In 1666, the year of the Great Fire, a brewery was founded in the fields outside London. In those days, bigger was better, and Truman’s grew as the city and the nation did, until the brewery was inside the city and its beer sold all over England – which, by the 19th century and the heyday of empire, meant all over the world. It thrived until the brewery mergers of the 1980s, when bigger was engulfed by biggest.
Now, there’s a revival: a new Truman Brewery in Hackney Wick, the increasingly trendy riverside segment of east London, and the successful events space in the old brewery itself, in that bucolic outpost known as Brick Lane.
I mention this because when, on 28 and 29 October, the Epicurean artisan drink and food festival takes place at the Old Truman Brewery, a transition of sorts will be complete. Over 130 small food, wine, beer and spirit companies will display their wares; samples will be provided free of charge for everyone with a ticket; and London’s most rarefied gourmands will do their best to find out exactly what they’ve been missing before they fall down drunk or burst. Smaller may be better now, but it does often promote an array of choice that is, in every sense, indigestible.
In a city where even a pre-dinner drink has become an agonising decision (Martini? Sherry? Or one of the 17,000 new gins that have been invented since I last required a sharpener?) an attempt to make an informed choice can lead to bankruptcy, obesity and liver disease. A society built on the endless requirement for “more” quickly finds itself sclerotic with “many”. The Epicurean, along with other sampling events such as the London Wine Fair, Wine Car Boot and Taste of London, wants to offer the chance to revel unharmed in capitalism’s small-batch excesses, 20 centilitres at a time.
I did not know that the wines of the Alps – Swiss, French, Austrian, Italian – had their own specialist distributor, nor that there was a brewery in Northampton called Maule. I love Brighton Gin, but Curio, a Cornish spirits company, is new to me. Portuguese or Antipodean or Argentinian wines will each have their dedicated advocate, here to tell you why you should drink this and not that, while the Kent producer Lord and Lady Muck will try to convince you that their Toffee and Vodka spirit is a thing (they’ll have their work cut out with that one).
There is no point, these days, having a small company without a specialism. But there is no point having a specialism unless you can tell people what it is – and, preferably, tantalise customers with it, before they soak it up with smoked salmon or bacon jam from the specialist food stall across the way.
Epicurus, the ancient Greek philosopher for whom this festival is named, probably would not have approved. Maligned by history, he was not what we would call an epicure. He believed in modest living: eating, drinking and sex came far down his list of desirable pursuits.
Nonetheless, when you look back at the amalgamations that killed the first Truman Brewery, this festival of “artisan everything” looks like progress. Many of these small-scale operations will doubtless be swallowed by giant companies in their turn, as with the Greenwich-based Meantime Brewing, which is already owned by SABMiller, the world’s second-largest brewer.
But every time a couple of crazy youngsters pluck up the courage to start a small business selling you something they really, really think you can’t live without, they strike a blow against the faceless hunger of Big Business, which aims to swallow everything – and not just in 20-centilitre measures. The artisan producer wants to help us live better, and the Epicurean wants to help them. And of that, surely, even an old abstainer like Epicurus would have approved.
This article appears in the 12 Oct 2016 issue of the New Statesman, England’s revenge