Great craft brews and pubs make London a beer destination
Camden Town Brewery has just opened its own taproom although its beers can be found all over London.
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LONDON -- Halfway through my first pint of Nightwatchman -- a lightly roasted, malty ale from the East London Brewing Co. -- the bartender replaced the low-volume Little Willie Littlefield LP with the atmospheric vinyl crackle of "Lightnin' Strikes" by Lightnin' Hopkins.
I opened a packet of bacony pork scratchings, or cracklings, and took in the afternoon palette of a classic British pub: a low wooden counter with 10 hand-pulled taps of local ales unknown to me, backed up by eight farmhouse ciders that I'd never heard of. Around the dim, denlike space, neighbors read the papers or chatted quietly over their glasses in the way I imagined Londoners must have done for centuries, and I found it very easy to slip into conversation with the avuncular gentleman next to me.
What was difficult to grasp, however, was what he told me: that this beautiful pub, the Southampton Arms, in the north London neighborhood of Gospel Oak, hadn't actually been part of London's great drinking culture since before the beginning of time. In fact, the rarefied atmosphere (and beer list) we were enjoying dated from late 2009, part of an explosion of great beer, and great places to drink it, in the British capital over the past few years.
"I suspect it is the most exciting time to be drinking beer in London since the early '70s," said Des de Moor, author of "The CAMRA Guide to London's Best Beer, Pubs & Bars," when I met him over a quiet pint the next day.
Indeed, London is experiencing a craft beer renaissance so remarkable that keeping up has become a full-time job for connoisseurs such as Mr. de Moor, who regularly charts the new developments on his website. Despite its history as the home of many of the world's best-loved brewing styles -- IPA, porter, stout, brown ale and Russian imperial stout are all from here -- London's beer culture suffered through several decades of decline, resulting in just seven working breweries by 2006, he said.
But today, the number has at least tripled, with adventurous new ales and lagers appearing from the likes of Camden Town Brewery, which first fired its kettles in 2010, and the East London Brewing Co., which dates from 2011. In addition, a new generation of pubs and bars makes it easy for beer-loving travelers to sample local flavors and rub elbows with the natives.
Curious about the changes, I set about seeing as much of the new beer scene as I could in a weekend. The quest, I soon learned, could take a curious traveler to just about every corner of London, and the city's breadth and sprawl meant that I would have to limit my journey to a few high points.
"It's huge now, it's incredible," said James Turner, the manager of Euston Tap, a year-and-a-half-old bar in a historic stone building near Euston Station, which was filled with a bustling, youthful crowd. "It used to be the worst beer city in Britain," he added. Now, he said, it's "great."
Despite London's extensive brewing traditions, the current beer scene can be surprisingly open-minded, as evinced by Euston Tap's hop-forward draft list, where Modus Hoperandi from Colorado's Ska Brewing and other burly American imports were matched by similarly broad-shouldered locals.
A 20-minute tube-and-train ride north of there, I'd found almost the exact opposite at Camden Town Brewery's lounge-style taproom, which opened this spring. There, the focus seemed to shift toward Continental elegance, like the brewery's bottom-fermented, kegged Hells Lager, the antithesis of Britain's top-fermented, cask-conditioned ales, yet which makes up some 60 percent of the brewery's growing sales. A hopped-up variation, USA Hells, seemed to combine the two trends, brightening the golden German-style lager with pungent American hops like Cascade and Columbus.
The next day, over a pungent, single-hop Simcoe pale ale, I related some of my finds to Mr. de Moor at one of the city's brightest new brewers, the Kernel. He noted that even the city's established brands, like Fuller's, founded in the West London suburb of Chiswick in 1845, are also pushing for better beer.
"Rather than just rest on their laurels, they've done new things as well," Mr. de Moor said, mentioning the annual Vintage Ales, the oak-aged Brewer's Reserve and Fuller's new Past Masters series, which uses historic recipes from the brewery archives, as particular standouts. "They've really moved with the times."
The times are changing so quickly that the website of the London Brewers' Alliance, a trade group formed in 2010, went live only this spring, accompanied by the equally new London City of Beer website, which lists festivals, tastings and other events. New bars and pubs, such as the excellent Mason & Taylor, which opened in Bethnal Green in 2010, and the atmospheric Craft Beer Co., which opened in Clerkenwell in mid-2011, keep showing up. And more breweries are to open soon.
"I think there are 22, and by the end of the year I know of three or four more," Mr. de Moor said.
While many of the best spots for good beer lie in central London, a few attractions are far more remote. One of the new breweries, Brodie's, offers guest rooms in its on-site pub, the King William IV, giving me a chance to spend my last night in a part of town I'd never thought to visit: Leyton, northeast London, not far from Olympic Park.
Behind its ornately carved wooden bar that could have easily accommodated 15 tap-men, a lone bartender was pouring drinks. Taking a seat at the bar, I ordered a pint of a classic British session bitter, light enough to consume over an evening without feeling much of an effect the next day.
While its 3.1 percent alcohol stuck with tradition, this version was laced with Citra, an American hop cultivar that appeared only in 2007, and each sip was filled with mango and lemony flavors typical of the most adventurous of contemporary craft brews. The fish and chips that came with it tasted just as wonderful as they always do.
First Published July 29, 2012 12:00 am