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London’s bubbling beer scene is worth a fresh look

One of Europe’s historic brewing cities offers everything you’d want from a summer beer trip abroad—traditional taverns on one hand, boundary-pushing brews on the other.
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London's Orbit Beers, photo by Joe Stange

London’s Orbit Beers, photo by Joe Stange

London was once the center of the brewing universe, before the usual sorts of 20th-century consolidations and efficiencies winnowed things down. Lately, it’s been making up for lost time.

One way to witness the shift is to join one of the world’s most interesting bar crawls. Materializing in just the past couple of years, it’s called the Bermondsey Beer Mile, and it happens any given Saturday—but only under the arches of the railway viaduct in South London, running from London Bridge toward Greenwich.

Originally built in the 1830s, those bricked arches are symbolic of London industry, holding up trains while providing space below for workshops and garages. The trendy restaurants and shops are more recent arrivals, attracted by reasonable real estate prices. Same goes for the breweries—a booming business in London these days.

Generally, these archway breweries hold their visiting hours Saturdays only. Most sell beer for takeaway or have a few on tap to drink on the premises, typically setting out some picnic tables for that purpose. Lines get long, seats become scarce and people get, well, loud. But the vibe is friendly, shared between people pleased to be out and day drinking.

The earliest opening is at 9 a.m., and the latest closing is 7 p.m. And there is your Saturday: tasting beers of various styles and various levels of quality from cask, keg, bottle and can, learn- ing firsthand about one small stretch of London’s diverse and exploding brewery scene.

Here’s the thing about the Bermondsey Beer Mile: It’s become an event, something you ought to do at least once… but it’s not the best thing about beer in London these days. Bermondsey is a few trees. It’s not the forest.

Some perspective: There are seven breweries on the Bermondsey Mile. As recently as 2007, there were only seven breweries in all of London. Today, at last count, London has 75 working brew- eries. They’re ticking upward faster than beer magazines go to print.

“London’s beer scene was really a complete embarrassment given the city’s size and influence on the world stage,” said Jezza Gray, a longtime enthusiast who runs the useful website beerguidelondon.com. “Leaving aside tax breaks, which helped smaller breweries, I think what really kick- started the beer revolution in London was inspiration from the U.S.” Specifically, Kernel’s Evin O’Riordain and Beavertown’s Logan Plant—son of a certain Led Zeppelin singer—have both cited American inspiration.

Breweries are multiplying elsewhere, too— including the U.S., of course—driven by the international and insatiable thirst for variety. But it’s hard to think of any city in the world whose brew- ing scene has grown as much and as quickly as London’s in the past few years. Visitors who want a taste of what it’s about—cask ales in the classical mold? edgy Anglo-American hop bombs? flavor- ful kegged lagers? oddly spiced saisons? revivalist porters?—will be spoiled for choice.

The biggest upshot of the brewery boom is that locally made beers are appearing more often in the city’s many drinking venues, from historic Victorian pubs to sleek modern beer bars and many eccentric variations besides. And that might well be the best thing about what’s happening here: London beer may just be in the early stages of recapturing its sense of place. That’s great news for American travelers who don’t nec- essarily come all this way to drink American-style IPAs poured from cans.

Because you can’t do it all. For this article, I spent two days brewery-hopping and managed to squeeze in 19 of them. Not all were good. A few were great. Our space and your time are limited, so below I’ve included some of my highlights and highest recommendations. I favor high-quality beer and places with personality, as well as convenient locations for travelers.

May you find just the right beer—say, a roasted, toffeeish cask porter—in just the right place—maybe a comfy neighborhood pub with chatty regulars—and decide to stay put, have more of the same, and blow off the hundreds of other fine options in a city that is too big to digest anyway.

But until you find that beer and that place, enjoy the hunt through the forest.

Crate, photo by Matt Russell

Crate, photo by Matt Russell

EAST LONDON

Tap East in Stratford is a brewpub, in a shopping mall, at a rail station. These are useful things. Alongside a wide variety of draft and bottled beers, it serves house-brewed cask ales, including a smooth, bitterish porter called Coffee in the Morning—appropriate if you arrive for the 11 a.m. opening (yes, I did).

Truman’s is an East London brewing institution back from the dead. In the 1870s, it was one of the world’s largest breweries; it withered, then shut in 1989. The brand’s revival, at a modest brewhouse called the Eyrie, is a powerful symbol of the city’s brewing comeback. Cask ales include zesty golden Swift at 3.9% strength, easily found at nearby brewery tap Swan Wharf. It’s 20 minutes’ walk from Tap East through the Olympic Park that hosted the 2012 Games.

Crate is a favorite for combining house- brewed cask ale in top condition—like a gorgeous red-black porter, dry and fruity at 4.1% strength—with freshly baked pizza pies (I went with sweet potato, walnut and Stilton cheese). Canalside, it’s 10 minutes’ walk from Swan Wharf, with minimalist decor, staff with beards and tats, and a boat that’s being rehabbed into a floating bar.

Howling Hops is the cellar brewery beneath the Cock, a beautifully spartan barroom around the corner from Hackney Central station. The long bar features eight keg taps and 16 or so handpulls, which feature the house ales, lots of London breweries and cask ciders. A chalk- board diagrams which beers are coming soon via fermenters and maturation tanks. It strikes an elegant balance between hip and traditional.

Mother Kelly’s is a combination beer bar and bottle shop in a railway arch, with 23 keg taps and up to 200 bottles—cosmopolitan and smartly chosen. Intelligent service explains its justifiable popularity.

One Mile End is another cellar brewery, this time beneath the White Hart, a fairly traditional pub in Whitechapel with big food, from cod and chips to blood sausage Scotch eggs. House ales like the floral tea-and-marmalade Docker’s Delight bitter (4.2%) share the bar with other London brews. It’s fairly central, just three stops from the Monument tube station near London Bridge.

The Kernel Brewery, photo by Michael Kelly

Kernel brewery, photo by Michael Kelly

SOUTH LONDON

Kernel is one of the best-regarded new breweries in Britain, let alone London. It’s the grandpa of the Bermondsey Mile, having opened waaaay back in 2009. Its beers are usually tasty and always educational—from single-hopped pale ales that constantly change varieties, to low-gravity Belgian-inspired table beers, to historically accurate recreations of porter and stout. It opens at 9 a.m. Saturday and soon heaves with punters.

Fourpure is one example of new London breweries going in not-so-English directions. Inside, canning machinery and stacks of shiny aluminum surround picnic tables. The hoppy ales look and taste American, but a standout for me was the aromatically floral and grainy Outpost Dry-Hop Pils.

Southwark was a pleasant surprise after an afternoon of cans and kegs, serving its ales only from cask. Also: shorter lines and friendlier smiles. The light and hoppy Gold was bright, mellow and easy drinking, a fine example of how British golden ales are blending American and British hops with beautiful results.

CENTRAL LONDON

Craft Beer Co. is where to find cleverly selected full variety. Now with five locations, the new one at Covent Garden promises to mix tourism with education and festivity.

The Queen’s Head near King’s Cross Station is a simple Victorian pub, authentic and friendly, with emphasis on London brews—including its own, made downstairs. It doesn’t mind being British: Food runs from pork scratchings to ploughman’s to pork pies. Pleasant house-brewed Pale Ale had American hops but tasted Kentish anyway. The beers haven’t made it to cask yet.

WEST LONDON

The Finborough Arms near Earl’s Court is a revived Victorian pub attached to a theater. It’s a favorite mainly because of who runs it: Landlord Jeff Bell specializes in immaculately kept cask ales (including locally brewed ones) and highly opinionated conversation. After you sample a bit of London’s brewing growth spurt, come here for perspective.

For more perspective: Fuller’s is the brewery that has been here through it all. Its under-sung beers and pubs—geeky Londoners are bored with them, but I’m not—are easy to find, but its tap, shop and weekday tours are worth the detour, less than 15 minutes’ walk south of the Stamford Brook tube stop.

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