Event review: The Croydon Craft Beer Festival, 16th-17th October 2015

By - Tuesday 27th October, 2015

Serious beer, great vibes and a very professional operation. Cheers, says Paddy Blewer

Photo by Kirsty Blewer, used with permission.

The Croydon and Sutton branch of CAMRA (the Campaign for Real Ale) is sadly in abeyance right now, but the first in what will hopefully be a series of a new beer festivals in Croydon drew packed crowds at the Clocktower in Croydon on 16th and 17th October. A consortium of Croydon businesses has come together to create something fantastic and there were dozens of beers on show, many of which are brewed in Croydon or South London. To testify to its success, all the beer was sold out by 8:30pm on Saturday.

As a long time CAMRA member who has been to the Great British Beer Festival every year since the late ’90s and numerous local events, I’m something of an old hand at this sort of thing. I know you should pace yourself, get some food in and consider the lists carefully so you don’t have the 7% hop monster first. I did manage to pace myself so that I had a fantastic three hours on Saturday afternoon, and have come away with a couple of strong impressions.

First impression: craft beer means something different in Croydon than Shoreditch. Thank god.

Great recognisable British style ales, some with the addition of new world hops

There has been a long running debate in beer circles about the difference between ‘real ale’ and ‘craft beer’. The more I’ve drunk, the more I feel that the definitions are less about taste and more about branding and what perception, or self perception the brand aspires to drive. To simplify and possibly oversimplify, real ale is about tradition and craft beer is offering something new.

Photo by Kirsty Blewer, used with permission.

However… the Croydon Craft Beer Festival muddied the waters. All of the ‘draught’ beer was from the barrel. No nitrogen. No hand pump, but with ice packs on top of the barrel. This meant that apart from one or two hop bombs, the (fantastic) beer from barrels pretty much tasted like great examples of recognisable British style ales, some of which had the addition of new world hops.

Trendy beards. Lots of ink. No hobbits allowed

Something of a hybrid compared to somewhere like Brewdog on Bethnal Green Road or Craft Beer Rising on Brick Lane, where the ‘craft beer attitude’ is in full force. Ultra cold, nitro keg. Trendy beards. Lots of ink. No hobbits allowed.

And yet the crowd was younger and slightly varied than the classic CAMRA affair. More women. Different accents. Less rigid beer styles. Loads of great canned and bottled bears with innovative flavours. More creative freedom. Less conservatism. Perhaps less Conservatism as well, although I must welcome in an entirely non-partisan way the great support this event found from Croydon Council.

A lovely boozy buzz in the room

Maybe it comes down to Croydon’s essentially liberal (small l) philosophy, but I’ve found ‘craft beer’ in the city fringes where I work essentially elitist, a lifestyle and fashion choice where I’ve been made to feel unwelcome, despite loving the taste. Crafty Croydon, however, was entirely open. Young couples, big groups, a couple of sixty-something chaps on their own. A lovely boozy buzz hummed in the room, combining with a soundtrack of classic funk and soul. Lovely.

Second impression: there’s a serious beer community in Croydon.

Photo by Kirsty Blewer, used with permission.

As I’ve noted, the beer ran out. This wasn’t because of volume drinkers. It was because hundreds of people came to this event. Listening to accents, quite a lot of society was covered, from hard core Sarf Lahn-dan to something rather more refined. Beer is a great leveller. Unlike wine or spirits, you don’t have to spend a lot to try pretty much anything on offer. Nor is there a social status to beer. It’s the British (and Irish) national drink. It is our birthright. It saved British civilisation when water was too contaminated in the Middle Ages. Beer is for anyone with a thirst whose religion permits it.

One of the interesting things was the level of understanding in the room. I’m new to journalism, but I’m a naturally nosy parker so I listened to a lot of conversation. What I heard was lots of chat about hops, malts, styles, how different breweries and brewing style comparisons from an enthusiastic, seriously knowledgable crowd taking pleasure in an excellent range of mostly local natural products.

Pretty much everyone was really friendly. Lots of eye contact. Lots of smiling. Lots of freely given and happily taken opinions and suggestions. This was a real community, full of free flowing human contact. There was real soul.

This was the Croydon that I’ve known and loved for fifteen years

This community has a number of hubs. The Green Dragon and the Oval Tavern are good independent boozers to start for anyone interested in good beer and great vibes.

Third impressions: I know that you all know this, but Croydon is seriously misrepresented.

This event was modern, sophisticated, well run, friendly, successful and open to all. A great range of products, much of which were brewed in the local vicinity. This is the Croydon that I’ve known and loved for fifteen years – the one that is often ignored by national media organisations. This was the Croydon that reacted so positively post riots. This was the Croydon that gave me a great home for a long time.

I’d also like to briefly comment about business and customer service. My day job involves interacting in international capital and commodity markets. This can be somewhat impersonal. The service at the bars was friendly, knowledgable and personally engaging. This was particularly true from the team that came in from the (excellent) Fresh Fields Market on Church Street. They really knew their stuff and gave great recommendations, with personal enthusiasm and humour. Genuinely refreshing customer service.

Hard work, inspiration and an eye for a niche

It’s for this reason that I’m delighted to recommend Fresh Fields as a haven for beer lovers. There are dozens of brilliant beers, many brewed withing ten miles, mostly by independent breweries interested in flavour. Great imports too. If part of the rationale for their commercial engagement with Crafty Croydon was to drive new business, then they deserve to have their investment repaid by hundreds of thirsty Croydonians.

Then there’s the Cronx Brewery. I’m (not) contractually engaged to mention them in each article. It’s just coincidence that wherever I go, their beer is served. I love the flavours (mostly.) I love the commitment to excellence. I love the branding. Its directors are funny on Twitter. Also, like Fresh Fields they’ve created a great business in Croydon through what looks like a mixture of hardwork, inspiration and an eye for a niche.

Fourth impression: this was a well-branded and -marketed event. Whoever was behind it (Nudge Factory was a sponsor and organiser) did a great job and created a brand with significant equity. The look and feel combined with the personal touch from the staff could have laid the foundation for further success. This didn’t feel like a one-off event designed on the back of an envelope.

Croydon is not necessarily thought of as a dynamic commercial hub. These guys and girls are showing that once again, Croydonians are misrepresented.

A fantastic event – Croydon at its best

And finally: we want more. I hope that everyone commercially involved made money, broke even or, if they can write off costs as investment, that that investment will bring returns. That’s not because I’m a city person. I want Crafty Croydon to be successful because I want to do this again. It was a fantastic event, something that demonstrated much of Croydon and South London at its best.

The Croydon Craft Beer Festival was outstanding. Well run, intelligently designed, with real human interaction. It was also really, really good fun. Cheers.

This article was amended at 12:30pm on Tuesday 27th October. An earlier version inaccurately stated that Nudge PR sponsored the event. Nudge Factory, a separate organisation, was both a sponsor and organiser.

Paddy Blewer

Paddy has lived in the Croydon / Sutton area since 1983 and in Waddon from 2001- 2015. A communications advisor in the City, he loves the variety of Croydon, particularly its options for eating and drinking and its great parks for the kids. A sports nut, supporting Munster, London Irish, Surrey CCC and Spurs, he has a sneaking regard for Palace, despite having a Millwall fan for a dad.

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  • Dave Lands

    The Croydon & Sutton branch of CAMRA is not in abeyance! It is only our beer festival, which could not be held this year as Sutton Council closed Wallington Hall. We hope to organise something next year.

  • Ebenezer Crutton

    I’m sure CAMRA’s local beer festivals to replace Wallington and (temporarily) Battersea will resume as soon as suitable locations become available. Meanwhile, well done to the organisers of the Craft Beer festival, which scored well on several aspects.

  • Patrick Blewer

    Hi Dave. That’s exactly what I meant, apologies. I’ve got about 7 glasses at home to prove how enjoyable those Wallington events were. Any likelihood of a rebirth?