london pubs

Exploring craft beer in the age of track and trace

Is it fair to judge a bar or pub under current circumstances? Until recently, we’d have said a firm no but after a week in London we find ourselves thinking that if they can handle this, they can handle anything.

We were staying at Westfield in Stratford, East London, on the edge of the site of the 2012 Olympic Games, primarily for family and work reasons, but also because it’s a part of the city we find fascinating.

When Jess was growing up, and when Ray moved to London in 2000, there wasn’t much here at all – railways lines, flyovers, canals, marshes, overgrown woodland, relics of industry. You could spend hours trying to get from A to B in the absence of bridges or footpaths.

Then the Olympics came and it was transformed into a sort of Teletubbyland European Exposcape, followed by a phase of residential building designed to create several new ‘quarters’. The so-called East Village, the one that’s progressed the furthest, was right on our doorstep and is where we ended up spending a lot of time.

We’ve seen this kind of thing fail before – in Docklands, for example, where people apparently lived, though you’d never know it from the deserted quays and streets sorely missing shops or pubs.

This time, though, there did seem to be some ‘place making’ strategy underlying the throwing-up of blocks of flats. Beyond the usual token retail space built to get through planning, developers and/or the powers-that-be have actually set out to lure desirable hospitality businesses including, yes, craft beer bars and breweries.

Combine that with the ongoing redevelopment of nearby Hackney Wick, and two more would-be quarters nearby, and suddenly, you’ve got the makings of a week-long crawl, all doable on foot.

We started, as we always do, with a stop at Tap East, where Jess’s younger brother works. You know the joke about how lockdown rules you can only see your mum if she gets a job at Wetherspoon? Basically that.

Chris signed us in on track and trace, pointed out the hand sanitiser on the table – “We don’t have a shortage of sanitiser but people do keep stealing the little bottles.” – and then we sat back and took delivery of various items from the understandably restricted beer menu.

Fortunately, the house session IPA (keg) was perfect for the weather – pleasingly straightforward, gently perfumed and chalk-dry.

It was here that we noticed the first examples of a couple of bits of customer behaviour that would become a recurring theme of our visit:

People looking at and then striding boldly past signs that said PLEASE WAIT HERE TO BE SEATED and NO SERVICE AT THE BAR. Convenience trumping hygiene: you could wait for that recently vacated and desirable outside table to be wiped down, sure, but then somebody else might beat you to it, so best just rush over with all your stuff and get comfy.

Outside Mother Kelly's E20.

On our first Sunday in town, we set out to start exploring places that were new to us. After a long march along a sun-blasted Capital Greenway we felt we’d earned a drink and so wandered to Mother Kelly’s E20.

We only visited the original Mother Kelly’s in Bethnal Green for the first time last year. The East Village branch is remarkably similar even if the surroundings are less gritty.

In coronavirus mode it has outdoor seating, huge open windows, a one-way system and hand sanitiser dispensers at the door. Track and trace is voluntary, though, handled by email, and we were a bit freaked out to be ordering at the bar after a few weeks of table service only.

The beer list seemed well composed even if, as we suspect, it was driven more by what is available than what is desirable. After a couple of duds, Jess fell for Yonder Raspberry Gose while Ray settled on Augustiner Helles from the fridge.

We watched the goings-on in the square, from rollerbladers to kids learning to ride their bikes, and realised that what makes the East Village difference is the lack of cars. Pavement drinking is much nicer when someone isn’t idling at the kerb right next to you.

With its bland buildings, grid pattern and neat communal spaces, it could have been anywhere from Aachen to Zaragoza. We’d normally roll our eyes at this kind of international homogenisation but this year, when travelling doesn’t feel right, we were very glad of the illusion.

We must have liked it because we went back a second time when we were delighted by German-style beers from Orbit – a subtle, convincing Munich-style dark lager and very klassy Kölsch.

Lambic in a glass.

The European city break atmosphere only intensified when we visited the Beer Merchant’s Tap near the former site of the Lesney Matchbox car factory at Old Ford Lock. It’s in a Victorian warehouse building which suggests Amsterdam, Antwerp or perhaps New York City. The murmurings of our fellow drinkers, in French, Spanish and German, intensified the illusion.

The COVID-19 procedures seemed well thought through, although a sign at the front door saying ‘PLEASE WAIT HERE’ seemed to cause a lot of confusion. Sign in was via QR code and it was one-way bar service, with masks being compulsory.

Most customers did as they were told, although we weren’t convinced some of those huddled close together were from the same households, and of course a few people insisted on steaming into the outpipe.

And as for the breaking of unwritten rules, we enjoyed watching a family group get steadily more cheerful as they necked Delirium Tremens straight from the bottle.

The beer selection here was excellent, too, with a highlight being, oddly, Lost & Grounded Keller Pils. It seems weird to go to London to get a Bristol beer at its absolute best but here it seemed sharper, less hazy and more full of life than any recent glass we’ve had at home.

Brewery tap.

Our next tick was Howling Hops, also in Hackney Wick, and also occupying a former industrial building. One way system, track and trace via QR, bar service but with distance imposed, gallons of hanny sanny – all very reassuring.

With the weather beginning to break we did something we’ve been resisting: we sat inside. Properly inside – not at the open front as at Mother Kelly’s. This was fine until it began to rain and everyone else rushed inside, forgetting the one-way, sharp-elbowing each other for seats, clustering just a little too close in some cases, and shouting to be heard over the music and poor acoustics. Oh well.

Howling Hops’ shtick is that it serves its own beer from massive tanks which do indeed look very cool on the back wall behind the bar. Although most of the beers weren’t in styles we tend to enjoy, we could tell they were good examples. The double-dry-hopped pale ale and NEIPA in particular seemed at least the equal of anything we’ve had from Cloudwater, for example.

Overall, we managed to have a good time exploring and only fretted about the plague for about 30% of the time we were out drinking.

We couldn’t help worrying about the staff in these venues, though, some of whom looked a little tense and weary.

It must be exhausting trying to get tiddly people to follow new, sometimes complex rules, and worrying about being exposed to hundreds of people each day, and worrying about your job in an industry that’s barely keeping its hull above the water line.

That every single person barperson or waiter we encountered was so friendly and engaging is amazing, really.

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