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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