BOOK REVIEW: London’s Best Beer, Pubs & Bars

The Craft Beer Co, Islington, June 2014.

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 cover of The CAMRA Guide to London's Best Beer, Pubs & Bars.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.

A sample entry from the book.
A sample entry from the book.

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.

12 thoughts on “BOOK REVIEW: London’s Best Beer, Pubs & Bars”

  1. Your sample entry – the Lazy Fox – has closed already sadly. They marketed the lease and business as a going concern (for £150k I think) but I believe it’s going to residential now. Was close to my former pub the Finborough (which I believe is in the guide too) and we shared some customers.

    One guide book for the cities of the North would certainly make a nice volume but in my experience (as someone who grew up near Newcastle), people who actually live in the North don’t tend to visit the other cities so much. So it would probably be of more appeal to the general enthusiast but no so much to people in the region who’d be getting a lot of info they’d likely never use.

    1. I’d say there’s a lot of shared beer culture and identity along the Liverpool-Manchester-Huddersfield-Leeds-York railway line.

      But obviously Newcastle folk never go anywhere else. 😉

      And isn’t it the case that people living in outer London stick to their own area and the centre, and rarely have anything to do with other parts of outer London? And people who live in inner London have a horror of venturing outside the North and South Circular?

    2. Would it really be aimed at people who live in the North though? More like people who are intending to visit the North, just like this one is useful for anyone intending to visit London.

      TBH you could probably just cover the majority of big UK cities in one volume.

  2. Not sure it’s quite correct that no other city can justify a guide. The CAMRA guide to the pub walk in and around Edinburgh by Bob Steel was invaluable for my two visits in the last 12 months. Yes, not a gazetteer (and nice use of the word BTW) it always steered us in the right direction while adding important context. I’d still be just thinking about places on Rose Street without it.

    1. Edinburgh’s class for pubs. Rest of Scotland absolutely hopeless though.

      That’s the thing about Edinburgh: great North British city.

      1. Agreed but I quite like a lit of spots on the Clyde too. Surprised when I was there in Edinburgh last August and again in January how familiar it was. Been there at least five or six extended times plus lots of passing through visiting great aunties and first cousins. Even looked up transferring to a nice solicitors job there in the construction trade (a decent chunk of what I do) but the wages shocked. Perhaps I’ll retire near there.

    2. Edinburgh’s class for pubs. Rest of Scotland absolutely hopeless though.

      That’s the thing about Edinburgh: great North British city.

  3. Thanks for the kind words, much appreciated.

    I think that possibly the only other places in the UK you could do a book on this scale for would be (assuming we’re not still fighting the Wars of the Roses) trans-Pennine cities (Liverpool-Manchester-Sheffield-Leeds: Newcastle is probably just a bit too far out) and Edinburgh-Glasgow. On the subject of audiences and their travel behaviour, I wrote the book for both Londoners and visitors, and for people who are keen enough on beer to make the effort to travel. Actually one of the delights of researching and writing it has been the excuse to visit parts of London previously less familiar to me and I hope London-based readers will share some of that.

    On liquid soap and Scotch egg cloches, well I could list the earthier entries but statistically you’re probably right. My decision to favour variety of beer has shaped some of that as the places with the biggest ranges do tend to be of a type. If you want a wider choice of more traditional places that do a handful of familiar cask beers in good nick there’s this book called the Good Beer Guide…

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