This writer sips her way around the Square Mile.
LONDON'S BUBBLING CRAFT BEER SCENE
Stop into any pub in London, and you can generally find a well-pulled pint—and some nibbles to go with it. But for true beer aficionados in London, there are a few don’t miss places serving up beer brewed right in the capital.
In order to truly appreciate the variety that is beer in London, it’s best to start at the beginning, or as close to the beginning as you can get. I had the opportunity to visit Fuller’s, a brewery in Chiswick that has been in operation since the 16th century. John Fuller, Henry Turner, and John Smith took possession in 1845 and it remains an independent family owned brewery to this day. Fuller’s are some of the most common beers to find on tap in London’s pubs – case in point, Fuller’s nickname, London’s brewery, and its star ale, London Pride. As such, it’s an interesting place to get to know the flavors that Londoners are used to drinking – all the better to adequately judge the rest!
Fuller’s brews several different beers, but their core line is made up of three: Chiswick Bitter (3.5% ABV), London Pride (4.1% ABV) and ESB or Extra Special Bitter (5.5% ABV), a name coined by Fuller’s that has since become a globally recognized beer style. All three beers start with the same base of malt mix, though they are later fermented and hopped differently. This shared base, however, is part of what creates brand loyalty with Fuller’s: if you like one of the three principal beers, chances are, you’ll like them all.
The London Pride takes its name from Saxifraga x urbium, a flower that grew on sites bombed during the London Blitz and was therefore given the name of London Pride. After a naming contest was held, the same name was then bestowed on this malty, amber ale with a biscuity sweetness. Similar flavors are found in the dry-hopped Chiswick Bitter, which, as its name indicates, does add a good level of bitterness to this ale. The bitter is still quite light and fresh, with very flowery hop flavors and a touch of citrus. My favorite of the three was the ESB, which adds lovely yeast aromas and a hint of orange to the mix. I’m not alone in my preference: ESB has won Beer of Britain three times.
Aside from these three beers, Fuller’s also offers several others for different palates. Honeydew (5% ABV) is a beer brewed with organic honey from Brazil—in fact, Honeydew is the best-selling organic beer in the UK. I adored the deep, rich aromas, and as someone who does not love sweet beers, I found the honey flavors to be very present without being overwhelming or cloying.
The London Porter (5.4% ABV) got its name thanks to being the favorite drink of 19th century London street porters. London water is said to be perfect for making porter, and this one proves the point, with classic chocolatey aromas and a rich, creamy mouth feel.
I tried a few spring and summer brews, including, Oliver’s Island (3.8% ABV), brewed with Cara Gold malt. This new permanent brew offers quite a bit of citrus flavor though the recipe has changed since the original launch, as testers said that the orange promised was not quite present enough. In its current incarnation, Oliver’s Island is bright and just a bit sweet, perfect as an alternative to Pim’s. My favorite of the seasonal beers was the Spring Sprinter (4% ABV), a surprisingly earthy beer with a light, citrusy flavor and a clean finish. The coup de coeur with this one was the grassy, vegetal note to the nose, which is very distinctive and makes this ale very drinkable especially in hot weather.
Modern London Brewed Beers
With these flavors under my belt, I set out to discover some of London's more modern breweries. One of my first stops was Brew Wharf, a centrally located restaurant and pub not far from London Bridge. Brew Wharf offers local beers both on tap and by the bottle as well as an extensive menu encompassing traditional British pub food and more modern international fare.
Here, I sampled several beers from London-based Meantime Brewing Company in Greenwich. The Yakima Red (4.1% ABV) is a malty pale ale with a light bitterness on the finish stemming from the use of five different Yakima Valley hops. The amalgam of British brewing and malt and American hops creates a very interesting brew that combines the sweeter, maltier aromas preferred by Brits with some of the stronger, more bitter flavors of American brews. The fruitiness of the hops in this beer makes it an intriguing match for charcuterie or other rich pork dishes.
The Union Lager (4.9% ABV) was my personal favorite, with a malty, caramel flavor more reminiscent of ale than the Vienna-style lager it is. A crisp bitterness that balances these richer aromas, creating a complex beer that paired perfectly with the house burger.
But while enjoying a few brews at a table is all well and good, true beer fans will want to devote a Saturday afternoon in London to a beer crawl along the Bermondsey Beer Mile, encompassing several bottle shops and breweries.
Kernel was meant to be our first stop, but it was unfortunately closed when we visited. That being said, I was able to pick up a bottle of the Citra Summit Pale Ale (5.5% ABV) to try at home. This fresh, citrusy ale has a cloudy aspect and a nice white head. I found the tropical fruit flavors surprising yet welcome in a style that is currently being done to death—the Kernel’s version is well worth a try.
At Brew By Numbers, we opted for two distinctive brews: the first was a saison brewed with hibiscus and chamomile – 01/09 (5.6% ABV) with a rustic nose typical of a saison and floral aromas that, while hardly distinguishable as hibiscus and chamomile, added to the earthiness of this beer. My favorite at Brew By Numbers, however, was the Black IPA – 15/01 (6.1% ABV)—I fell so hard for it I took home a bottle. The dark color of the beer makes the citrus aromas surprising, but this IPA is principally characterized by its woody aromas, moderate bitterness and light notes of chocolate. This beer is a definite winner for lovers of both dark beers and IPAs and would match perfectly with the smoky flavors of barbecued brisket or pulled pork.
Our next stop was The Bottle Shop, where I sampled an intriguing collaboration between Bullfinch, Weird Beard and Marble--a grapefruit IPA called You Taste Better When You Are Scared (6.5% ABV). This bright beer obviously has a good amount of citrus, but I also enjoyed the surprising spiciness and maltiness here. It doesn’t have the same kick of bitterness that I would expect from an IPA; nearly all of the bitterness seems citrusy in origin, but it’s a refreshing change, and as a collaboration, a great way to get to know new breweries.
We finished our tour at Four Pure, as many seem to do, given that this address also offers indoor seating and Ping-Pong tables. Here, I also picked up a few cans to take home with me, namely the straightforward pale ale (5%), which offers a nice floral hint and subtly bitter kick.
Food Loves Beer in London
As for pairing beer with food, London is doing things right… with a bit of help from Brooklyn. New beer bar Fourteenth Colonie brings a Brooklyn vibe to Clerkenwell, with help from Colonie NYC and an American chef. It has an American-inspired menu and a beer list that boasts brews hailing from London and the UK, as well as some international ones. The helpful staff was able to steer us in the right direction all night long.
We adored the Siren Undercurrent (4.5% ABV) a pale ale with a vague, oaty sweetness that almost gave it the qualities of a wheat beer, with bright, effervescent bubbles and a light bitterness on the end of the palate that’s more citrusy than hoppy. The oats offer a creaminess to the finish that lends the beer some substance. It paired perfectly with the two crostini that we tried: goat cheese and lemon and white bean and tomato.
The Wild Beer Ninkasi Celebration Ale (9% ABV) was an entirely novel experience. This floral, hoppy beer undergoes a second fermentation with Champagne yeast and apples and takes on a Champagne effervescence and a sweet, cider quality. The malty flavors take the back seat here, but it’s an excellent beer for pre-dinner drinks, standing in perfectly for Champagne or other sparkling wines as an accompaniment to a cheese and charcuterie board.
The Pressure Drop Pale Fire (4.8% ABV) is a London-brewed pale ale. One can only assume that the pale fire name comes from the pleasing yet nearly burning bitterness at the end of the palate—the bitterness is perfectly controlled, accompanied by very floral hops. This flavorful brew is a winner for both pale ale and IPA fans. It was a nice match for the fried hush puppies on the menu, and the egg-topped burger offered a rich counterpart to the bitterness as well.
The Green Flash Double Stout (8.8%), while not an English beer at all, nearly took top place for me when it was paired with the sticky date cake. The buttery aromas of this beer, while of course evocative of chocolate, also have a prune cake air about them, making the combo of this stout and the chef’s cake a show-stopping finish to any meal.
But the Buxton Nth Cloud (8.2% ABV) was the winner for me. I hesitated before ordering the high-alcohol beer, but after reassurance from our waiter, I went for it and had no regrets. With a honey-like sweetness and soft, velvety bubbles, it belies its high alcohol nature. Very fruity hops add a punch of bitterness – this beer keeps you guessing and delivers massive flavor. I loved it paired with the house-made buttermilk fried chicken.
Of course, London’s beer scene is ever evolving. I’m looking forward to discovering even more of what it has to offer on my next journey!