The new edition of Des de Moor’s guide to the best places to drink beer in London (£12.99, 333 pages, CAMRA Books) is more than just a list.
The gazetteer which make up the meat of the book is solid. There is a mix of traditional pubs, trendy pubs, bars, taprooms, brewpubs and even the Leyton Orient Supporters’ Club bar. It covers territory from the outer edges of the city to its very heart. Some are old favourites, staples of similar volumes from the last five decades; others are current hype magnets; and, crucially, there are many of which we’d never heard of but now find ourselves wanting to visit.
The selection is broad but does skew, perhaps, towards a certain type of smart pub — the kind with liquid soap in the bogs and scotch eggs under a cloche. If you insist on pubs with no hint of gentility, this may not be the guide for you.
Though he is more generous than we would be — if we’d written this book, it might be half the length — Des is by no means uncritical. For example, the Market Porter in Borough, where we have struggled to find good beer or a good time for some years, makes the list, albeit with its faults clearly stated:
[The] experience can be a little hit and miss… [and] making a considered choice… is not always easy when the crowd at the bar is three deep, and the staff are too rushed to advise.
Elsewhere, the book is crammed with interesting essays explaining the history and culture of beer and pubs in London, along with box-outs telling the stories of important London breweries. A section on pub chains is illuminating — we hadn’t really clocked Laine’s or Barworks as chains, for example. Des’s arguments for the importance of certain individuals — Phil Lowry, Duncan Sambrook — in the recent boom in London brewing are persuasive. Again, he is not mindlessly celebratory: he also acknowledges that not all the new breweries actually make consistently good beer. If we ever get to write an updated version of Brew Britannia, in five or ten years time, this will be an invaluable document.
The only extras that really feel like filler are brief Q&As with certain ‘London drinkers’.
There is also a question, which Des has acknowledged both in the book and in discussion online, around the usefulness of a hard copy guide in the age of the smartphone and, in particular, this book’s chief competitor, Will Hawkes’s Craft Beer London. Paper goes out of date quickly (though Des does his best to counter that with free online updates) and is also bulky: realistically, most people won’t have it at hand when they need it, out and about and suddenly thirsty.
Having said that, we still just about prefer books to apps, and giving someone an app for their birthday or for Christmas doesn’t quite feel right.
If you live in London and like beer, you should certainly get a copy, but our tip would be to leave it at work so that, when friends or colleagues say, ‘I don’t mind where we go for a pint as long as it’s near X’, you’ll always have a suggestion at hand.
Though no other UK city is big enough to support a single volume like this, CAMRA might perhaps look to Ian Nairn for inspiration: his classic Nairn’s London was to be followed by a volume entitled Nairn’s Industrial North. A ‘curated’ CAMRA Guide to the Best Beer, Pubs & Bars in the North of England, by someone like Leigh Linley, would be very welcome indeed.
Disclosure: We were sent this book as a sample. We correspond fairly regularly with Des and get a couple of mentions in the book.