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Ten Top London Beers and Places to Drink Them

Posted by: Mark O'Donnell 08/09/2011 @ 17:06
Subject: Pubs & Bars

As the capital's real ale revolution continues to gather pace, we invited one of Britain's leading beer writers, Des de Moor, to select some of his favourite beers and places to drink them. Take it away, Des...  

(Above: Des de Moor)

London is enjoying a surprise beer boom. The beer industry in the former brewing capital of the world reached an historic low point in 2006 when Young’s quit Wandsworth, leaving behind just seven commercial breweries, only two of them craft beer producers of significant size. But since then new microbrewers and brewpubs have mushroomed, and those numbers have more than doubled. London brewers are turning out good stuff too, aspiring to the high standards set in the capital by our one remaining historic independent brewer, Fuller’s.

Documenting this resurgence not only of brewers but of great pubs and bars in which to sample their wares was one of the greatest pleasures of compiling my book The CAMRA Guide to London’s Best Beer, Pubs and Bars earlier this year. Events have already overtaken it – as of the end of August 2011, London has at least 15 operating breweries, and if all current plans come to fruition, there may be as many as 23 in six month’s time.

Here are ten great London beers, mainly produced within Greater London itself but with a couple of honorary out-of-town commuters. I’ve also suggested some great London pubs in which to sample them. Don’t assume these pubs are the ten best in London – you’ll have to buy my book to read my choice of the Top 25 beer pubs – but all are well worth visiting in their own right and particularly appropriate places to enjoy the beer in question, in most cases close to its brewery of origin.

A word of caution – though the listed pub usually stocks the beer in question, policies can change and stocks can sell out unexpectedly, so I can’t make any absolute guarantees. If the listed beer isn’t on, there will be plenty of other good stuff to try, and you can later enjoy searching it out somewhere else.

1. Brodies Amarilla 4.2%. James and Lizzie Brodie produce a constantly evolving unfinished poem in beer from their tiny brewery at the back of the King William IV in Leyton, with a dazzling succession of inventive new beers.

Amarilla, fragrant with the passion fruit-scented American hop Amarillo as rendered in cockney, almost seems conventional compared to their fruit and spiced beers and curious style hybrids, but it’s beautifully made and enduringly popular. The spacious and quirkily decorated William, with its collection of offbeat artifacts like sousaphones and vintage petrol pumps, is the obvious place to sample it, alongside up to 20 other Brodies beers. 816 High Road E10 6AE.

2. Camden Town Hells Lager 4.8%. From a single vessel in the basement of the Horseshoe in Hampstead, this brewery jumped to a high-tech installation under railway arches at Kentish Town West, and now concentrates mainly on top quality keg ales and German-inspired craft lagers and wheat beers. This carefully produced example follows the mould of a helles malty pale lager, juicy and elegant with lightly citric hops. The Horseshoe is still in the family but it’s widely available elsewhere, including providing a more appropriate alternative to big brand lager at one of London’s very best cask ale pubs, the extraordinarily good Southampton Arms.

Explore the handpulled ales while you’re about it as a good few of them will come from London and nearby. 139 Highgate Road NW5 1LE.

3. Fuller’s Chiswick Bitter 3.5%. I could have picked 10 great beers just from Fuller’s, from the world-beating strong bottled Vintage Ale and Brewer’s Reserve aged in former spirit barrels, to deservedly popular national premium cask ale brand London Pride. But much underrated Chiswick, crisp and golden with a sacky malt character, is a sublime example of how traditional British breweries at their best can pack so much flavour into a beer of such modest strength. There are stacks of great Fuller’s pubs in London, though not all stock Chiswick. Right beside the wisteria-clad brewery by the ghastly Hogarth Roundabout is the Fox & Hounds or Mawson Arms: relatively modest but welcoming and a showcase for the beers at their freshest.

Brewery tours depart from here and those Vintage Ales are available from the brewery shop a few paces away – but time your visit carefully, as the pub closes at 8 on weekdays and all day weekends. 110 Chiswick Lane South W4 2QA.

4. Kernel India Pale Ale 6.8%. Arguably now London’s second best brewery, and named one of the five best newcomers in the world in 2010, the Kernel has helped restore a brewing tradition in Southwark that goes back to pre-Chaucerian times. The beers, mostly bottled, are strictly artisanal, inspired on the one hand by old-style London porters and stouts, on the other by hoppy Pale Ales that lean towards US craft brewing models. The exact recipe of the IPA, a style that originated in London in the late 18th century, varies from brew to brew, but expect vivid, perfumed, fruity and piney aromas and flavours from a blend of US hops, beautifully underpinned with biscuity malt. Kernel has pioneered getting craft beer into restaurants and the sort of bars that would never stock cask ale, but it’s also a favourite in top beer pubs

Try it at the Dean Swift, a pub with a serious beer list that also contrives to be a warm-hearted Bermondsey local, only a stone’s throw from the brewery. 32 Lafone Street SE1 2LX.

5. Meantime London Porter 6.5%. One of the few London breweries actually run by a born and bred Londoner, Meantime, established in 2000, is now something of a veteran. It pioneered German-inspired craft brewed lager in the UK when other small breweries stuck to traditional cask ales, though now offers a wide range of beers, including this excellent interpretation of a porter, the beer style on which London’s brewing supremacy was built in the 18th century. A deep ruby brown beer beautifully presented in a champagne-style bottle, it’s rich with leathery, chocolate, pepper and blackcurrant aromas and flavours. And where else to try it but at the Old Brewery, Meantime’s own recently opened and stunningly smart bar-restaurant in the heart of the Maritime Greenwich World Heritage Site. Pepys Building, Old Royal Naval College SE10 9LW

6. Redemption Urban Dusk 4.6%. One of the nicest folk in an industry full of nice folk, former banker Andy Moffat pleases both real ale quaffers and craft beer geeks from his Tottenham brewery. The biscuity, nutty malts in this rich, dark, bitter betray definite Scottish tendencies, unsurprising given the Glaswegian origins of its creator.

It’s among the regulars at the Jolly Butchers in Stoke Newington, once a decaying boozer with a nasty reputation but now offering a stylish welcome, good food and a great choice of both local and imported craft beers, emblematic of the regeneration of London’s beer scene. 204 High Street N16 7HU.

7. Sambrook’s Junction 4.5%. The decline of brewing in London spurred Duncan Sambrook to found his own brewery as one of the first of the new breed in 2008. Considerable success followed thanks to smart business sense and a small but consistent range of well crafted traditional cask ales that can now be found all over the capital, including, slightly ironically, in some Young’s pubs. Junction is a complex special bitter that stays refreshing while contriving a depth of blackcurrant, marmalade and gently roasty flavours. It’s named after the brewery’s local station and London’s busiest, Clapham Junction.

Only a short stroll away is the Draft House Westbridge, first of what’s so far a trio of innovative beer bars cum upmarket diners which helpfully offer third pint measures to extend your sampling capacity. 74-76 Battersea Bridge Road SW11 3AG.

8. Truman’s Runner 4%. Truman, dating back to the early 17th century, was the last of the big London brewers to lose its independence, in 1971. It closed in 1988, its historic Brick Lane site since converted into a trendy arts and media complex. This iconic East End brand then made a surprise reappearance in 2010 when two young entrepreneurs and beer history enthusiasts licensed it from Heineken. Today’s Truman’s beers are London-conceived but not London-brewed: currently they’re contracted to Nethergate in Suffolk, though with a long term plan to relocate brewing in east London. Flagship beer Runner, a modern recipe inspired by old brewing records, is a tasty red-brown bitter, firm and dryish with fruity malts and an edgy twiggy hop note.

Sample it almost within the shadow of the old brewery chimney, among the perfectly formed beer list at the Carpenters Arms, a delightfully regenerated corner pub that once belonged to the Kray twins’ mum. 73 Cheshire Street E2 6EG.

9. Twickenham Naked Ladies 4.4%. Founded in 2004 way out west in the rugby-playing suburb of Twickenham, this brewery is a great believer in localism: its beers are mainly sold within a radius of a few miles and rarely find their way into central London, although Naked Ladies is also brewed under license in Belgium. Its name sounds dangerously close to one of those laddish monikers that embarrass more sophisticated beer enthusiasts, but is actually the local name for a well-known fountain depicting water nymphs in nearby York House. It’s a perfumed golden beer that rapidly bitters with berry and herbal hop flavours. The unofficial brewery tap is the welcoming Prince of Wales just round the corner, where the menu features locally grown vegetables, some from the pub’s own garden. 136 Hampton Road TW2 5QR.

10. Young’s Special London Ale 6.4%. Former Londoners turned commuters, Young’s beers have been brewed in Bedford since 2006, when the company ended a history of commercial brewing dating back to at least the 1530s on its Ram site in Wandsworth and merged its brewing operations with Charles Wells. This year it sold its remaining brewing interests to Wells too and is now simply a pub company, with a large and growing estate. Still, the beers have London heritage and were conscientiously recreated in their new home. One of the very best is Special London, a bottle conditioned traditional strong pale ale originally created for the Belgian market, a big beer with figs, peanuts and almonds and a bitter tonic water finish.

You should find it on sale just across from the former brewery site at the splendid Spread Eagle which, with its mosaic floors, sweeping staircase, Corinthian pillars and massive original bar back still gives, in the words of the compilers of the National Inventory of Historic Pub Interiors, “a very good idea of what a classy pub was meant to look like a hundred years ago”. 71 High Street SW18 2PT.

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. Earlier this 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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