Beers of Convenience in London

A weekend in London meant seven hours of trains and replacement buses, 48 hours of dashing about on DLR, tube and suburban services, and another seven hours back.

Running from one bit of family business to another, our beer choices were dictated largely by convenience. Nevertheless, at Tap East dropping off books, and then again for our signing event on Saturday afternoon, we managed to drink draught beers from Wild Beer Co, Rooster’s, Ilkley, Firebrand, Burning Sky, Pig & Porter and Tap East’s own on-site brewery.

We enjoyed some more than others (Pig & Porter Honey Wheat impressed us in particular) but, based on a single serving in most cases, wouldn’t want to say too much more than that.

There was one beer, however, that tempted us away from ticking and into repeat orders: the Tap East house American Pale Ale (cask, 4.4%). It was a faintly-hazy, pale orange, fresh fruit salad of a beer with none of the raw savouriness that we’ve found off-putting in similar products from other breweries. We’re not much good at guessing hop varieties but we thought, in this case, that we might be experiencing a face full of Amarillo. The website, though, suggests Citra and Chinook. At any rate, just as vanilla tricks the senses by association, something about the hops here made the beer smell sweet, like mango juice or boiling apricot jam. It was good value, too, at not much more than £3 a pint.

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Heading from the book event to a birthday party, we stopped off to pick up some bottled beer at bloody Waitrose. We say bloody Waitrose because every time we mention supermarket beer on the blog, someone will say, ‘You should try Waitrose — their selection is excellent!’ and, every time, we reply, ‘Our nearest Waitrose is in Devon, two hours away by public transport.’ But, yes, based on this visit to the branch in Westfield Stratford, Waitrose is streets ahead of the competition: Oakham Citra and Scarlet Macaw, Thornbridge Wild Swan, Meantime Porter, Meantime IPA, Crouch Vale Amarillo, and, as they say in infomercials, many, many more. They weren’t especially expensive either — c.£2.10 for most 500ml bottles.

Disclosure: we paid for our drinks on the first trip to Tap East (Friday) but got most of them on the house during the signing event (Saturday); and Boak’s little brother works behind the bar there.

One of each before my train leaves, please!

Fuller's pub sign in central London.

Pubs and bars worth visiting are cropping up in some odd places these days.

Last year, Tap East opened in the Westfield shopping centre in Stratford, East London; and in 2009, the Sheffield Tap opened on the platform at that city’s main station, followed by similar station ‘taps’ at Euston and York. These places aren’t exactly pubs as we know them, but, as Knut Albert points out, that’s probably to be expected. (In fact, are we going to end up calling them ‘taps’?)

The latest news is that Fuller’s are getting in on the act by opening a flagship pub (tap…) at King’s Cross — one which will apparently sell every beer they produce, including all available vintages of, er, Vintage Ale.

Imagine — no more tramping around London to try the latest Fuller’s seasonal, and no more lukewarm pints of Wandle at the John Betjeman while waiting for a train. Let’s hope its as good as the publicity makes it sound.

Now other big brewers need to get their acts together and do the same: we still want to see pubs in our major cities selling the full range of breweries such as Wells and Young’s and Greene King in tip-top condition. The twin defences of “you haven’t tried the good stuff” and “when you’ve tried it, it hasn’t been kept well” are wearing thin.

There’s a brewery in Stratford!?

Westfield Stratford City shopping centre inside photo
It’s a rare departure from our usual two-bloggers-one-voice approach, but Bailey suggested I write this one alone, because I have to declare two interests in commenting on Tap East: my brother works there and it’s “on my manor”. I grew up and have lived in East London for most of my life; I used to work in Stratford and my Dad lives there now. To see it exploding into Olympic-inspired life is rather special for me. I really do remember when all of that was just fields (or wasteland, at any rate).

I’m not the world’s biggest fan of shopping centres but, if you have to have them, Westfield Stratford City isn’t bad. As well as welcome brands like Lego (big kid…) there are some quirky shops and cafes around the Great Eastern Market, which is where you will find Tap East, the first and only brewery in a UK shopping centre.

Inside you will be greeted by knowledgeable staff (I am very impressed by how much my brother has learnt in such a short space of time) who will help a baffled shopping refugee or hold their own with a lonesome beer geek at the bar, if required. When we arrived, they were gathered in a huddle, sniffing beer and discussing its aroma. A good sign.

Eight handpumps dispense local brews and reliably excellent guests (e.g. Oakham, Brentwood). We liked Tap East’s John Edward Edwin bitter in particular. On keg, various joys included Harviestoun’s Old Engine oil, perhaps the next step on from Camden Ink in the Guinness fan’s voyage of discovery? And there are bottles galore, so even the most adventurous beer geek should be able to find something new.

The main difficulty it will have is trying to feel even remotely as cosy as a pub when it is, after all, in a great big breezy shopping centre, without a separating door, and with centrally piped music to boot. Obviously, January and February in the middle of a recession will also make for challenging trading conditions. And there’s also plenty of competition, with Brodies and the Red Lion also offering excellent beer geek destinations nearby.

However, our experiences of being squashed in the Craft Beer Co., Cask and the Southampton Arms on the same weekend would suggest the market is not saturated, and Tap East is a worthy competitor to all of those in terms of the beer offerings, with the added advantage that you might even get a seat, all for the sake of a few minutes on the tube.

A couple of years ago, we were excited just to find a passable pub in Stratford. How times have changed.

Boak