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Ten Top Contemporary British Beers

Posted by: desdemoor 28/03/2012 @ 17:14
Subject: Pubs & Bars

Ten top contemporary British beers – and places in London to drink them.

It’s an exciting time for the British beer scene, which is arguably at its most vibrant since the beginnings of the real ale revival back in the 1970s. That revival, led by the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), championed traditional unpasteurised cask beers, which complete their fermentation in the pub cellar and are served without additional gas, against pasteurised, artificially carbonated industrial “keg” beers marketed nationally by the big brewing groups. Although originally a preservationist movement, it soon helped launch a new wave of small independent microbreweries.

Four decades on, though overall beer sales are in decline, cask beer is flourishing and brewery numbers have rocketed, from a hundred or so in 1971 to around 800 today, most of them small, artisanal producers. They are finding a new audience among discerning younger drinkers – women as well as men – who apply the same approach to beer as to other food and drink, shunning mainstream industrial brands in favour of flavourful, characterful and often local produce.

Innovation is nothing new among small brewers but it’s intensified to unprecedented levels in the past few years, demonstrating the dazzling range of flavours that can be wrought out of basic brewing techniques and ingredients. With the internet facilitating a newly internationalised discourse on beer, brewers are drawing inspiration from around the world, and increasingly from across the Atlantic.

‘Craft’ brewers in the US originally aped European models but in recent decades have ploughed their own furrow with spectacular success. Unburdened by tradition, they’ve reinvented brewing by mixing and matching beer styles and innovative techniques and ingredients as they please.

Now some British brewers are adopting the same iconoclastic spirit, and many more are taking advantage of the extended flavour palate offered by US-grown hops, which typically have more striking, often citric and piny, flavours and aromas than their European counterparts.

And, to the discomfort and confusion of some beer campaigners, some of these brewers are looking beyond cask to other ways of conditioning and serving their beer – not just bottles but also pressurised kegs. In contrast to the more familiar draught keg lagers and stouts, microbrewed keg beers may well be unpasteurised, and some of them capture the gas used in fermentation to propel the beer into the glass rather than adding it artificially. However they’re still likely to be colder and gassier than cask beer when served. Such beers might leave hardcore cask drinkers unimpressed but those discovering fine beer for the first time have no such prejudice.

You’ll increasingly hear the American term ‘craft beer’ to distinguish these new developments, although I’m uncomfortable with this as it implies traditional British cask ales are somehow less crafted. But there is certainly an emerging group of brewers who see themselves as a distinct and contemporary thread in British brewing.

New beers need new places to drink them and London is probably the best beer city in the UK right now, with new beer-focused pubs and bars mushrooming and many more established places expanding their ranges, including pubs belonging to chains and pub companies.

The list below shouldn’t be read as a “ten best”. Instead I’ve chosen beers you’re likely to find in London that represent the breadth of the scene and a variety of flavours and styles. For each I’ve suggested a venue. Bear in mind that as most of these beers appear as guests rather than regulars there’s no guarantee you’ll find a particular one on sale, but all the places listed have plenty of other delights to tempt you.

I’ve picked a different set of places to those recommended in my Ten Top London Beers published here last year. But as many of the capital’s ever-multiplying crop of breweries are at the forefront of innovation, I make no apologies for including two London brewers here. Other breweries well worth looking out for are Brodie’s, Lovibonds, Marble, Meantime, Moor, Otley, Redchurch, Redemption, Rudgate and Saltaire.

1. BrewDog Tokyo* 18.2%
Drink it at: BrewDog Camden


Alphabetical accident places the most extreme beer on this list first – a luscious, intensely flavoured oak matured stout infused with jasmine and cranberries, this is certainly not a beer to start an evening but is best savoured in small quantities as a nightcap or dessert accompaniment. Aberdeenshire brewer BrewDog’s provocative antics haven’t endeared them to everybody but they’ve certainly helped shake things up. And where better to sample a range of their beers alongside rarities from around the world than in their first London bar, BrewDog Camden, a much friendlier place than the punky image suggests. 113 Bayham Street NW1 0AG.

2. Bristol Milk Stout 4.5%
Drink it at: Powder Keg Diplomacy
Bristol Beer Company’s reputation has spread far beyond its home town thanks to a range of innovative brews, including this revival of an old-stye milk stout with a sweet and toothsome quality well balanced by tarry roast, coffee and smoky bacon hints. Bristol beers often appear at Powder Keg Diplomacy, one of an increasing number of venues boasting a fine beer list besides inventive cocktails and good food. 147 St Johns Hill SW11 1TQ.

3. Camden Town Unfiltered Hells Lager 4.6%.
Drink it at: Camden Town Brewery Bar
Camden Town has gone from strength to strength by concentrating on keg rather than cask beers. Hells, an interpretation of a malty German helles lager, is a tasty, accessible quaffer that’s better still in this unfiltered version, with fresh and fruity yeast flavours. It occasionally pops up at favoured outlets but is regularly on sale at the new Camden Town Brewery Bar, currently open occasional weekends but opening regularly from mid-April. 55 Wilkin Street Mews NW5 3NN.

4. Dark Star American Pale Ale 4.7%.
Drink it at: Tapping the Admiral
Dark Star in Horsham has London roots, having spun off the Pitfield brewery (now in Essex but founded in pre-Damien Hirst Hoxton) in 1996. Its tasty low gravity Hophead is ubiquitous but this is better still, a cask version of a contemporary US pale ale full of floral and tropical fruit hops flavours and a gentle resiny bitterness. Look for it at the wonderfully friendly Tapping the Admiral, which also offers some of the brewery’s bottled beers. 77 Castle Road NW1 8SU.

5. Hardknott Queboid 8%.
Drink it at: Cask


Metropolitan beer fans are now snapping up these distinctive and uncompromising beers from deepest Cumbria. The cask beers are good stuff but look out too for the very special bottles, like this strong blond ale that uses spicy, piny US hops and a fruity Belgian yeast to create complex and richly nutty flavours. Cask, which boasts one of London’s widest beer ranges, is a great place to sample them in a relaxed environment. 6 Charlwood Street SW1V 2EE.

6. Kernel Porter 5.6%.
Drink it at: Mason and Taylor
The Kernel is one of London’s world class breweries, producing US-inspired pale ales on the one hand, on the other historic recreations of stouts and porters of the sort that first made the capital’s brewing reputation. This beer is dark and characteristically delightful with chocolate, vanilla, burnt vine fruits and a fruity, slightly astringent note. Kernel’s mainly bottled beers can be spotted in restaurants as well as pubs and the brewery itself opens every Saturday (from 31 March at 11 Dockley Road Industrial Estate SE16 3SF). But for more comfortable surroundings try stylish Mason & Taylor a stone’s throw from Brick Lane. 51 Bethnal Green Road E1 6LA.

7. Magic Rock Cannonball 7.4%.
Drink it at: Craft Beer Co


This Huddersfield brewery was founded only in 2011 but is already one of the most talked about among British beer fans. Cannonball is a heavily hopped American India Pale Ale full of peach and pine flavours with an intense peppery-bitter finish. The brewery’s beers regularly appear at Cask’s sister pub Craft Beer Co, a nicely restored Victorian corner boozer on Leather Lane Market, where you can sample over 35 cask and keg beers and 300 bottles. 82 Leather Lane EC1N 7TR.

8. Redwillow Ageless 7.2%.
Drink it at: Euston Tap
Another new brewery making a big impact is Redwillow in Macclesfield. This IPA is hugely complex with notes of burnt toast, lavender and sesame oil and a spicy pineapple finish. The beers are only just starting to appear in London but you might well find some at the Euston Tap, a small but stylish beer bar shoehorned unexpectedly into one of the historic gatehouses of Euston station. 190 Euston Road NW1 2EF.

9. Thornbridge Jaipur 5.8%.
Drink it at: Exmouth Arms


Originally based at Thornbridge Hall in Derbyshire, this successful brewery is widely admired among both traditional real ale drinkers and new style craft beer geeks. Jaipur IPA was its breakthrough beer, suffused with tasty citric hops over firm vanilla-tinged malt. It’s now available in cask, keg and bottle and I confess that of the draught options the keg works better, with extra carbonation helping the intense flavours soar. The cask is widely available but a good place to look for the keg is the newly refurbished Exmouth Arms, a great example of a beer-themed pub that’s reaching a new audience. 23 Exmouth Market EC1R 4QL.

10. Windsor & Eton Conqueror 5%
Drink it at: Duchess of Cambridge
The sole London Brewers Alliance member outside London produces thoroughly 21st century beer, including this ‘black IPA’, an apparently oxymoronic style that pairs dark malts with assertive hops. It’s a tough balancing act but Conqueror pulls it off wonderfully with bitter chocolate, blackcurrant and grapefruit flavours. The stronger 7.5% bottled version is also worth looking out for. W&E beers are popular at the expansive Duchess of Cambridge between Shepherds Bush and Chiswick, a fine new beer specialist where most draught ales are served straight from the cask. 320 Goldhawk Road W6 0XF.

Des de Moor is one of Britain’s leading experts on bottled beer, contributing regularly to CAMRA’s BEER magazine and maintaining his own Beer Culture website at http://desdemoor.co.uk. Last year he published his first book, The CAMRA Guide to London’s Best Beer, Pubs and Bars (CAMRA Books) and is already busy keeping it updated online.

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