Streets of London
Anthony Gladman catches up with two of London’s top beer tour guides, to discuss what it takes to be craft’s street ambassadors
Saturday 20 November 2021
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It’s a gloomy Saturday and it’s chucking it down. Yesterday I tagged along on a guided tour of London’s Bermondsey Beer Mile. Now I’m luxuriating with a cuppa, comfy socks, and Netflix. Paul Davies, my guide from last night, isn’t so lucky. He’s getting ready to do it all again, as he does every weekend, rain or shine. He has three tours booked today.
Later I ask him how often he gets caught in the rain. “Not as often as you’d think. We’ve had some shockers though,” he says. By the end of his second tour Paul’s shoes are leaking. He is cold and wet but also, ironically, dehydrated. If he has multiple tours booked he won’t drink until the last one. He hasn’t had time to eat lunch and is feeling terrible, he tells me.
“It’s work, but it’s enjoyable,” Paul says.
Getting out there
Paul started his tour company AleHunters in 2019. Before that he worked for Fuller’s, where he ran the brewery tours. “It was great fun. That’s why, when I left there, I thought about doing this,” he says.
He runs up to eight tours a week, usually for a mix of tourists and locals. He gets a good mix of ages and sexes as well, and most of his guests are already interested in beer. “Sometimes there are couples where one partner isn’t. We try to, I won’t say convert them, but encourage them to try drinks that I think suit their palate, and try to win them over,” Paul says.
When it comes to selling his tours, the Beer Mile’s reputation, which spreads beyond London, does some of Paul’s work for him. He sells through online platforms like AirBnb and Design My Night, and tells me SEO is important. “You need to be at the top of the list, or as near to it as possible,” he says.
Launching an itinerary elsewhere in the city can be more challenging. Paul added an East London tour early on and found he had to work much harder advertising it. “People aren’t even sure where it is,” he says.
Paul also added a North London tour in September, in an area now called the Black Horse Lane Beer Mile “by about a handful of people I guess.” He says this will take a while to establish, being further out of town. “You keep name-checking it and hoping it will stick.”
I ask what it takes to succeed beyond a knowledge of beer styles (which, as a Beer Sommelier, Paul has covered already). “You need to be able to engage people,” Paul says. He also tells me it’s important to prepare properly for the tours. “Otherwise you become a fraud and people will say well I could do that myself. I certainly wouldn’t want that.”
This means doing your homework on the breweries – knowing who owns them, when they were established, what each one is known for – but also finding out what they have on tap each day. There’s nothing more disappointing, he tells me, than building a beer up only to find there’s none behind the bar.
For Paul, this work has culminated in AleHunters receiving a TripAdvisor Traveller’s Choice Award this September. These are based on customer’s reviews and ratings on the platform, which for AleHunters are almost all five stars. “I’m really proud of that,” he tells me. “That’s validating what you’re doing, because it’s your customers giving it.”
Paul admits to sometimes dreading the commute from his West London home to Bermondsey, but says that feeling never lasts long. “As soon as you get there and people start turning up, you’re straight in the zone, buzzing and chatting and trying to get them to laugh, get them excited, get them engaged, and get them to ask questions.”
I ask Paul what he likes most about these tours and, while the beer certainly is up there, he says the top spot goes to the people. “You never know who you’re going to meet. Sometimes it’s a really pleasant surprise.”
That extends beyond the guests. Paul has also become close to those who work on the Beer Mile, many of whom he now calls friends. He says running his tours has deepened his enjoyment of the Mile’s many taprooms, which have become comfortable and familiar for him. “I like to champion these places, and stick up for them if I need to,” he says.
John Warland, co-founder of Liquid History Tours, has been taking his clients to some of London’s most historical pubs for around 10 years. “That’s a couple of hundred thousand pints,” John says.
His most popular route runs from Saint Paul’s westwards to Covent Garden. He does this tour every day except Christmas Day. He also offers tailored tours throughout the city, each of which usually takes in four or five pubs. “It was designed as a great walk through the heart of historic London while showing you the greatest variety of alehouses, taverns, and gin palaces that London has to offer,” John says. He tells me he enjoys giving his tours because he is proud of London. “Nobody else has a pub-scape and history quite like ours,” he says.
It’s the stories attached to the pubs, rather than the beer inside, that gets them onto John’s list (Though the beer has to be good too). To this end John has spent many years building up extensive notes for himself and the other guides he employs. “With so many pubs and route options, they have to be prepared for all circumstances,” he says.
John says a good guide will always know a lot more about any given pub than they ever share in one go. “You would over prepare by at least 100%,” he says. His groups often visit The Blackfriar, for example, a wedge-shaped pub like a slice of high-Victorian wedding cake. “You could probably do a good hour’s tour of the entirety of the pub,” John says. “So you need to encapsulate and explain why you have chosen to share this particular pub with them.”
Sharing what you know
In October John published Liquid History, which brings together all this accumulated insider knowledge into a book that John describes as a nostalgic love-letter to the great London pub. John says this isn’t intended as a guide to the best pubs in London, and barely makes any note on the quality of the beer or the food because of how often this can change; better to look that stuff up online, he says.
Instead the book takes a more timeless look at pubs which frame London through a historical lens. “These are pubs that have survived sometimes four hundred years, and hopefully they will be there in another two hundred years. We want you to go to these pubs at least once in your life. They’re places to savour and treasure,” John says.
John says his favourite pubs are back-street boozers, “the pubs you sneak away to, to escape modern life,” places like The Cockpit on St Andrew’s Hill or Ye Olde Mitre in Hatton Garden. “The ones which aren’t necessarily as architecturally or historically famous but, because they’re hidden around a corner in those little courtyards, they’re run with a certain je ne sais quoi. The beer’s usually good, there’s usually a little piano for a bit of a knees-up,” he says.
Punters on John’s walks ask a lot of questions, the most common being whether he has any jobs going. After a couple of hours strolling through London’s streets, bonding with a group of new friends over a beer or two and some interesting stories, the bonhomie is flowing and people start to think: yeah… I could enjoy doing this more often.
“I wouldn’t recommend becoming a guide unless you really love it,” John says. “It really shows if you’re not enjoying it, and it’s simply not worth it. You might get stuck for hours in the rain or snow with people who simply don’t want to be there.”
John and his co-founder started offering tours as a way to avoid careers, convention and commutes, one pint at a time. He says for most, though, it works best as a side-gig. “It’s more of a lifestyle career that fits in with being actors, authors, architects, musicians, brewers, gardeners and the like. It gets people out from behind the desk, and gives some good variety.”
What he enjoys most is sharing his insider knowledge with people looking to get to know a different side of London. “You’re delivering great experiences, not the clichéd tourist things people come to the city for. There’s a level of authenticity. For international visitors there’s nothing better,” he says.
You probably have to be a certain kind of person to enjoy this day in, day out. But if you’re the right fit, it certainly beats humdrum office life. “On a good day, with the wind in the right direction and a good selection of people in front of you, it’s one of the best jobs you could have on the planet,” says John.
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