearby residents. On a particularly sunny Saturday, I was asked to queue outside a busy brewery until a few patrons left. The staff member justified that there is a limit to the number of costumers they can admit onto the premises, “otherwise the noise bothers our neighbors.”
In terms of the breweries connections with one another, most brewers laughed when I asked about their “affiliation” with the Beer Mile. One brewer referred to the Beer Mile as a “tourist scheme” and flat out denied having anything to do with it. He later admitted, however to more organic forms of collaboration with other breweries. Some examples included joint brewing exercises, personal friendships, and ongoing commercial support thanks to the existence of the collective. (He explained that more people visit the taprooms on Saturdays who might otherwise go to the pub, simply because there are multiple breweries on that street.) Based on this interaction, I gathered that there is a distinction to be made between “the Bermondsey Beer Mile,” as formally advertised online by pub tour-groups, and the subtler, more fundamental connections between breweries.
In effect, the site serves to connect a regular community of customers who identify with the businesses enough to regularly spend their time and money there. Furthermore, based on my interactions with the staff it is also clear that there is a community of brewers, unified by their creative sensibilities and passion for the art of making beer.
Bermondsey Beer Mile: a site of spatial connections
A trans-ethnographic examination of the global-local span presented on the Bermondsey Beer Mile is best summed up by the sharp contrast between the Marquis of Wellington Pub and the Bottle Shop located across the street.
In terms of aesthetic, the Marquis appears a traditional, rustic, English pub. The name alone sounds grand and historic. Its mission statement, “Your new local that serves local” refers to the idea of a local, which exists in collective English consciousness and had deep roots in the community. The pub proudly serves beers brewed along the street, and altogether evokes an image of provincial old-timiness.
Meanwhile, across the street the Bottle Shop outlet and taproom retains an unfinished, industrial aesthetic from having been built inside a warehouse under the railway. Their aim of “allowing people the opportunity to drink better beer” is stated on their website and depicted in their massive inventory of beer from around the world. The character of the place is energetic and innovative. (A barman once excitedly poured me a flight of samples from each of the six beers on tap because they had just come in and I had admitted to never having tried “sours” before.)
My point is that the essences of both institutions represent entirely different relationships with space and time, in paradoxical proximity to one another. To the inattentive, they would just appear as two bars facing one another on the same street.
Bermondsey Beer Mile: a site of temporal connections
The physical infrastructure of converted warehouses built below train tracks serve to echo the area’s industrial past. While the industries that line Druid Street today include predominantly car repair shops and breweries, the nearby docklands and leftover street names epitomize its history of maritime trade and leather tanneries.
During an interview, one of the brewers revealed that the warehouse space is rented directly from Southern Rail. He agreed with the insights of Barajas, Boeing and Wartell (2017) that the railway arches provided an ideal space for brewing on account of the large space and cheap rent. The exposed brick and corrugated sheet metal walls give each taproom an appealingly rustic, industrial aesthetic. Giant, steel brewing tanks and instruments remain clearly visible behind makeshift barriers giving an omnipresent sense of production. Original art made by staff, friends, and local artists hang on the massive warehouse walls. While a sense of industrial nostalgia lingers on the streets and in the architecture, it is clear that the breweries have embraced the past as a component of their own style in the process of making place.
As for neighborhood change, I learned from one of my interviews with a brewer that the first two breweries appeared on the street in 2012, soon followed by the others in the subsequent year. According to my informant, the neighborhood has undergone unusually swift regeneration having been bought out by a wealthy individual five years back. Apparently the high-street businesses have already changed, and the “ethnic” shops and Co-Op were the first to go.
Reflection and further research
I felt a personal connection to this field site on account of its proximity to my residence and my adoration of craft beer. Being from Portland, Oregon, a microbrew capital in its own right, I had enough prior experience and knowledge of the craft to easily chat with and relate to the brewery staff and clientele. Furthermore, I had the advantage of being a young woman who identifies with the hipster, counter-culture aesthetic and, by consequence, encountered extremely few barriers to building rapport. The only disadvantage I faced is that I am only a temporary local in this neighborhood and thus do not have any personal, prior experience to draw upon.
In conclusion, as a result of this project I have discovered the origins and characters of six new breweries while gaining a richer understanding of the academic discourses surrounding the politics of identity and consumption with the industry. Beer is often jokingly referred to as a “social lubricant” thanks to its abilities to make people feel happy and relaxed. I have found, however, that beer can also serve as a social catalyst by bringing people together to form community over a shared interest in the craft.
While I managed to locate a sizable number of resources, I encountered very few contemporary, ethnographic accounts of ‘hipster’ culture or brewery operated productive and consumptive spaces. Due to the ethnographic focus of my work, this would have proven helpful and is an area that requires further research.
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[i] “Hopped” describes a beer tasting heavily of “hops,” a beer ingredient that serves as the “backbone of bitterness” in addition to increasing microbiological stability, stabilizes the foam, and “greatly influences [the beer’s] taste and aroma” (cite: Craft Beer and Brewing Magazine, 2017).
[ii] European standards for a “craft” brewery are that it be: small (produce less than 500,000hl per year), authentic (brews all beer at original gravity and does not use rice, corn or other additions to reduce flavor or cost), honest (all ingredients, brewery locations listed on labels), and independent (where no more than 20% of the brewery is owned by another, non-craft brewery) (cite: Brewdog 2017).