TEXT: Mr Horse
Peer reviewed by GLB.
Recently I spent a week in London on my way home from Venice (nothing to report on the beer front, except the locals seem to prefer cold Sierra Nevada to Peroni in the hot June weather) and Leiden (where I managed to find a bottle of Westvleteren for 15€).
Since I visited a few pubs and had a few pints while I was in the British metropolis, I thought I would furnish this short report, though I have to confess I am pretty much an ignoramus when it comes to London pubs. Thanks to GLB for reviewing.
It has to be said right from the start that England in general and London in particular has a proud beer tradition—think London porter so named because of the army of porters carting things around who needed something safe and nourishing to drink. Indeed allusions to beer are to be found everywhere in the capital. At Tate Britain, where they have rehung the British art collections in chronological order Salon style (up the wall), an oil painting showed a bucolic Autumn scene: Cecil Lawson The hop gardens of England (1874).
Whats happening in the world of beer in Old Blighty? According to local sources, quite a lot. Reference: The Guardian, Time Out (http://www.timeout.com/london/bars-pubs/londons-best-craft-beer-bars-and-pubs) Craft Beer London (http://craftbeerlondon.blogspot.co.nz/) and CAMRA’s newsletter London Drinker June/July 2013 Vol 35, no 5.
The figures and commentaries paint a picture of crises and decline on the one hand but on the other an exciting growth of micro breweries with new styles and a slightly funkier beer youth culture. The numbers are staggering: there are 43 breweries in the Greater London area, 23 of them independent. The traditional corner hotel is still under threat from the recession and rationalising by major breweries, with 26 pubs closing every week. There was some relief this year with the Tory coalition government reducing beer duty by 1 pence. However, drinkers face steadily rising prices, and a pint of real ale will now cost you £3.
Theres certainly a lot of activity in the beer world—I counted a dozen beer festivals over the summer period. Some well established boutique breweries seem to be emphasising the local—single hop beers—like single origin coffees and single vineyard wines. Beer history is sexy, understandable given the amber liquid’s heritage in England. For example the famous Shepherd Neame brewery in Kent (the heartland of English hops), which dates back to the 17thC, has started producing beers based on 19C brewer’s logs.
The most interesting trend was the enthusiasm for ‘American’ style craft beer, with intense hoppy flavours, in contrast to the subdued style of local cask ales with their mild, malty taste. A lot of pubs I went to had an ‘IPA’ on tap, or advertised real ales with ‘hoppy’ characters, although to my taste they were really tentative and often disappointing. Time Out commented that ‘interesting, progressive’ craft beers were now being offered by an increasing number of pubs and bars, “often explosively hoppy” beers made by small-scale breweries which were quite different to traditional British barrel-conditioned ale.
This of course is not to say that the circuit of real ale pubs is not thriving, as you will see on the CAMRA website (CAMpaign for Real Ale). For some notable examples, our Brisbane based Thirsty boy Graeme has kindly provided this list of his tips for reliable watering holes with fine ales:
The Wenlock Arms – off Old Street – London CAMRA pub of the year too many times to remember. An experience in itself – not for the faint hearted
The Bree Louise – just west of Euston station – London CAMRA pub of the year several times. Gravity ales behind bar.
The Harp – just east off Charing Cross Rd, nr St Martins. Old school pub with real atmosphere and great ales.
The Market Porter – Borough Market – real ale paradise. And try the cider in Borough Market – brain damage!
The Rake – Borough Market – once a trendy boutique bar, NOW a stinky real ale hang out. Great!
The Royal Oak – Tabar Street – just off Borough High Street – serves Harveys from Brighton and Russian Imperial Stout
Judging from the local pubs in the part of Bloomsbury where I was staying, near Coram’s Fields, the pickings were pretty ordinary. In the first few days I ate and drank in the following places all within a few blocks:
Across the road from the British Museum is the Museum Tavern, which like a lot of places in this part of the city is over-run by tourists who want cold foreign lager or at best a standard bitter from one of the big suppliers Tennetts, Fullers, Nicholsons etc.
I fared better the next night at The Lamb in nearby Lamb’s Conduit St, a traditional ‘olde worlde’ establishment dating from the 18thC. Here I downed a quite hoppy local IPA, called Kohinoor Pale Ale after the famous diamond from India, which washed down my fish’n’chips very nicely.
Another fairly standard offering was the Hoegaarden I supped rather quickly at The Swan on the Southbank, just before a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream next door at the Globe. The bard must have been a beer drinker. Why else would he write in The Winter’s Tale: ‘A quart of ale is a dish for a king’?
Another literary beer connection was discovered at Oxford in The Eagle and Child, where the ‘Inklings,’ (JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis et al), used to meet. When Tolkien read a draft chapter of The Lord of the Rings one night, Lewis was said to have retorted: ‘Not another f*****g elf!?’
The dark, musty little interior was pretty much unchanged, and had lots of memorabilia associated with famous literary works, and a few more recent references on the wall from Peter Jackson’s film trilogy: like Pippen at the Prancing Pony in Bree declaring to Merry: ‘It comes in pints? I’m getting one!’
Uninspired by the usual fare on offer at this Nicholson’s pub, I ordered a pint of Ed’s American Red Ale which at 4.8% which looked a little more interesting.
By this time I was pretty desperate for something with a bit more new world style. So, teaming up with one of the Beer Barons and the Beer Fairy who happened to be in town, we went off to Brewdog, in Camden Town (for more on Brewdog see ‘Scots yahae where Wallace drank’). Like other branches of this rising Scottish brewery, the bar’s interior is simple, modern and funky. As for the beer, it is definitely a lot more familiar to your Kiwi craft beer lover. I couldn’t help notice a row of 7 bottled beers from 8 Wired in the fridge.
I started with this ‘paddle’ or flight of four beers which gave a good idea of their range:
- Vice bier 4.3%. Golden German-style wheat beer (banana?) with but quite a lot of hop character.
- Punk IPA 5.4% . Flagship beer packed with New Zealand hops, intense ‘jump out the glass’ aroma like Sauvignon Blanc, but passion fruit not cat’s pee/cut grass. Had me smacking my lips like I was back home in Wellington.
- 5am Saint 5%. Styled an ‘iconoclastic amber ale’ I enjoyed this dark red drop, and noted the grapefruit aroma maybe from the Sauvin hops.
- Paradox Isle of Arran 15%. This is the little black beauty on the right of the paddle in the pic, a lovely powerful drop brewed in whisky barrels
West coast IPA, a nice fruity, hoppy, ale but with good balance (7.2%). We finished with a glass of the Hard core IPA, the big brother to the Punk IPA (9.2%). The Suit rated this highly, a ‘pretty damn good’ is high praise indeed.
My last night in London was the overall high light of the trip in beer terms. Thanks to Time Out, I found that one of the top rated new beer bars in the city was a short walk away in Clerkenwall: Craft Beer Co. at 82 Leather Lane (http://thecraftbeerco.com/location/clerkenwell-london/)
This free house has an impressive 37 beers on tap, very knowledgeable and attentive staff, and good food—my pork pie and mustard was delicious. The fit out is clean and unfussy, but theres a few nods to beer tradition like the big Burton on Trent mirror on the wall with the ‘Carringtons’ beer brand. The crowd was made up of youngish-to-middle-age folk, with some pretty serious beer drinkers judging by the conversations I overheard.
The Kernel Brewery, London: Table Beer 2.9%
This draught beer had great body and nice golden colour despite being low alcohol.
Kernel is an up and coming brewery recommended by the bar staff (http://www.thekernelbrewery.com/)
Fyne Brewery Scotland: IPA Project 6.5%
A half pint of this beer from the hand pull was impressive: mouth filling, full- bodied, new world style pale ale.
Pizza Port: American Porter 6.7%
Bootiful ‘American style porter,’ to my mind a bit like PKB, though staff insist on calling it hoppy porter rather than black IPA. It took 15mins to pour a half, due to problems with the tap, and cost me over 4 quid.
The Kernel: IPA Stella 6.7%
Full flavoured, fruity IPA. Went down nicely with Bray’s Cottage Norfolk pork pie. Recommended, these people are definitely the ‘new wave’ of British craft beer. The labels on their bottles are good too.
A Belgian chocolate stout, mellow, deep malt and hint of chocolate. Cheeky name and label. The barman’s favourite. Took a while to pour but a lovely finish to the evening, and a nice link to the last blog about this famous Danish brewery.