I moved to London 10 years ago. As a naive student from the countryside, it was incredibly daunting. The city is a giant sketch of concrete, its colourful people constantly bustling and its places shifting around, rubbing bits out and redrawing them.
I studied journalism at City, where I learned to write and find stories where others hear noise. I was shown how to edit and filter myself so I would never underestimate the power of the right word in place of two that nearly fit. But what I learned most, and what I really practised hard, was beer drinking.
Actually those are the wrong words. What I learned was pubbing. To me, it is the act of visiting the pub with no intention in mind other than to be in one. It doesn’t matter who you meet or even what you drink, it is about being in this amazing public space that, even down to the chainiest of chain pubs, is unique from every other. I guess it is the quest for the perfect pub or at least the return to it.
While unpacking myself in London I learned a lot in a very short time. You have to. Look at this metropolis as a whole and you are lost; just one face in the teeming millions. So in my head I split it into villages. I looked at Camden Town (scuzzy, touristy, artsy) as unique to Kentish Town (polished, local, foodie). I looked at schizophrenic Notting hill as a world away from neighbouring Shepherd’s Bush, which knows exactly what it is. This framework of thinking – an emotional rather than geographical attachment to the capital’s places – uncovered one great phenomenon: pubs echo their surroundings. The village pub is not a village pub because it is in a village, but because it represents that village. That framework came to inspire our latest book, The London Craft Beer Guide.
Most people come up with a book and pitch it until someone bites. We were in the unique situation that publisher pitched a book to us. Given the brief of writing a guide for craft beer drinkers in London, we could have phoned in a book full of opening times, taplists and web addresses then updated it once a year. We could have used PR info and press images to get as many pubs and breweries in as possible. Instead, with the reassuring backing of our publisher Ebury, we decided to make something more permanent – interviewing the owners, brewers, locals and regulars to get a snapshot of what it is like to drink in London today.
As a result we supplied the book six months late. Conducting over 60 interviews and writing 42 profiles is no small task, but we also took all the photos ourselves and exercised extreme care in who we included, spending weeks agonising over our selection process.
We started by pubbing around London. First we went to the places we knew had to go in – The Southampton Arms, Stormbird, The Kernel, Beavertown and so on – to get our context. We asked ourselves why these were first on the teamsheet and what that meant for the rest of our list. Surprisingly we found the beer list dropping down the ranks as a factor. We drew a red line that pubs had to meet – a bias towards quality, small batch or local beer – but more important was that the beer was well kept and served with passion. Then, beyond that, it was important we felt comfortable and relaxed whether it was Monday mid-afternoon or Saturday night. The pub itself had to be the attraction as much as its beer, and it needed to say something about its location. You couldn’t put the Duke’s Head in East London, or the Stag in Soho. They are products of their place and intrinsically linked to it.
No doubt readers will be up in arms about their favourite not being included. Most likely they opened too late, but also places like the Lyric, Earl of Essex, many Brewdogs all had little flaws that meant we couldn’t recommend them above another local. The exclusion of the Rake was a particular wrench – it is without doubt one of the most important pubs in London. But could we name a great night we’d had there; one where we never wanted to leave? Sadly not. By contrast, I didn’t expect to have the wonderful time I did at Fuller’s Union Tavern or the Mall Tavern.
When it came to breweries we were even more discerning. Of the 100 or so breweries in London, it turned out we could only truly recommend 18 of them based purely on the quality of the beer they put out. Since going to press some great ones have opened (Pillars, Boxcar) and some have really upped their game (Hopstuff) but when it came to putting down an endorsement in print, we could only commit to one in five. Does that reflect badly on London beer? Not really. Think how many UK breweries you would rave about, and I bet it would be less than 20% of them (that would be around 400 breweries) even if we drink from a lot more than that.
I have been asked a few times if writing this nook made me bored of pubs, breweries or beer. I am still incredulous at the question because the opposite is true. I used to take take pubs for granted, but never again. It has doubled my affection for them and the people who run them. It was a joy and a privilege to sit down in 42 pubs and taprooms with a beer and smash out 800 words, often in the time it took for finish my drink. Inspiration is easy to find in a place like the pub, where thousands of peolle have sought escape, met friends, found solace, earned a living and made a life.
It is called the London Craft Beer Guide but if I had my time again, I would want to call it “London Life & Where it Happens”. Or maybe just “London Pubbing”.
For a video guide to our favourite breweries, see our vid below!