London was slow on the uptake when the craft beer boom began, but it's more than made up for that in the last few years. Take a train anywhere in the city and you'll likely pass over the bearded and beanied head of at least one craft brewer bent over a mash tun in the archways beneath the tracks. Pick the right train line and it'll be considerably more than that.
While other parts of Britain may be happy to retreat into inward-looking isolation, the capital remains an open and welcoming place for people from all over. It is a world city, and like all world cities it is a melting pot of talent and creativity. And right now some of the most interesting contributions to its craft beer scene are being made by brewers who came from elsewhere to add a little spice to the stew.
Old Street Brewery
Open barely a year, Old Street Brewery's taproom has a fresh and laid-back homespun vibe. Adam, an American, and Andreas, a Finn who grew up in Paris, both worked at craft beer bar Mother Kelly's just around the corner before deciding to start their own brewery. "It's been a heck of a ride," says Adam. "The first six months were incredibly chaotic, as you can imagine, trying to set up a business. But it's gone better than I think any of us expected."
Their beers are mainly pale ales and hazy IPAs, but they also have stouts and a hoppy brown ale with deep toffee malts. The duo still brew on a tiny 200-liter kit, which averages less than 300 pints per brew, while they run their crowdfunding campaign for a bigger one. At present some of their beers—the pale ales in particular—will sell out in just two days. So while they do have a small core range, you never quite know what beers will be on when you visit. There are always guest beers on tap for when the house brews run dry.
Adam describes the decor as "Western/Nordic"—in other words, clean and simple with a lot of wood. "We built the entire place ourselves so there's nothing grandiose about it by any means. It's just a very warm, cozy place where you can go and talk to the brewers," he says. "One remark we get from a lot of Americans is how much it feels like America in here."
When Adam came to London three years ago he felt its beer scene was like that of the US in the mid '90s. He says there's still room for innovation and growth, especially in East London. With two more breweries due to open in the same alley over the coming weeks, including the much-vaunted Boxcar, the area has freshness and vigor. "I think this is the new epicentre of craft beer in London if not the UK."
The Experiment is a collaborative taproom run by local brewery Pressure Drop and out-of-towners Verdant, from Falmouth in Cornwall. When it opened just eight months ago Verdant was among the first in a sudden spate of non-London breweries to open an outlet in the city, along with Goose Island. That list has since grown to include Cloudwater and Mikkeller, among others.
Both breweries are a big draw in their own right but together, in East London, they have created a taproom that feels like the epitome of a scenester hangout. You'll probably bump into lots of craft brewers if you drink here. Verdant in particular has created a real buzz with its hazebro hypefuel beers. "It's just been amazing seeing the fans come out for Verdant from afar. Scotland for example," say bar manager Louis Bloomfield. One recent re-release of a well-loved DIPA in cans sold out in just 22 minutes, even with a maximum of three per customer.
There are 10 taps in The Experiment, five for each brewery, plus cans in the fridge. The beer is seriously fresh, sometimes just three or four days old. "Getting the freshest beer out to people is amazing," says Louis. "Every week it's a new beer, so people love that."
Thirsty drinkers staggering away from The Experiment will immediately stumble upon more breweries, craft beer bars, and pubs. You could plan a very short, very intense pub crawl and still not visit everything in the area. "It's still fun and fresh," says Louis. "I love it here. It's not gentrified yet." But with beers this good, why go anywhere else? "Just come, chill out and relax. It doesn't matter who you are," says Louis.
German Kraft Beer
Not every taproom in London huddles under a railway arch. German Kraft Beer sits inside the Mercato Metropolitano, an indoor food market just a few minutes' walk away from London Bridge. This gives it a very different vibe from most craft beer bars in the city.
"It's definitely more diverse. We don't just have super crafty beer nerds," says Felix Bollen, one of the three co-founders.
The taproom is open seven days a week, including lunchtime, except for Mondays when the beer lines are cleaned. You can bring food from one of the surrounding market's 40 or more stands into the spacious taproom, or try the food sold on site. "We do sausages, of course," says Felix. They also have pretzels and bread sticks. There is also live music every Tuesday and DJs on the weekend.
German Kraft Beer brews mainly lagers and German-style wheat beers. Its best seller, Heidi Blonde, is a helles. The beer is all brewed according to the Reinheitsgebot, the famous German purity law, using malts from a speciality malthouse in Bavaria and the brewery's own customised mineral water. "We don't do anything to it," says Felix. "We don't filter it, we don't pasteurize it. We only serve it fresh on site as they do in the small Franconian villages."
The real draw to German Kraft Beer is the “brew garden,” a sprawling beer garden with palm trees and bamboo set among the lagering tanks. It has its own enormous outside bar where the brewers serve their beers directly from the tank, plus food trucks, gin and tonic from the distillery next door, and even a dedicated event space. The brewers claim it is the largest outdoors drinking space in London. "The garden is the real gem here because you don't find big open spaces like this in central London anymore," says Felix.
Tileyard Studios is a not-quite-former light-industrial estate gradually transforming into a creative hub built around music, film and TV, fashion, and other creative industries. At the far end of this is Two Tribes brewery and taproom, owned by bigtime '90s DJ-turned-brewer Justin Deighton.
Justin began his conversion from music to beer in Brighton, some 70 miles south of London on the UK's south coast. "I call it the acid house retirement village," says Justin, "because there's a load of old relics down there." But it wasn't long before Justin's ethos for the brewery—beer, music, art—and his connections in the music world drew him and his brewery back to London.
Now, brewing on a high-spec kit and nearing its one year anniversary, Two Tribes is starting to make a name for itself. Accomplished specials and collaboration brews—often drawing on input from other creative industries—build on the brewery's rock-solid core range of sessionable pale ales and IPAs. Outside there is a food truck hosting guest chefs who cook a wide range of cuisines.
This taproom has a little bit more polish to it than most. It's part of a working brewery with its feet firmly on the ground, but there are nice design touches and a properly swank Funktion One sound system, too. Most nights there will be something going on, and given the location, this often means music. You may even see a big name or two using this small, intimate space as a warm-up for larger stages elsewhere. "It's the sort of space that even if there's 30 people on a quiet night, there's still a nice vibe," says Justin.
In this small neighbourhood bar with tables lining one wall and stools along the other you will find traditional Bohemian-style lagers brewed by Czechs according to a 10-point manifesto. These unfiltered, naturally carbonated lagers are among the very best you can find in London. Forget Fosters—this is the real deal. There are seven taps; regular crowd pleasers include Victoria, a session lager, and Amos, the brewery's more robust premium Czech pilsner. There are also amber and dark lagers.
You can buy Bohem's beers in a handful of places around town, but the taproom in Bowes Park is by far the best place to experience them. This is because the owners, like all good Czechs, understand there's little point in brewing a quality beer if you're not going to serve it properly as well.
Bohem's secret weapon is Marek Průša, the only bonafide Czech tapster regularly pouring in London. By controlling the amount of carbon dioxide released as he pours, and thereby varying the amount of foam in the glass, Marek transforms the way each beer tastes. If you try a šnyt (pronounced “shnitt”) your glass will be half beer and half foam—usually grounds for complaint but in this case it's a revelation. It softens the beer and makes it taste less bitter. Other traditional Czech pouring methods include čochtan (no foam), hladinka (with a big creamy head; about 20% foam) and mlíko (“milk”; wet, almost entirely foam). Try them all with the same beer to see just what a huge difference they make.
You're not going to find beer this good served in this way anywhere else in London. It's worth braving a trip to the 'burbs. Think of it as a pilgrimage. "We always wanted to be doing things different," says Bohem co-founder Zdenek Kudr. "We are Czechs. We use Czech recipes with always a little twist for each style. We use Czech ingredients as much as we can. The taxes we pay are British. But the rest, everything possible is Czech."
Top photo courtesy of German Kraft Beer.