It was a chance encounter that set the wheels in motion for the creation of Crate Brewery. Jess Seaton and her brother, Tom, expressed a desire to open a brewery to their aunt, Ali, who was visiting from New Zealand. The problem was, neither of them had brewing experience. Ali, however, had just been holidaying in Wales with a close friend who had recently completed a brewing course. Serendipitous? Perhaps. A thankful moment for Londoners? Definitely. They all went out for dinner and the first iteration of Crate was born.
Jess and Tom were running a cafe at the time and had been looking for a new venue. They were considering the White Building in Hackney Wick, but the timeline wasn’t right, so they signed a lease elsewhere. Two days after their meeting with Neil, the owners of the building got back in touch to let them know it was finished. “It all happened literally in the space of a week,” Seaton tells me. “They came back to us and said the building is ready, do you still want to open the cafe? And we were like, well yes, but not for that.” What followed was a crazy six months getting the space together on what Seaton describes as a “shoestring budget”. Pulling in help from friends and utilising furniture that had been dumped by the roadside, the only thing they could afford to invest money into was the brew kit.
“We just scraped through and managed to open two weeks before the Olympics,” Seaton says. “It was great to be in this area at the time. Hackney Wick was still pretty industrial and it wasn’t one of the main routes through to the Olympics, and we were on the canal so you could see us, but it didn’t affect our footfall massively.” Nevertheless, the business took off, and growth was almost exponential. “When we started we were brewing two or three thousand litres a week in our own little microbrewery,” Seaton tells me. “Within six months we’d totally outgrown that kit, so we took on another space in the yard and decided to build a way bigger brewery in there which obviously spiralled into ‘oh, now we’ll make more beer’. And so now we need more storage space. It was just nuts.”
Hackney Wick as an area is central to the Crate story, but equally, Crate is central to the development and regeneration of Hackney Wick. During our conversation, Seaton spoke a lot about how underutilised the area was when they had their original cafe and in the early days of Crate. “People love a hunt. They love feeling like they know a secret place that you don’t. And I think that’s what Hackney Wick was. It was so underdeveloped and so just kind of in the middle of nothing. It was just this weird, industrial spot that people couldn’t get to very easily and they loved it,” Seaton tells me. “I read something the other day, I think someone put a post on Instagram talking about the Lord Napier Star that’s just recently reopened, and they had referred to us as the pioneers of the area, like we were this one bar in the middle of nowhere and we helped put Hackney Wick on the map. That was a really proud moment. It was so nice that someone else saw that.”
The relative emptiness of the area meant the expansion of Crate didn’t have to be a logistically painful process. With so many units free for use, Hackney Wick seemed to grow around Crate, and as the brewery expanded, so did the neighbourhood. Such a high level of growth inevitably meant that life for Seaton was never static. “My job has changed so much since the business started,” she says “I feel like I’ve sort of gone through every possible angle that the business has. That’s how I fell into brewing for five years. It sort of tickled a fancy and we needed support in that area, and it ended up being something that I loved and I learned so much from.”
At the time, Seaton was one of just a handful of female brewers. Her approach to this was one of visibility, the idea that existing as a woman in that area would hopefully encourage others to do the same. It seems to have worked. “I think, early doors, when I was still brewing, I could probably count on one hand the number of female brewers that were in the whole country. If I went to a beer event or a tasting I would look around the room and be like, ‘oh there’s one other woman’.” says Seaton. “Up until 2015 I was still feeling that, but it was only a year or two later that suddenly there was a huge wave of female brewers, and now there’s loads of female run breweries around the country, which is amazing. You can see that tipping point that happens so quickly, to go from like one in five to, I don’t know how many now, and that wasn’t that long ago.”
We touch on moments where her gender played a factor. “I’ve definitely been in industry environments where I’m the only girl, and they don’t acknowledge me, they only talk to Tom and Neil. And I’m like, ‘hello, hi! I exist!’ I’m also a founder, I have something to say.” But for the most part, Jess’s story seems to be one of simply getting on with it. Taking these negative experiences in her stride, and making sure they don’t affect her ability to make her presence known. “My approach to it generally is, be the change that you want to see,” Seaton tells me, “so I’m not necessarily someone who’s going to shout about my gender from the treetops. I’m more, show them that it’s fine, and that it’s equal.”
The last six years have launched Crate into the stratosphere, and the trio have come a long way from their microbrewery. While Seaton initially says she doesn’t think they’ve hit their pinnacle yet, when I probe her, she does say the business’s current status – as primary leaseholders of the White Building, allowing them to create a community hub – is as close to a peak as they’ve come. “Having the whole building finally in our control, and being able to really open up the rest of it, was really exciting,” Seaton says. “It’s something we’ve kind of talked about and dreamed about since we opened there back in 2012.”
One of the highlights of reaching this current stage for Seaton was partnering with Douglas McMaster to open Silo upstairs at the White Building. “The first moment we met him, the guy was so passionate,” says Seaton. “It’s hard enough running a high end restaurant, and you couple that with the massive difficulties of making that a zero waste thing, and I just find it so inspiring.” She tells me about how this partnership has helped her introduce one of her main passions into the overall Crate ecosystem: sustainability. McMaster’s knowledge has helped introduce a range of new measures to ensure the business and building run as sustainably as possible. “His ethos and knowledge is now trickling throughout the whole building.”
For a long time, beer was almost exclusively associated with men, and masculinity. Jess Seaton began brewing at a time when this perception was still strong. Being a woman who drank beer was curious enough, let alone being the person who made said beer. While the influx of women brewers cannot be merely attributed to one person alone, Seaton is among a group who, through their presence and visibility, have changed the gender dynamic of the beer industry. “I don’t ever see being female as a barrier, or a thing I have to overcome,” says Seaton. “I have an attitude that there’s nothing I can’t do.”
Out of the Frying Pan aims to navigate what it means to be a woman in the hospitality industry today. Thanks to decades of harmful stereotypes and the rise of macho kitchen culture in the late 1990s and early 2000s, for many women building a career and fighting for change in this space can feel like jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire. After a difficult couple of years, statistics show that there is still a long way to go until we see true equality.
With that in mind, in this series we will speak to the chefs, restaurateurs, brewers, sommeliers, writers and hospitaliarians about life in the industry, what it took to get there and what the future could hold.