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London has enjoyed a remarkable beer revolution. Over the past decade, dozens of breweries and innumerable pubs and bars have opened, offering Londoners access to a variety of beer that would have seemed unimaginable 10 years ago. In the process, the British capital has become the most important craft-beer city in Europe (particularly if you steer clear of its staid western half).
This is not London’s first dalliance with beer, though. This is one of Europe’s great beer cities; for much of the 18th and 19th centuries, it was the most important brewing centre on the planet. At that time it was home to a variety of now-legendary breweries, some of which were - at one point or another - the biggest in the world: Barclay Perkins, Truman’s, Whitbread and many others.
Of those historic breweries, only Fuller’s - founded in 1845 and based in Chiswick - remains. It’s still possible, though, to get a flavour of that remarkable history and enjoy the excitement of London’s ever-changing modern beer scene. Here are five pubs and bars to visit (from east to west) if you want to really understand London beer and brewing:
Opened earlier this year and run by importers and distributors Cave Direct, Beer Merchants Tap is based in a huge brick-built former bookstore in the heart of Hackney Wick, one of East London’s most fashionable neighbourhoods. As well as a bar, there is (or will be - the place is still evolving) a barrel-aging project and blendery, where beer made by some of the best brewers in the UK and further afield will be aged and blended in the style of a Belgian Lambic blender. There are 24 taps; don’t miss the house beer, Huis, a floral, cloudy Belgian-style ale made with Grains of Paradise in a collaboration between Burning Sky, Duration, and Wild Beer.
There are a number of Craft Beer Co sites across the capital now, but this was the first, opening in 2011. It made a huge impact. With close to 40 beers on the bar, it offered the biggest range in London at the time (and still does, for that matter). Cask ale plays a big role; there are 16 handpumps, with one always devoted to the house pale ale brewed by Kent Brewery. Despite the modern approach to beer, this street-corner pub is fairly traditional, with etched mirrors and a long dark-wood bar. Leather Lane has become one of the city’s more interesting foodie thoroughfares; Craft Beer Co fits in very nicely.
Camberwell’s lack of tube station means it’s off the map for plenty of unadventurous north Londoners - which is their loss, especially if they like beer. This unassuming pub has one of the most consistently impressive selections around, running the gamut from crowd-pleasers like Lost & Grounded’s Kellerpils and Beavertown Neck Oil to Geuze from Oud Beersel and Prairie Bomb Stout. Despite this, it’s an extremely unpretentious place; witness the colourful homemade tap labels (used when the proper one hasn’t turned up) and chunky wooden furniture.
Central London is so full of pubs it might seem odd to head for one that’s perennially busy - but there aren’t many pubs in town that serve beer of this quality. This is a shrine to cask ale. The walls are covered with pump-clip labels of beers that have been served here (and some odd paintings), and there’s always something worth ordering on the bar - not just from Fuller’s, which owns this pub, but Harvey’s Sussex Best, Dark Star Hophead (both permanent fixtures) and plenty more. In the evenings, the crowd spills out onto the pavement outside and it can be a test of will and elbows getting to the bar. If you love cask ale, though, it’s worth it.
Before London fell in love with multi-tap pubs and breweries in every postcode, there was the White Horse. When Mark Dorber arrived in the 1980s, this was a dodgy boozer in a part of town far less gentrified than it is now. A beer lover, he made it famous for its cask ale (including Bass dry-hopped on the premises) and Trappist ales, then a relative rarity, and it hasn’t looked back since. Dorber decamped to the countryside a few years ago but this is still the best place in West London for a glass of something delicious, interesting and well looked-after.
The article is contributed by Will Hawkes. He is a freelance journalist specialising in beer and travel. He is an author of Craft Beer London, a guide to the city's burgeoning beer culture and a regular contributor to a host of publications including The Financial Times, The Guardian, The Washington Post and Beer Advocate.