Written by Matt Curtis
Written by Matt Curtis
Like many people who call this city home, I wasn’t born in London, but I do consider myself a Londoner. I moved here at the tender age of 22 based on the hunch that London was simply the city in which I wanted to live, despite not having done much research beforehand. Fast forward 12 years and I love London more than ever; I love its people, its culture and of course most of all, I love its vibrant food and drink scene.
When I first moved to London, its size was overwhelming to me. It took me months to get used to its breathless pace and intensity, and the fact it took me an hour to get from A to B, no matter how far the distance was in between those destinations. The arrival of craft beer did something curious to that perception, however.
No longer would it seem like a chore to travel from my home in North London to somewhere like Hackney or Bermondsey to visit a taproom or event. The desire to seek out the craft beer culture that I had discovered on a trip to the US many years ago meant that no distance was too far to try the latest beer or visit the newest bar. Craft beer culture has helped make London feel smaller and more welcoming.
London is still a huge place though, and after calling this city home for so long I can forget just how daunting that can be for those that don’t live here. I often envy cities such as Leeds, Manchester or Bristol, each of which has an intensely vibrant beer culture enclosed in a space that puts just a short walk in between its hotspots.
To manufacture the same experience in London, you might need to catch several buses, or take many trips on the underground, which can be exhausting.
The trick, as I’ve learned, is to realise that instead of having one single craft beer culture, London’s beer jigsaw is made up of a multitude of different pieces. It can often be tough to fit them all together, but it’s much easier to digest if you break each of these parts down into smaller chunks. It might seem easy to point at certain parts of London such as Hackney or Tottenham and say “here’s where the craft beer’s at!” In truth there’s far more nuance to London’s incredible and multifaceted beer scene.
I get several emails a month for advice on where to find the best beer in London, mostly from people visiting from the US or Europe. The first place I always send them is to The Harp in Covent Garden. The reasons why are threefold: Firstly it’s an obvious location, right by Trafalgar Square in the heart of what many tourists consider to be “London.” Secondly it’s a beautiful traditional pub, with old wooden fixtures and stained glass windows adding to the already vibrant atmosphere. Finally, and most importantly, I choose The Harp because of the beer. There is always a freshly tapped cask of both Harvey’s Best and Dark Star Hophead on the bar and there is always fresh Kernel IPA or Pale Ale on tap.
It’s the perfect barometer for where London’s beer culture is in 2017.
From there, I tell them to head east. East London is arguably where the city’s craft beer culture, in terms of its pubs and bars, took root. Bethnal Green road is home to what is quite possibly one of the best craft beer pub crawls in the country. You can begin the crawl at one of London’s six (at the time this went to print) BrewDog bars before nipping into The Well & Bucket over the road for an example of craft beer and mainstream drinking cultures colliding head on.
From there you can travel to one of my favourite pubs, The King’s Arms. This fantastic boozer has one of the best tap lists in town, with great cask and keg beer galore – and that’s before you’d delved into the insane bottle list of rare US and European imports that you won’t find elsewhere.
From here, it’s a short walk to one of London’s most conscientiously “craft” bars, Mother Kelly’s. This keg-only, taproom-styled bar was arguably the first of a new wave of craft beer bars in London’s beer scene to adopt an unreservedly American feel. If you want the soft and cozy feel of a traditional pub, a bar like this certainly isn’t for you – but if you want to taste your way through one of the most eclectic tap lists in the city then Mother Kelly’s is the place to be. You can even pick up a few beers to take away on your way out.
After this experience you’ll need a palate cleanser, so its best to head a few yards down the road to the Redchurch Brewery’s taproom, which is also home to its Urban Farmhouse sour brewery. This arch was once the home of Redchurch’s entire operation before it expanded to a production facility in Harlow, Essex. Redchurch refused to pull up its roots completely however and ensured its London credentials remained intact with its taproom and sour side project.
The wild beers produced here, often with foraged ingredients, are some of the most accomplished being produced in the country and as such this is a must visit location for me. How you continue your crawl from here is up to you. You could head up the road for a pint and pickled egg at another brilliant pub, The Cock Tavern. You could head for a meal of smoked ribs, washed down with fresh Beavertown at the North London brewery’s restaurant and original home, Duke’s Brew and Que.
Or you could head to the booming Hackney Wick, home to Crate and Howling Hops breweries with two more great bars in the form of Mason & Co and The Four Quarters just moments away. You could even mix things up and head for a cocktail at somewhere like The Peg & Patriot or Every Cloud.
I don’t use the words vibrant and eclectic lightly, but that’s exactly what London’s beer scene is, and this crawl is the best way to fit as much of that within a single session.
There are many more less obvious pieces to the jigsaw than simply crawling around East London, however. Other important markers of London beer culture include Saturday brewery crawls around Tottenham or Bermondsey, which boast six and seven breweries respectively. Tottenham is even home to the UK’s first self-styled “craft beer nightclub” in the form of the recently opened Five Miles.
You could go even more off-kilter from here though, heading south to check out the fantastic Mondo Brewing taproom. While you’re there, you could also take in both Brixton and Orbit breweries before finishing off the day with a bowl of ramen and a glass of Pressure Drop Nanban Kanpai at Nanban. This beer-focussed restaurant is owned and run by former Masterchef champion Tim Anderson and is one of the increasing number of beer-conscientious restaurants in town.
If you want to take in some culture with your beer, you could visit the incredibly well stocked bar at The Tate Modern, before wandering along the south bank of the Thames and enjoying the cutting-edge tap list at The Hop Locker.
I could easily go on, but I think I’ve cited enough examples now to prove my point. London is still one of the most vibrant beer cities not just in the UK, but in the entire world. Sure, we’ve had our share of ups and downs, but the best part is I still genuinely feel as if London’s beer culture is only just getting warmed up and that the best is yet to come.
Elsewhere in this issue, I discuss how London is seen by some to be losing relevance when compared to other great beer cities; Leeds and Manchester being two obvious examples. There’s no disputing how wonderful those places are to go and experience beer culture, but the recent boom in new bars and breweries in those cities has certainly contributed towards how people relate to those beer cultures.
That focus will always shift; next it might be Newcastle, Edinburgh, Birmingham or even somewhere like Cheltenham or my hometown of Lincoln. One thing that’s for certain is London as a beer culture will just keep on keepin’ on regardless. As a city, we’re not out to prove a point – we just want to provide the best experience a beer lover can have regardless.
If I’ve managed to convince you – or perhaps you still need a little convincing – then I recommend visiting London during this year’s ‘London Beer City’, the capital’s original craft beer week. Journalist Will Hawkes set up London Beer City four years ago and this year features over 100 events, as well as taking in both the Great British Beer Festival and the London Craft Beer Festival. Full disclosure: this year I’m part of a team of organisers put together by Will to ensure the event’s continued success and expansion. On a personal level I’m more excited than ever to be working with London’s breweries, bars and bottle shops to show off London’s brilliant beer scene in a way that’s bigger and bolder than ever before.
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