Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, The National Gallery — who needs them? If you are a beer lover, the highlight of London is the pubs. But after soaking up the atmosphere, from quaint and sticky to regal and stuffy (and, as of July 1st, no longer smoky), you will realize you’ve been drinking one of the same few beers, no matter where you go.
In a holdover from the days when the major English breweries bought up London’s pubs, some establishments have only one alternative English beer on tap. Many serve only the big brewers’ beers apart from the standard international brands. For devoted enthusiasts looking for more, however, there are a number of pubs off the beaten tourist path that offer eclectic selections of micro-brewed beer from around the country.
In three days of sampling from dozens of beers, I came across only a few repeats
And by beer I mean ale — real ale — unpasteurized and unfiltered. Unlike beer that is chilled and pressurized in a keg, real English ale is hand-pumped from a cask in the cellar where it is kept at a natural, cool temperature, which allows its subtle and complex flavors to come alive.
“In a good pint of real ale there's a depth of flavor,” says Bob Steel, author of “London Pub Walks,” and a member of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA). “It's a bit like a wine. You get a nose to start with, you get the mouthfeel, sometimes you get a nice lingering finish.”
Sipping from a pint of real ale, which can be hard to come by back in America, is a truly different experience. Once you get past its comparable flatness and warmth, you begin to taste a malty richness and a range of citrusy tangs and bitters from the hops that can be lacking in kegged beer. And while some major brewers, most notably Fullers of London, do make nice ales, a visit to even one of these pubs will open the taste buds to England’s rich and diverse brewing tradition.
Most central of all the beer connoisseur’s pubs is the Market Porter, conveniently located across the street from Borough Market in Southwark. Of the twelve pumps, two are devoted to Harvey’s Brewery of Sussex and one to a real cider. The other nine are constantly changing, featuring microbrews from all over England. Under framed drawings of Dickens characters, I sampled the gamut of English styles, from a rich and malty porter to a sharp bitter to a light and refreshingly hoppy pale ale. Open Fridays and Saturdays, Borough Market is full of stalls serving delicious cheeses, meats and produce. That means both floors of the Market Porter are likely to be packed on those days. This pub is within walking distance of two others that serve slightly smaller selections and the three make a nice microbrew pub-crawl just outside of central London.
If this central circuit doesn’t sate your thirst, there are a few pubs in outer London that offer a range of ambiance. A couple of blocks from the royal gardens at Kew, the Inn at Kew Gardens offers a vivid contrast to the average dim and dingy pub. Huge windows illuminate a large room with leather couches, easy chairs and plenty of table-seating where you can choose from the upscale, restaurant-style menu. Of the two rotating microbrews, a Twinckenham Original, from Twickenham Fine Ales, features a strong hoppy bite often found in American pale ales, but the bartender assured me it would not be found outside of Southwest London and the surrounding area.
A bus ride and a short walk will take you to the Magpie & Crown, where the beer is taken very seriously. Aside from the five taps of ever-changing microbrew ales, there is also an excellent selection of beers from all over Europe.
Finally, for those truly sick and tired of tourists, there are two excellent pubs across town in the northeast part of London. The furthest, The Oakdale Arms, is a neighborhood place just beyond Finsbury Park. The large main room is decorated with microbrew coasters (which you’ll find in many of these pubs) and is filled with leather chairs and couches. Seven of the nine available pumps were active, offering obscure beers and one cider. A rye beer from the Milestone Brewery of Cromwell, Nottinghampshire, was pitch black but drier and less malty than the average stout or bitter. I had not seen one of their beers anywhere else.
Although happy hour was not until 5 p.m. (30 pence off the normal price of £2-3), the staff joined in with a patron in singing along with Led Zeppelin on the jukebox. The Wenlock Arms, in the middle of an industrial zone and perhaps the grittiest of all the pubs, has seven taps devoted to microbrews that go well with their signature salt beef sandwich.
CAMRA is an excellent resource for the beer tourist. Its has information about pubs, fairs and other events.