Originally published 30th September 2012.
The final frontier between OlympicLand and the London boroughs that the Games Legacy serves to protect, Hackney Wick is a quintessentially East End neighbourhood; steeped in history, looking back – yet looking forward.
Hackney Wick is – and you’re not going to believe this – is in the borough of Hackney. Central Hackney is a quite a way away to the West, but to the immediate East is the arterial River Lea; a hop, step and jump across that will land you in Olympic Park. During the Industrial Revolution, the area was the centre of the universe (much like it was in Summer 2012 I guess) and was a rat’s maze of factories, chimneys, warehouses, workhouses – and slums. Hackney Wick was poor; described in Charles Booth’s 1898 map as an area of “chronic want”.
Sadly, as the industry moved out of town – into the Home Counties and beyond – the situation in Hackney Wick deteriorated into notoriety and a festering reputation of crime, violence and dereliction. As the nineteen eighties took hold, abandoned factories pulsed once more – this time with impromptu, illegal afterparties and raves. Graffiti began to cover everything, like creepers festoon ancient temples in the jungle.
Fast forward thirty or so years to a surprisingly sunny albeit crisp afternoon in September 2012.
I’m lost on the Overground. Yet again. No wonder industry left Hackney Wick; it’s bloody impossible to get here. After an idiotic detour to Canonbury (my fault) and then a backtrack towards Stratford I find myself on the platform at Hackney Wick Station. I meet my mate and head off in search of the Crate Brewery.
First perceptions of Hackney Wick are both familiar and foreign; the station turfs out into a warren of seemingly derelict warehouses, yet if we listen we can hear the familiar thud of bass.
The presence of AMG Mercs and even a Gallardo corroborate that whatever goes on around here these days, it’s moneyed. The graffiti remains – yet it is of the ‘upmarket’ variety. An un-arty friend calls this style ‘Shoreditched’; it’s attractive yet all mixed-metaphors – a clueless homage to Banksy – but I quite like it. Hackney Wick is so ‘East London’ it hurts, but despite signs of activity the area appears downtrodden and akin to a ghost town. The Olympics are long gone and now the equally big task of realising the London Legacy begins – but I don’t really see it here yet, despite the scarlet tangle of the Orbit towering over us and the Stadium maybe only a few hundred metres down the road.
Anish Kapoor’s controversial sculpture serves as a lighthouse – guiding us to where we need to go. The Crate Brewery lies on the bank of the Lea Navigation in the White Building. Once a painter’s workshop and before that, a peppermint cream factory, the White Building fell into disrepair like much of the surrounding area. Grace Dent recalled that this grand structure played host to the occasional rave and was plastered with graffiti for good measure – a microcosm of the Hackney Wick neighbourhood itself.
Things have changed these days. The White Building is once again whiter than white, and is now host to SPACE, an arts centre. The whole locale and the press releases that set the scene are full to bursting with tired synonyms of East London such as ‘sustainability’, ‘upcycling’ and ‘regeneration’. SPACE itself is described as a ‘creative laboratory’. All good here – as long as it all walks the walk.
Another aspect of the ‘regenerated’ White Building is the introduction of Crate Brewery. Brainchild of long-term residents of Hackney Wick, Tom and Jess Seaton and Neil Hinchley, Crate opened just in time to take advantage of the inevitable Olympic footfall that graced the area. It quickly acquired an outstanding reputation as an independent brewery specialising in a wide range of craft beers – as well as for equally delectable pizzas.
Beer and pizza – now here is a recipe for a boozy East London afternoon out.
I was recovering from a heavy evening at work – at a banquet – receiving my five-year service award. My mate was recovering too (for other reasons; and let’s just leave it at that). We found the White Building without too much hassle. It looks smart and polished, in stark contrast to its seemingly unloved surroundings. A bold piece of graffiti across the Lea reminds us of the grubby past;
“IMAGINE WAKING TOMORROW AND THIS SHIT HAD DISAPPEARED”
The words sing like a canary…
Even after Coe, Rogge and the rest of the circus has left town, Crate appears to be ticking over nicely – it is busy, inside and out. For what looked on paper like an edgy, hipster-esque gastro-pub, the clientele is mainly families and middle-aged dogwalkers. Not a pair of skinny jeans or thick-framed eyewear in sight. Everyone is seated under ‘upcycled’ lighting (made from old bed-springs) on equally ‘upcylced’ furniture; a hodge-podge of wooden benches, scruffy sofas apparently made from barley sacks and those horrifically uncomfortable chairs that plague school classrooms around the country. We grabbed a couple of benches and two tables (one made from a cross-section of tree-trunk and the other made from the end of a beer keg) and surveyed the surroundings.
Crate is a poster-child for the post-Olympic London Legacy: lovingly restored under the watchful eyes of architect David Kohn (the very same Mr. Kohn who designed the amazing ‘A Room for London’ on the South Bank). Kohn stayed faithful to the history of the White Building and inside Crate, we are greeted with a vast and airy room which – despite its advantageous proportions – seems intimate and cluttered (we are sat practically on top of the next table over). An open kitchen takes up about a quarter of the room, backing onto the bar. It’s all white-on-wood, bare surfaces and the atmosphere is one of strange, rustic minimalism. We discuss that Crate appears deliberately hand-made – and it is – designed by Kohn but actioned by a team of dedicated Hackney-ites (“built by local people for local people”); their mission being to get the brewery off the ground by the start of London 2012.
Obviously, they succeeded; and today the brewery seems as busy as when it was being built – one thing is for certain, the place is not short of employees. What recession?
Thanks to a plethora of trendy, young and down-to-earth servers, it did not take long to get served at the railway-sleeper bar – but alas, choosing weapons took considerably longer. The beer menu – albeit not the largest in the world – is extensive and user-friendly. Everything is well-explained and the bar staff actively encourage you to try what’s on offer; as my Aussie bartender charmingly asserted;
“We’re just here to make sure you have a great time”
On-site, Crate brews a Golden Ale (3.8% @ £3.50 / pint), a Pale Ale (5.8% @ £4.00) and a Lager (4.8% @ £4.00). It’s all available bottled too. In addition to their bespoke offerings, Crate serves up a smorgasbord of guest beers by a constellation of other brands and breweries. I tried the in-house lager, simply because I usually find the amber nectar universally unimaginative choice in a pub.
”Come on Crate, surprise me”
I was overjoyed to actually find that Crate’s lager contained a thing called ‘flavour’; it was slightly fruity and bitter, with a hell of a kick. Nice though it was, I opted for an off-the-menu Crate IPA; I tried a shot and it won my heart with its deep, smoky and peaty assault on the palate. My mate was happy enough with the Golden Ale but later on I tried a mango beer (from Belgium, oddly enough) called Mongozo. It was dangerously delicious; possessing an Umbongo-y sweetness that led to me draining the bottle in three-and-a-half minutes. Such exported oddities cost a little more here – a fiver on average.
Crate’s modus operandi is much like any old pub; grab the menu, order at the bar and get a table number. The menu is much like the brewery itself – no frills and back to basics. It is literally pizza or pizza. Still, Crate’s seemingly meagre offerings appeal to all; from the mighty Margherita to the more outlandish choice of sweet potato, gorgonzola and walnut. Everything is priced between £8.00 and £12.00. So far this is proving to be one of the cheapest Saturday afternoons I have ever had.
A ponderously slow wait for the food had me wondering whether the Crate’s ethos of ‘working for the fun of it’ was being taken a step too far. After a frankly ridiculous wait of around forty minutes (for two pizzas, really?), we were presented with two wooden chopping boards; one crowned with a Chicken Laksa pizza and the other with a Middle Eastern Lamb offering. Mine – the Laksa – was a white pizza and was rich, creamy and a little bit too much for one man – just what every pizzeria should aspire too. The chicken was Laksa-fied alright – carried along elegantly with a little spice and a touch of ginger. My mate’s lamb pizza was the real winner – it was festooned with pine nuts and a subtle smattering of apricot. My decades-old aversion to lamb took a rare back seat there and then.
As we chowed down on damn fine pizza and equally awesome booze, the chaotic atmosphere of Crate ran along with tempestuous comings and goings; the table next to us were suffering an equally long wait for a couple of Margheritas (I can be very nosey sometimes) and their annoying kid was trying to engage in a stare-out competition with me – a game which I inevitably won. Although there is a shortage of tables and the room was getting busier, at not one point did we feel rushed; feeling fine with sidling though the afternoon with the New Yorker and a newspaper or two.
Finally, we decided to vacate our benches and log table (it was snapped up seconds later). We headed outside and back to Hackney Wick Station. Wandering away from the White Building, the throng and bustle of Crate gave way to the eerie silence of the area’s industrial backstreets. Even the thud of the bass had stopped. It seems that, by-and-large, the legacy of London 2012 is yet to reach Hackney Wick, but Crate is one bastion of renewed optimism that seems to be holding its own – even as London’s Super Summer fades into fond memories.
The reason for Crate’s success is that it’s an unashamed product of love. It’s also an archetypical East London stereotype of self-obsessed gentrification that will polarise those who are die-hard aficionados of their own London neighbourhood (for example, my Clapham friends will hate it here, I’ll tell you that), but there is no denying that the craft beers and handmade pizzas are wonderful – and even if service, comfort and finesse sometimes miss the mark, it’s not for want of trying. Everyone working there seems industrious and proud of what they achieved – and are achieving – and that will surely be Crate’s legacy – not just a legacy of lamb and Laksa – but a place of hard work and tangible results – much like the Hackney Wick of old.
And come on, £15 per person for first class beer and pizza? Not many joints in London will give you that kind of bang for buck.