London’s best beers and pubs
Des De Moor is a beer expert, and has compiled the UK section of the Pocket Beer Book, 2nd edition: The indispensable guide to the world’s best craft & traditional beers. So he knows his stuff. Luckily for us, he’s picked out some of London’s best beers and pubs for you to enjoy. If you’re not based in London, you should be able to pick these beers up from your local beer specialist. Over to Des…
London has retained its place as one of the greatest cities in the world for many centuries, but until recently the envious inhabitants of the English provinces could still look on us Londoners with pity when it came to beer.
150 years ago, London was the international beer capital, the place where industrial brewing was pioneered and where the first two global beer styles, porter and India pale ale, were invented. But in the 20th century the fortunes of London brewers plunged, nearly all the historic breweries closed, and new microbrewers struggled to establish themselves.
The last few years have witnessed an unforeseen and quite astonishing turnaround. The closure of Young’s, one of the capital’s two surviving historic independents, in 2006 spurred a few new entrants to fire up their mash tuns, while a handful of enterprising licensees started reinventing the specialist beer pub .
This coincided with a growing consumer interest in localism and good quality, flavoursome local products from small producers, and the appearance of a younger generation of beer explorers inspired by the innovative and eclectic approach of US craft brewing.
From 2011 the trickle of beer-focused startups began to grow into a torrent. Now, rather than the nine commercial breweries operating in London in 2006, there are over 60. Countless new specialist beer pubs and bars have opened, existing places have expanded their ranges, and restaurants and boutique wine shops have been stocking up on London-brewed ‘craft beer’.
London beers are now appearing on London bars with a ubiquity and frequency unseen since the 1970s, and the quality and variety on offer is almost certainly the best it’s ever been.
As the author of The CAMRA Guide to London’s Best Beer, Pubs and Bars, I’ve had the rewarding challenge of chronicling this expansion. The first edition was published in 2011, just as things were starting to change, and I’m currently working on a second edition for 2014 – which will pretty much be a complete rewrite.
Picking just five beers and five places to drink from London’s current abundance has been a tall order, so this is a sampling rather than a definitive list, with the venues focusing primarily on beer range.
I agonised over leaving out Partizan, Truman’s, Fuller’s pubs (the Red Lion in Barnes and the Star in Belgravia are my recommendations to enjoy their cask beers in top condition) and Antic and Barworks venues. The lists are in alphabetical rather than merit order.
Five great London beers
Beavertown Applelation 8.7%
Founded in 2011 in a pub kitchen by Logan Plant, son of Led Zeppelin’s Robert, this is a continually improving cutting edge brewery that’s already outgrown its premises twice. A wood aged, naturally conditioned strong ale made with saison yeast and local apples and packaged in big bottles, Appelation is one of their most extraordinary beers, full of yeasty and fruity complexity with notes of rhubarb tart and cream.
Fuller’s Vintage Ale 8.5%
London’s last remaining historic independent is a keystone of the city’s brewing scene: it far-sightedly supported new startups rather than viewing them with suspicion. Picking just one of its many beers was hard – dry-hopped cask session bitter Chiswick was a strong contender. But the annually issued bottle conditioned barley wine Vintage Ale is truly a world classic, rich with earthy and peppery English flavours when young, and maturing over several years into a luscious, port-tinged delight that will raise your expectations of how good beer can get.
The Kernel Export Stout 1890 7.8%
Kernel became a key player in the London beer renaissance by challenging ideas of what London brewing could be about back in 2009, and founding what’s now a cluster of new breweries in Bermondsey. It built its firm reputation on the twin pillars of US-style pale ales fresh with floral hops and strong porters and stouts based on historic recipes, like this one. Based on an old Truman beer, this is a nod to London’s brewing heritage as well as a stunning beer with weighty coffee, chocolate, blackcurrant and liquorice flavours and pursing bitterness on a long finish.
Redemption Trinity 3%
Alongside Kernel one of the early leaders of the new generation of London brewers, founded in 2010, Redemption has proved adept at satisfying both traditional cask ale drinkers and more youthful craft beer fans with its approachable but distinctive range. Pale cask ale Trinity is a minor miracle, with three malts, three hop varieties and a wealth of flavour packed into only 3% ABV: chaffy grains, chewy bitter resins and hints of rose and tropical fruit.
Pressure Drop Wu Gang Chops the Tree 3.8%
Opened in a shed in Stoke Newington in 2013, this brewery soon moved to bigger premises in Hackney – with good reason given the quality of beers like Wu Gang, an unusual and very drinkable wheat beer with locally foraged herbs. There’s no room here to explain the Chinese legend behind the name, so you can google it while enjoying the beer’s herbal, citric and fennel-like aroma and soft spicy palate with delicate and refreshing orange notes.
Five great London beer pubs and bars
Cock Tavern 315 Mare Street E8 1EJ, thecocktavern.co.uk
I could have picked the celebrated Southampton Arms NW5, groundbreaking when it reopened in 2009 as an ale and cider house dedicated to small and often local producers, and still well worth a visit. The Cock, a long-neglected wood-panelled former Truman’s pub, was reinvented by the same management in 2012 and is just a good – as well as being less crowded, offering a wider range of beer and having its own brewery, Howling Hops, in the cellar.
Craft Beer Co Islington 55 White Lion Street N1 9PP, thecraftbeerco.com/pubs/Islington
Another early entrant among the new guard of beer bars was the Cask Pub and Kitchen SW1, which gave birth to a small chain of beer specialists under the Craft Beer Co name. All of these offer a dazzling range of cask and keg beer and fridges full of rare delights from Belgium, Scandinavia and the USA. Of London’s five branches, each highly recommendable, I favour Islington’s as it’s the most expansively pubby and relaxing.
Hope 48 West Street SM5 2PR, hopecarshalton.co.uk
Bought out in 2010 by a community interest company formed by locals to prevent it being turned into a restaurant, the Hope has gone from strength to strength. It has expanded its beer range to encompass regularly changing craft keg and bottles as well as more cask beer, and has won numerous awards. Yes, it’s in the suburbs, but near a station with a good service and well worth a visit for its mix of beer interest and the atmosphere of a proper community local.
Rake 14 Winchester Walk SE1 9AG, @Rakebar
Opened in 2006 in a former greasy spoon caff, this tiny Borough Market hangout is now something of a veteran. While new arrivals have long since eclipsed its beer range, it holds its place as an essential drop-in on the international craft beer circuit thanks to expert and well-connected management. Check out the star gallery of brewer autographs on the walls as well as the always-interesting range.
Wanstead Tap 352 Winchelsea Road E7 0AQ, thewansteadtap.co.uk
Upending the image of the traditional pub as the most appropriate environment for enjoying great beer are places like this: a family-friendly bottle shop, bar and events venue among car repairers in a railway arch round the corner from Wanstead Flats. Mother Kelly’s E2 is doing something similar but more slickly in a bigger arch at Bethnal Green, and almost made this list, but the Tap boasts a more personal touch and a great local selection in an unexpected location.
As well as writing London’s definitive beer guide, Des compiles the UK section of The Pocket Beer Book, writes for numerous other publications, hosts tutored tastings, leads brewery history walks and judges beer in worldwide competitions. For more visit http://desdemoor.co.uk, like the Facebook page at www.facebook.com/londonsbestbeer or follow him on Twitter @desdemoor.