On a recent trip to visit my brother-in-law for dinner, I popped into a local Clapham off license to buy him some beers as reward for his cooking endeavours. It was very well stocked with floor to ceiling stacks of cans and bottles of beer. There were more brands than you could mention. There was simply one problem. They were all branded lager produced by major breweries - everything from Corona to Red Stripe. So I went to another shop. It was the same story again. I popped into a pub. The same brands yet again. They had one ale – on tap and it was a Cornish beer beloved of weekend day-trippers to Rock. So I gave up and bought him a four pack of San Miguel.
Actually, it was for myself that I wanted the ale – preferably a pale ale of some description but none was to be found. A few days later I went into a random off license in Hackney. It was a completely different story. They was an array of ales, porters, bitters, lagers, whatever you would care to mention. There were large breweries, independents, and even beers from three or four small local brewers. There was everything from German Hefe Weiss to West Coast American Pale Ale to Hackney Rye IPA. I cross-referenced it with a couple more vendors (we’re talking local shops here not some sort of specialist seller). Same story – a comprehensive selection.
So why is Clapham a beer mono-culture and Hackney hyper-diverse? The answer could actually say a lot about business and culture.
Median income is slightly higher in Wandsworth (where Clapham is located) than Hackney. Yet independent brands tend to be pricier than popular lagers. The age profiles are not radically different – Wandsworth has 1.7 percent more 65+ residents. Hackney is a more ethnically diverse Borough but would this really impact the range of available beer? Difficult to see how.
When it comes to the flourishing establishment of micro-breweries, Clapham has the same access to the progressive beer duty, introduced by Gordon Brown to give small breweries a tax break. It just that it is in Hackney (and Camden and Bermondsey) where the micro-brewing movement has taken hold.
But other factors do hint at something different happening in Hackney compared with Clapham. Let’s takes a look at the map of tech start-ups.
This is map is from Techbritain.com. The big radioactive ‘207’ is Hackney. Clapham is in the bottom left hand corner of the map. There is quite some difference.
Now, let’s take a look at independent coffee houses – something else that tends to accompany economic and cultural effervescence. It should be noted the City of London – from Lloyd’s of London to the London Stock Exchange - grew out of coffee houses. Here is the spread of independent (ie good) coffee houses from the London Coffee Guide.
Again, you can see the skew away from Clapham’s direction. It’s not clear what came first, the new tech businesses, the independent coffee houses, the independent brewers, or the ale hyper-diversity of the off licenses – they all seemed to happen together. There are other measures of course. For example, the proportion of shops independently owned on Columbia Road (Tower Hamlets), Broadway Market or Kingsland Road compared to Clapham High Street or Clapham Junction.
What does all this mean other than if you want access to the best beers don’t live in Clapham? There is an obvious point about tipping points and the networked factor of firms, individuals, finance, institutions needed to sustain a growth of innovative culture and business. That’s not the most interesting aspect of this, however. The real question is whether Hackney is a special case or the vanguard. If it’s a special case then there are many special cases that seem to be popping up around London and elsewhere – London Bridge/Borough/Bermondsey, Brixton, Birmingham Digbeth, Salford Quays, Ropewalks Liverpool and elsewhere. Much of the same cultural change and business venturing is seen time and time again.
It might be that the real (ale) green shoots are in these cultural tech economies. They are local, personal, and networked. They match lifestyle, entrepreneurship and consumption. They disrupt the norm and big chained business with its global brands. The businesses are ultra-innovative. The growth of Etsy reported on elsewhere on the ARC enterprise blog is part of this movement too.
Two critical questions remain: how can this movement be inclusive? And, from a policy perspective, how can we accelerate the process of me being able to buy decent beer when I go to visit my brother-in-law? Both are important cultural and economic questions.
Anthony Painter is Director, Independent review of the Police Federation. His twitter feed is @anthonypainter.