We couldn’t resist following an official-looking brown tourist information sign pointing to ‘Brewery & Distillery’.
Having set out with no particular plan in mind other than to find (a) beer we can’t get in Penzance and (b) somewhere to enjoy lunch with baby-laden friends we trusted Clapham, in south west London, to provide. The sign actually directed just across the border into Battersea, to the Four Thieves.
This pub occupies a huge building — a former music hall — with decorative tiling throughout, high ceilings, dark corners, a jungle-like ‘gin garden’, a back room with breakfast buffet, a games room with arcade machines and ‘interactive experiences’, and, of course, a substantial glass-fronted brewhouse.
It’s got a touch of the 2005 about it — that curlicued boutique-hotel styling that was all the rage before the industrial look took over — which, frankly, made rather a pleasant change. (Or maybe we’re just getting old.)
The weekend before last, we needed to get out and about and stretch our legs, and what better way to do it than a pub crawl in South London?
Walking from Pimlico and through Battersea Park, the first pub on our hit list was the Merchant, a sister pub to the Florence. It has a similar range of bottled beer and, on tap, their own brew and two from Sambrooks. What we said about the Florence applies pretty much word for word here, although it was a bit cosier.
The Goat on Battersea Rise wasn’t on our list but we were intrigued by the building (see picture above) — what exactly is a Temperance Billiard Hall? Inside, it reminded us of a German bierkeller, with low lighting and cosy spaces. Unfortunately, the ale was absolutely appalling. Brains Party Popper and Ryedale Winter’s Tale both tasted like buttery popcorn with a hint of cardboard. A bottle of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale rescued the day. The staff could not have been friendlier and with such a great building, it’s a shame no-one was actually tasting or looking after the beer. Nonetheless, we bet it’s heaving on a Saturday night.
Then on to Northcote Road, famously home to dozens of dull bars, and into Clapham. We popped into the Holy Drinker which boasts a large range of beers but were baffled to find that they were all in bottles. That and the fact that the bloke on the bar didn’t bother looking up to say hello made it very easy to turn round and walk out. It’s odd — we’re always banging on about how pubs should have more bottles, but if all they have is bottles, we can’t really see the point.
Finally, to the Eagle Ale House on Chatham Road, which we loved, mostly because we got to sit next to and play with the open fire. Meantime Cask London Pale Ale was also a bit of a draw (“we’re the only place they sell it to as a regular”) and was fabulous. The barman absolutely insisted on serving it with a sparkler even though we told him not to go to the trouble of attaching it (“it needs it for the body”). None of the other beers (Loddon Hoppit, Downton Quadhop, Ringwood Best Bitter) were really very interesting but all were in very good condition.
We’re not going to let the fact that most of the tube doesn’t work at weekends at the moment stop us from exploring. A couple of Saturdays back, we decided to go to Clapham and investigate some of the interesting sounding pubs mentioned in various guides and websites.
What did we know of Clapham before this visit? Well, it used to be home to around 300 dreadful stripped-pine and chrome contemporary beverage appreciation spaces — the kinds of place which we suspect soured a lot of CAMRA types on modern pubs for good, with their cold atmospheres and selection of identical and bland ‘world lagers’. On the high street, at least, those are still in abundance, but now looking increasingly careworn and old-fashioned. All the men were wearing little hats and skinny jeans; the girls were in Uggs. Style over substance.
Off the high street, however, there’s plenty to enjoy — the kinds of pubs which fall between full-on trendiness and catering purely to old men.
Our first port of call was the Mason’s Manor Arms, which is in the Good Beer Guide and has been for years. It made the trek worthwhile. It’s a small, cosy pub set back from the street behind a small beer garden. The only concessions to 1990s-style Clapham trendiness are some well-worn sofas and a rather nice contemporary frontage. All the cosiness in the world can’t make up for terrible beer, but the Mason’s Manor has nothing to worry about on that front. Their Summer Lightning was astoundingly good. Downton’s German Pale Ale, their current guest ale, was a fascinating, confusing and delicious beer, evidently brewed with all-German lager-type ingredients and fermented English-style. Similar to Summer Lightning, but fresher and crisper. Timothy Taylor Landlord and Ringwood Bitter were also on offer and beyond criticism in their freshness and condition.
Comfortable as we were, we managed to haul ourselves up and out to make it along the road to the Bread and Roses. Now, on paper, this sounded like our kind of place: a pub run to raise funds for left-wing causes which offers a large range of guest ales and specialty beers. And it exceeded expectations.
First, the interesting beers on tap: Sharp’s Doom Bar, Sharp’s IPA, Purity Pure Gold, Budvar, Budvar Dark, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Stiegl (from Austria), Erdinger Weissbier and Maredsous Blonde. Then in bottles: Maisel’s Dunkelweiss, Brooklyn Lager, Brooklyn Chocolate Stout and Anchor Steam. Nothing we hadn’t tried before, but lots we were pleased to see on offer and, once again, all those we tried were fresh and tasty. We also liked the fact that there were lots of explanatory notes on the pumps and boards to explain what the various beers were like, and there were also suggestions on the menu as to which wine or beer would match with the food.
The pub itself is an old Victorian building decked out in late 90s trendy pub style, except that it also has paintings of left-wing orators in 19th century London, big screen football, copies of the London Drinker and numerous other things that undercut any sense of pretension. Why is this place not more famous? Why was it not crammed? Maybe being neither wholly trendy nor designed for old men makes for a hard-to-sell pub? It makes a point of being child-friendly, so perhaps that scared the GBG off. And, of course, it’s not right next to a tube station.
One caveat: the food was great and cheap (especially given the quality) but took a while to arrive (35 minutes) so don’t build your visit around a meal.
Our crawl was cut short at this point when we moved on in the drizzle to find that Microbar doesn’t open on Saturday afternoons. Another time. Clapham has a lot to offer, and we’re coming back for another session!
Both the Manor Arms and Bread and Roses are on Clapham Manor Street. The nearest tube stops are Clapham North or Clapham Common; alternatively, trains to Clapham High Street leave from Victoria and London Bridge approximately every half an hour. Microbar is technically Battersea, rather than Clapham, but it’s a fairly short stagger from the Bread and Roses; if you go along the Wandsworth Road you’ll pass the Plough Inn, now a Young’s pub, and an old, defunct brewery that goes back at least to 1869, before being bought by Simmonds and then Courage. Google map here, showing all the locations mentioned.