In London, beer makes a comeback
By Will Hawkes,
I’m standing in an industrial estate in Southeast London, getting wetter and wetter in a thin, persistent rain. But I’m happy.
And I’m not alone. In a nearby railway archway, I’m confronted by a scene that radiates relaxed contentment: There’s a gentle hubbub of conversation as children dart between adults’ legs and under tables, parents chat with grandparents and groups of bleary-eyed 20-somethings pick over the bones of the previous night’s excesses.
The reason for such a happy gathering? Beer, of course. This is Saturday lunchtime at the Kernel, a craft brewery in the British capital. And London is a city that has recently — and dramatically — fallen back in love with beer.
This will be obvious to anyone visiting the Old Smoke for the Olympics. While those looking for refreshment at that sporting jamboree will have to make do with a well-known Dutch lager (Heineken), the more adventurous will find interesting, flavorful beer all around the city, particularly in East London, where the Olympic Stadium is located and where a youthful, fashion-conscious population is always on the lookout for what’s new and what’s good: Think Brooklyn with British accents.
But the East End’s growing resemblance to New York’s most populous borough won’t be the only reminder of home for pond-hopping Americans. The truth (as painful as it may be for some of Britain’s beer traditionalists to hear) is that the best of London’s new breweries and pubs have taken their cue from the American craft revolution.
Exhibit One: the Kernel. Evin O’Riordain, the Irish founder and head brewer at the Kernel, says that he first realized how good beer could be while working for British cheesemongers Neal’s Yard Dairy in New York. “I was helping one of their customers there set up a cheese room in their shop,” he tells me. “The guys I was working with were very into their beer, so I would teach them all I knew about cheese during the day, and in the evening we would go out drinking and they would teach me about beer. It was amazing to discover that you could treat beer in the same manner that we treated cheese.”
This philosophy has transformed London’s beer scene. Until very recently, the city had just two serious brewers: Meantime, which has been bravely waving the craft beer flag since 2000, and Fuller’s, an excellent but largely traditional cask ale producer (even if its most recently refurbished pub, the Union Tavern in Ladbroke Grove, is devoted to London’s new craft brewers). While the rest of Britain has welcomed successive waves of new microbreweries over the past 40 years, London turned its back on beer.
Until now. Something about the American approach appears to have chimed with the capital’s younger drinkers: This might be because the emphasis is on big flavors, frequently courtesy of American hops. It might also be because there’s a sense (as in the United States) that everything is up for grabs: Britain’s best new brewers do not confine themselves to two or three styles. It’s a thrilling historical irony that London, the city that created so many of the beer styles that kick-started America’s brewed awakening (think India Pale Ale, porter, stout), has been turned back on to beer by American brewers.
The Kernel’s success has meant a struggle to keep up with demand (two years after its founding, the brewery has already had to move to larger premises), and it’s by no means unique. As a beer-lover and a Londoner, I’ve watched with delighted incredulity as this new beer scene emerged. Like flowers sprouting in the ruins of London’s East End after the war, new breweries (there are now 25, and counting) and beer-focused pubs are springing up all the time.
One of the best — perhaps the best — of the new breed of pubs bears the particular imprint of America’s craft brewing revolution: It’s even called the Craft Beer Co., and it can be found in Leather Lane, Clerkenwell, on the eastern fringe of the city center. I can remember the shudder of nerdy excitement I felt the first time I saw the bar at Craft, which sags beneath the weight of 37 beers, six of them served in the traditional British way, via a hand pump. This is real ale, an unfiltered and unpasteurized beer that undergoes a secondary fermentation in the cask, and it could not be more John-Bull British.
But even here the American influence is obvious. The house ale, Clerkenwell Pale, may be brewed in England’s hop-growing heartland of Kent (a county southeast of London) , but it’s American hops that provide the tangy, satisfying flavor. And a glance down the bar demonstrates that “good” beer in England no longer has to be real ale: New brewers like Brodie’s (from Leyton in East London) or North Londoners CamdenTown are as happy to put their beer in American-style kegs (happier, even) as in a cask.
Every week seems to bring a new place to drink excellent beer. Take, for example, the Holborn Whippet, which opened in May just off Bloomsbury Square. Beer-lovers keen to experience something different should try the Whippet: Here the ale is served through a sparkler, a device popular in the north of England that gives the beer a creamy frothiness that (it must be said) does not appeal to everyone.
Nonetheless, the Whippet demonstrates how it is possible to experience the best of not just London’s, but of Britain’s, beer culture in the capital. Names like Thornbridge (from Derbyshire, a county famous for its natural beauty), Dark Star (from Sussex, to the south of London) and BrewDog (Scotland’s consistently controversial but frequently entertaining craft pioneers) are everywhere. The latter even has its own bar in Camden Town, at whose launch a tank decked out in full BrewDog regalia presided. As I said: entertaining.
Hitting the pubs
The best way to try as much of this beer as possible, of course, is by going on a pub crawl; I recently took a group of friends on a trip around some of East London’s best new pubs. Starting at the Jolly Butchers in Stoke Newington (a large, airy pub in a neighborhood colonized in recent years by the liberal middle classes), we wound our way south until, some six or seven boozers later, we reached the Rake, a tiny bar in London’s colorful Borough Market, a few hundred yards south of the Thames.
It had been quite a day, and it made a real impression on my friend Luke. “What is it about good beer that gives you such a headache?” he lamented via e-mail the next morning. The truth is, of course, that when the beer’s this good, you can’t help wanting just one more.
One spot where, regrettably, the beer won’t be so interesting this summer is at the Olympics. But even in Stratford, home of the Olympic Park, there will be something decent to drink. This being 21st-century Britain, the arrival of the Olympics in Stratford necessitated the construction of an enormous shopping center. So far, so bland. But tucked away at the back of this temple to consumption is a little brewpub whose very existence demonstrates how craft beer is tunneling its way into the popular British consciousness. Tap East, as it’s called, is smart, sleek and, it must be said, distinctly American. You can even watch brewer Jim Wilson working away on the shiny brewing kit, if that’s your idea of fun.
It’s not mine, I must say: I much prefer the product to the process. Nonetheless, this is where I’ll be going for a drink on the second Saturday night of the Games. Having somehow acquired two tickets for track and field despite a ballot process that has driven half the British populace into an impotent fury, I’ll be heading down to Stratford early for a glass or two in Tap East beforehand. And, you never know, maybe afterward too.
If you’re in London for the Games, I’ll see you there.
Hawkes is a freelance journalist in London and the author of the forthcoming book and iPhone app, “Craft Beer London.”