Recently I embarked on a London pub crawl of sorts around Fleet Street and Holborn. Part of my mission was to visit four of the 48 pubs in my Taverns in Town project. At the same time, I wanted to try out some new ‘craft’ venues to compare and contrast the old and the new.
What struck me most was that today, in London, if you want great beer you would have to actively go out of your way to avoid it. I visited seven pubs in all and the choice and range was astonishing. I drank a varied assortment – Dark Star Hophead, Longman Copper Hop, Buxton Moor Top, Crouch Vale Brewers Gold, Burning Sky Plateau, Konig Pils, Siren Undercurrent and Dark Star Green Hopped IPA – and for each choice there could have been two or three worthy replacements.
This is a far cry from my arrival in London late in 2000. Chain and theme pubs dominated the scene – All Bar One, O’Neills, Rat & Parrot, Slug and Lettuce, Hogshead – and you were basically choosing between Caffreys, Guinness and John Smiths as your keg ‘ales’, some fancy European lager like Becks or Staropramen or an interesting oddity like Hoegaarden. You really had to search to find the hidden gem of a pub with interesting beers at decent prices. And as for local beers it was Youngs or Fullers. Full stop.
We are lucky to be living through this craft beer boom and proliferation of new and interesting pub concepts with excellent beer ranges. As with any trend, be it fashion, coffee shops, free newspapers it tends to start (or at least gather pace) in London and then radiate out to other major urban centres like ripples on a pond, before rippling back to fill in the gaps.
A few weeks ago I participated in the Horsham Ale Trail. Compare and contrast the beer list from my London trip with this Horsham ‘showcase’ – Dark Star Sunburst, Birrificio Angelo Poretti, Hepworth Sussex, Taylor Walker 1730, Bill’s Beer, Greene King Crown Ale, Kings Horsham Best, Hepworth Conqueror Stout, (bastardised) King & Barnes Sussex, Fullers London Pride – only 3 or 4 out of 10 that could hold a light to my average evening out in London experience.
My adopted home is about 40 miles from London and has a variety of town centre pubs, but since the sale of the King and Barnes estate to Hall & Woodhouse in 2001 we are far from spoiled for choice. The local Taylor Walker pub and Wetherspoon probably offer the best choice where ‘craft’ is concerned (which tells you all you need to know), but both do support local breweries pretty well too. And because of the Hall & Woodhouse domination, away from those venues, you have to be really lucky to find anything from any of the excellent local breweries (Hepworth, Kings, Weltons, Kissingate, Firebird and of course Dark Star) in the town centre. Where pubs do have an ale range, they tend to be tied to a less than adventurous pub company.
Horsham is stuck between London and Brighton and waiting for the ripple to rebound. Whoever sets up a decent pub with a great range of local and ‘craft’ beers will do well, if the thriving brewery shops and supermarket shelves, usually stripped of premium bottled ales, are anything to go by. So if you are a London drinker reading this, count your blessings and go out and try as many different pubs and beers as you can all over the city. If like me you are stuck in the land that beer forgot, don’t worry, it will arrive soon: I just hope we can last it out.