Beer Background

A crafty look at London's best bars

Added: Monday, March 25th 2013

Will Hawkes

Craft Beer London, Will Hawkes (Vespertine Press, £10)

It’s a sad fact of modern life that while the term “craft beer” unites brewers and writers in the United States, it’s a source of disharmony in Britain. People take to the beer barricades to protect cask ale on one side and modern keg beer on the other.

I’m all in favour of bridging the divide. I like good beer made by craftsmen and there’s certainly room in Britain today for good keg beer as well as cask – and that, incidentally, is also the position of the Campaign for Real Ale. My only concern is that the word “craft” has been high-jacked by a few brewers who label their beer “craft keg”, as though other forms, including cask, are inferior.

Will Hawkes, fortunately, is not a beer sectarian. He has written a book that is beautifully produced and a joy to look at, with first-class photography by Luca Sage and James Lambie. It’s a guide to some of the finest pubs and bars in London and Will is just as happy with a pint of cask as he is with keg. His introduction stresses the enormous change and improvement to drinking good beer in the capital in recent years, thanks to the mushrooming of new small brewers – but he also praises the pioneering work of CAMRA in beating back the frightening power of big brewers who attempted to eradicate cask ale in the 1970s and 80s.

And there’s an entertaining foreword by Evin O’Riordain of The Kernel Brewery. Who writes such short sentences. That he makes Ernest Hemingway. Seem positively verbose.

The guide is broken down into regions, starting with Central London and the Euston Tap, which has quickly become one of the best-known craft beer bars in the capital. It sells – at a price – a vast range of beers, cask and keg, from home and abroad. There’s also a rear view photo of a man standing at the bar who looks alarmingly like a Doppelganger for myself. Don’t let it put you off your pint.

It’s good to know that the Exmouth Arms, with its fine green tiling, has blossomed again and offers beers from Brooklyn Brewery as well as home-grown Camden and Oakham. Also in EC1, the photo of the bar at Craft Beer Co in Leather Lane shows just how daft is the spat between cask and keg. The bar groans under the weight of around 16 – repeat sixteen -- handpumps, as well as founts dispensing Mikkeller from Denmark and other imported beers.

Mind you, having said the spat is silly, Will then takes us on to BrewDog’s bar in Camden Town where he says that, despite the lack of handpumps, everyone is welcome. I’m not certain about everyone, recalling exchanges between myself and James Watt, founder of the brewery. I’ve yet to visit: perhaps I should send my Doppelganger.

Will may also attract angry emails, but not from BrewDog or me, when he says that Tottenham today is no long chiefly famous for an under-achieving football team. I wouldn’t mind a bit of under-achievement further east in London, but I digress. The Redemption Brewery has restored brewing to Tottenham, which had one of the first dedicated lager breweries in Britain a century or more ago but was reduced to the ignominy of a Whitbread depot.

I like the look and the sound of the Jolly Butchers in Stoke Newington, with a tremendous range of beers, including the immaculate offerings from Dark Star and Thornbridge.

Turning to my old East London stamping ground, I have to express disappointment at the paucity of choice. There’s nothing wrong with the pubs Will has picked out for inclusion, but no Olde Rose & Crown in Walthamstow, which has rejuvenated good beer in the area with a vast rolling programme of cask beers. And no mention of the Black Lion in Plaistow, with a similar dedication to beers from far and wide, and which packs in football fans after games at West Ham United. (Yes, folks, not all football supporters in London drink “laar-ger”.) And while Brodies Brewery in Leyton gets a full listing it seems odd that the splendidly opulent King William IV that fronts it is reduced to just a small mention in the “other pubs” section.

The listings for South-east London get off to a roaring start with the amazing Rake in Borough Market, with beers from here, there and everywhere and a wonderful sign announcing “No Crap on Tap”. It’s followed by The Kernel Brewery, with a superb range of bottled beers, and Greenwich Union, a sumptuous outlet in Greenwich for the beers of master brewer Alastair Hook at Meantime.

West London is something of alien territory for me as you run the risk of bumping into Chelsea supporters. But, careful not to wear anything in claret and blue, I may make the trip to Pimlico and a bar simply called Cask, which has a huge beer list, including Thornbridge, Mikkeller from Denmark and De Molen from Belgium. And who should prop up the back of the book but the White Horse at Parson’s Green, where Mark Dorber once put good beer back on the agenda south of the Thames and even dry hopped his Draught Bass when the brewery stopped doing it. Mark has long since departed to Suffolk, but the Sloany Pony is still there, dispensing beers from Britain and afar to people with cut-glass accents.

Will has written a delightful guide. Just one small grouse (which is the wrong word in the context): too many of the photos of beer and food show great lumps of meat. We’re not all carnivores, Will, and since poor old Dobbin has been found in supermarket and even school meals, many more prefer not to eat parts of the species with whom we share the planet.

So look away at some of the images. But enjoy the beer.