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How to find beer in London

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Jetting to London for the Olympics with not a clue where to drink? Correspondent Joe Stange recommends the best sources for pub-finding.

When I realized that a London stopover this summer would coincide with the Great British Beer Festival, I extended that stopover to three days. And why not? Excellent, I thought, I can hit the festival, see a few pubs, learn a lot, and get an article or two out of the deal.

And best of all, I told myself with absolutely no sense of dramatic irony, it doesn’t have to be expensive.

Then I started searching for rooms. They were triple or quadruple the usual cost, no exaggerationThat’s weird, my sad inner dialogue continued. What, is there something big going on that week?

Oh yeah. That whole month, actually. It’s called the Olympics.

So I ended up booking a bed in a hostel dorm for about US$50 a night. I’m a grown-up hairy man now, with kids and all. I haven’t stayed in a bona fide hostel in about 10 years. So if you find this while Googling for cheap London hotel rooms during the Olympics, you have come to the wrong place. I am clearly an ignoramus in that particular field.

However: Beer. London. Summer. Thirsty. Cold pork pies. I mean, unless you’re one of the athletes (and maybe even then), you’re going to want to find some pubs, right?

“But Joe,” you are now saying aloud to your computer screen, within earshot of the guy in the next cubicle, “surely it’s not hard to find pubs in London.”

True. It’s also not difficult to find Stella, Guinness, Carlsberg (extra cold!) or Bud—the world’s most popular beers—within those same pubs. Franzia, by the way, is the world’s most popular wine. Is that what you’d drink in Paris? (Yes, I know Franzia is not French. Nor are any of the aforementioned beers British.) The point is, when in London, you want to drink like a Londoner.

Ale is London’s treasure, pulled from casks via those shiny hand pumps, and ideally well kept. And if you’re not content with local treasures, there are a growing number of craft beer bars that specialize in interesting international ones, whether casked, kegged or bottled, while still carrying plenty of cask ale, too. Whatever your taste, there are places that offer better pints, better atmosphere and better proximity to your criminally extortionate hotel.

Actually, I’m not an expert in London pubs either. But I know a few people who are. And they write books. Useful ones. So, fellow tourists, here is your shopping list.

Good Beer Guide U.K. Mobile

The Campaign for Real Ale’s Good Beer Guide gets first mention, but not for the book itself, which is thick and weighty for someone who’s going to hoof around London on foot since the teeming masses have clogged the tube. Instead, I recommend the mobile app, available for iPhone and Android. The really handy feature: You can search by tube station, address or your current location, then pull up a list or a map to see what’s nearby. “Oh no, are we short one ticket for the doubles mixed badminton medal ceremony? Shoot. Well, why don’t y’all go on ahead. I’m sure I can find something to do…”

London’s Best Beer Bars and Pubs

Des de Moor writes CAMRA’s London book, which offers greater width and depth on the city. De Moor’s own website, where he regularly offers updates, immediately shows the book’s value. The latest entry, for a bar named Powder Keg Diplomacy, provides a glimpse of how London is steadily preparing to squash any arguments about which is the world’s greatest drinking city: “A decade ago the idea of installing cask ale handpumps in a hip and youthful London cocktail bar would have seemed ridiculous,” de Moor writes. “Now the owners of such places are commissioning their own brand beers and planning to start a brewery.” He provides all the useful details without losing sight of the big picture.

Beer Lover’s Britain

Speaking of big picture: Here is your airplane reading, to provide the context and whet the thirst. It’s a primer. Jeff Evans might have named his Kindle ebook, “British Beer for Beginners and Non-British People,” but his title is snappier. What the book lacks in flair it makes up for with facts, advice and an almost total lack of nonsense. At $4, it’s the price of a pint. There are sections on the beers, the breweries and the pubs, all sketching the lay of the land with insight into British drinking culture. There is even a section on table dressings, with tips on what we Yanks call coasters. “Most pubs will be happy to give you clean copies and it’s bad form to simply stuff them in your pockets.” I had no idea. I’ve been swiping beer mats for years. And tipping! Or the lack thereof. Good things to know.

Around London in 80 Beers

I’m biased here. This guide is part of the same series as my Brussels book. But Podge and Siobhan’s work has many strengths, which include: It is thin; it is light; it focuses on all sorts of beers besides cask ale; and it touches on all sorts of places beyond traditional pubs. Their eye for quirks is sharp, and they share their private chuckles with the reader. One downside is that the book is going on four years old, and London’s beer scene has changed a lot in such a short time. The 80 might look a bit different today.

Even more books

Turns out there are more London and British pub books than I could possibly list. Historic pubs. Pub walks. Historic pub walks. Without having read any of them, I note this one coming out this summer will be just in time for the Olympics: London’s Best Pubs, 2nd edition. And if you’ll be getting outside London much, the new Great British Pubs was written by one of the best.

The Ratebeer and Beeradvocate place databases

Everyone uses them and pretends that they don’t. They are incredibly rich if imperfect resources, and much to the annoyance of pros, they are totally free. Think Trip Advisor for beer geeks—bearing in mind that geeks and particularly beer raters do not always have the same interests as other thirsty people. For London, here is the Ratebeer page, and here is Beeradvocate’s. But you already knew that. Unless you didn’t.

Tickets to the Great British Beer Festival

Books and websites can tell you about pubs and breweries and culture, but the GBBF is surely the best place to taste the breadth of British ale for yourself. Not all at once, though. Be selective according to your curiosities and interests. Or, take part in that time-honored beer festival tradition and ask a large chatty bearded man which one he’s liked best so far. Tickets are £8 (US$13) a day for non-CAMRA members and available online.

Actual beer lovers in actual Britain, feel free to suggest additional tips, favorite pubs, or the beer that any curious tourist absolutely must try.

And may you have better luck than I in finding a room within your budget.

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