Our trip to London coincided with Craft Beer Rising, a big event on the beer geek calendar, but we didn’t get anywhere near it. Nor did we get to take on the Bermondsey mile.
Fortunately, in London, you’re never far from a pub, and we don’t know many people who take much persuading to meet in one.
1. Friday afternoon: The Craft Beer Company, Islington, for a meeting
This happens to be the nearest pub to our publishers’ offices and so we adjourned to what they call ‘Meeting Room Three’ for the last part of our discussion. We weren’t concentrating on the beer, really, but enjoyed Burning Sky Saison L’Hiver and Kernel London Sour well enough. A party of female students from various parts of the world sat to one side while two burly Londoners perched on stools in a corner. Very pubby. We could happily have spent the entire weekend here, but duty called.
2. Friday night: The Pelt Trader, City of London, to see friends
Our friends demanded a central location, ‘not one of those real ale pubs’, near a station, with room for a fairly large group. The Pelt Trader fit the bill, though there were still grumbles about the lack of ‘normal beer’. A bit of a bare, noisy echo-chamber, but very efficient, with lots of bar surface to minimise queuing. It was good to try Burning Sky Aurora (a decent US-style pale ale) and to have another go at this Lagunitas IPA everyone is on about, though none of the beers blew our minds. Lasting memory: great service driven by a bar manager who seemed to grow happier and more energetic the tougher the crowd got.
3. Saturday evening: The Queen’s Arms, Walthamstow, out of thirst and curiosity
Having spent a day clearing out and cleaning a store room, we literally had dust in our throats. Seeking fresh air, we went for a walk around our old stomping grounds, and couldn’t resist checking out the Queen’s. It used to be just short of rough, but when we occasionally went there to watch football we were always made to feel welcome, as long as we behaved. It has recently, however, become a ‘gastropub’, straight out of 2002. It has a small range of not-the-usual beers, but nothing actually very good. Bare brick, candles, pushchairs. We felt sad at the loss of the karaoke stage and dart board. ‘One gastropub too many,’ seems to be the local view.
4. Saturday evening: The Nags Head, Walthamstow, for old times’ sake
This was our local for years — the pub we went to at least three nights a week and most weekends. It hasn’t changed much (cats, red lights, jazz) though the beer selection has taken a turn for the worse in some areas (Caledonian where once there was Crouch Vale and Mauldon), and improved in others (bottled Brooklyn East India Pale Ale in the fridge). Thwaites’ 13 Guns is a very nice bottled IPA, but by no means ‘intense’ as the label claims. The crowd was more Shoreditch than it used to be — younger, trendier, and more ostentatious about it — but the local bearded CAMRA stalwart and his partner were still sat in their usual corner — ‘one fixed point in a changing age’.
5. Saturday night: The Chequers, Walthamstow, for a pint with our hosts
We were staying with friends and this is where they like to drink, even though the William IV is nearer their house. Of course we were also interested to see what had happened to a pub that was once no-go, was taken over by Antic, and then taken away from them in mysterious circumstances. From outside, it looked as tatty as ever, and High Street remains eerily deserted at night with market packed up and gone. There was a healthy buzz inside, though, with, at a guess, 90 per cent of seats taken. We drank more Lagunitas IPA (we’d have loved it five years ago) and pints of Sambrook’s Porter, the first of their beers we’ve really enjoyed. Surprisingly, it had a real East London feel: if the DJ had stopped for a moment, we wouldn’t have been surprised at a spontaneous chorus of Roll out the Barrel.
6. Sunday lunchtime: The Castle, Walthamstow
Multiple sets of friends with multiple children adding up to a party of fifteen required a banqueting table and Yorkshire puddings. It was absolutely heaving with every seat and surface occupied. There was hardly a beer worth drinking (Adnams’ Broadside was just about OK) but the food was good, and the staff were friendly and professional, feeding and ejecting us in two hours flat without hurting anyone’s feelings.
7. The Village, Walthamstow, out of convenience
Our party of fifteen wanted to keep boozing, so we retreated to the nearest pub likely to have room for us — the poor old Village. This was once the best in the area, but hasn’t really kept up. Even here, though, there was something for the beer geek to observe: an off-the-shelf ‘craft beer solution’ for pubs seeking to capitalise on the latest market trend. That is, a fridge containing Kwak, St Stefanus Blonde, Viru Estonian pilsner, and so on, probably supplied by Matthew Clark (PDF) Twitter reckoned.
8. Sunday evening: Tap East, Stratford, to see Boak’s little brother
He was working a double shift behind the bar but we caught him on his break to discuss some family business. We took the opportunity to drink a couple of pints of Tonic Pale Ale brewed on site — austerely bitter and genuinely refreshing. Bear Republic Red Rocket Ale was the last of the day and reminded us why we used to get so excited about American beer: widescreen and awe-inspiringly Spielbergian. Almost everyone else was drinking Fuller’s Frontier Craft Lager or Koenig wheat beer — make of that what you will.
9. Monday lunchtime: The Mad Bishop & Bear, Paddington, on the way home
Most of our trips to London finish here. It’s not a lovely pub, but it has (a) a departure board; (b) cask ale kept to the high standard of most managed Fuller’s pubs; and (c) a nearly complete bottled range on offer, too. This time, we noted approvingly the addition of an information board listing all the available cask ales, when they were tapped, and when they were first served. We were also pleased to see a few beers from outside the Fuller’s empire, notably Castle Rock Harvest Pale.
All in all, this was a reminder that beer isn’t the only reason to go to the pub, and a great opportunity to look outside ‘the bubble’.