May 24, 2024

Journeys: Brewing a New Beer Scene in London

What was difficult to grasp, however, was what he told me: that this beautiful pub, the Southampton Arms, in the north London neighborhood of Gospel Oak, hadn’t actually been part of London’s great drinking culture since before the beginning of time. In fact, the rarefied atmosphere (and beer list) we were enjoying dated from late 2009, part of an explosion of great beer, and great places to drink it, in the British capital over the past few years.

“I suspect it is the most exciting time to be drinking beer in London since the early ’70s,” said Des de Moor, author of “The CAMRA Guide to London’s Best Beer, Pubs Bars,” when I met him over a quiet pint the next day.

Indeed, London is experiencing a craft beer renaissance so remarkable that keeping up has become a full-time job for connoisseurs like Mr. de Moor, who regularly charts the new developments on his Web site. Despite its history as the home of many of the world’s best-loved brewing styles —  IPA, porter, stout, brown ale and Russian imperial stout are all from here — London’s beer culture suffered through several decades of decline, resulting in just seven working breweries by 2006, according to Mr. de Moor.  

But today, the number has at least tripled, with adventurous new ales and lagers appearing from the likes of Camden Town Brewery, which first fired its kettles in 2010, and the East London Brewing Company, which dates from 2011. In addition, a new generation of pubs and bars makes it easy for beer-loving travelers to sample local flavors and rub elbows with the natives.

Curious about the changes, I topped up a public-transportation Oyster card with a healthy handful of pounds and set about seeing as much of the new beer scene as I could in a weekend. The quest, I soon learned, could take a curious traveler to just about every corner of London, and the city’s breadth and sprawl meant that I would have to limit my journey to a few high points.

“It’s huge now, it’s incredible,” said James Turner, the manager of Euston Tap, a year-and-a-half-old bar in a historic stone building near Euston Station, which was filled with a bustling, youthful crowd when I arrived for a final half-pint at the end of my first day. “It used to be the worst beer city in Britain,” he added, Now, he said, it’s “great.”

Despite London’s extensive brewing traditions, the current beer scene can be surprisingly open-minded, as evinced by Euston Tap’s hop-forward draft list, where Modus Hoperandi from Colorado’s Ska Brewing and other burly American imports were matched by similarly broad-shouldered locals, like Big Chief IPA from Redemption Brewing in North London, which offered an intense, tropical-fruit hop profile that would shock fans of more traditional — and more austere — British flavors.

A 20-minute tube-and-train ride north of there, I’d found almost the exact opposite at Camden Town Brewery’s lounge-style taproom, which opened this spring. There, the focus seemed to shift toward Continental elegance, like the brewery’s bottom-fermented, kegged Hells Lager, the antithesis of Britain’s top-fermented, cask-conditioned ales, yet which makes up some 60 percent of the brewery’s growing sales. A hopped-up variation, USA Hells, seemed to combine the two trends, brightening the golden German-style lager with pungent American hops like Cascade and Columbus.

The next day, over a pungent, single-hop Simcoe pale ale, I related some of my finds to Mr. de Moor at one of the city’s brightest new brewers, the Kernel. Mr. de Moor noted that even the city’s established brands, like Fuller’s, founded in the West London suburb of Chiswick in 1845, are also pushing for better beer.  

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