During the latter part of his enormously successful career, the late Michael Jackson, beer writer extraordinaire, employed an assistant named Owen Barstow. Like Michael, Owen was London based and beer fixated, which on one memorable occasion led to he and I enjoying a rollicking discussion about drinking on each of our respective sides of the Atlantic.
Ever the aspirating colonial, I would maintain that Owen lived in a relative beer nirvana, with a wealth of pubs and, providing you chose carefully, terrific cask-conditioned best bitters, ESBs, porters, and stronger beers at his doorstep. Conversely, he would envy the variety we had available in North America, from American-style pale ales to Belgian lambics, German and German-inspired lagers, and the best of British bottled beers.
While I still envied London’s pub scene, I could see Owen’s point. I mean, cask ales are great and all, but sometimes you crave a bit of variety. And in London around the turn of the millennium, that wasn’t something generally on offer at the local pub.
Today, on the other hand, Owen would have a much, much harder time making his case. Now, more people share the views of beer writer Joe Stange, who, during an interview published in the second edition of “The CAMRA Guide to London’s Best Pubs & Bars,” boldly dubbed the British capital “the world’s greatest drinking city.”
Now, I’m no newcomer to London, having made my first visit close to two decades ago. I’ve long since paid homage to places like The White Horse on Parsons Green, once the undisputed champion of London good beer pubs; Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese and the Cittie of Yorke, two of Sam Smith’s finest; the simply wonderful Dove in Hammersmith, certainly among Fuller’s best public houses; and the incomparable Blackfriar, one of the city’s more visually stunning pubs. Hell, I even visited The Kernel Brewery a few years back, during one of their since-discontinued Saturday open days.
But my most recent visit showed me a much different city than the one I had grown to know and love. And my experience began even before I set foot in my first pub.
Arriving from Burton-on-Trent and bound for a birthday celebration at a pub in Stoke-Newington, in the city’s north, I had been instructed to walk from Euston Station toward the adjacent St. Pancras Station in order to board the bus that would deliver me to my ultimate destination. Thing was, in order to get to the specified stop I had to first pass the Euston Tap, a newish bar boasting eight cask ales and 19 taps of highly impressive domestic and imported draught, plus a pair of fridges holding a dynamic selection of bottles. And I was thirsty.
But a schedule is to be respected, and besides, there was a birthday involved, so onward I soldiered to the Three Crowns, a family-friendly place chosen more for its space and conviviality than its beery offerings. Still, in today’s London, even a pub such as the Crowns must boast a few good casks and taps, even if, oddly enough to this visitor, most of the clientele seemed to prefer bottles of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.
Craft Beer Co. in Islington // Photos courtesy of Craft Beer Co.
From there on, the list of extraordinary, new-to-me pubs grew with each passing hour. I made it back to the Euston Tap, which was as impressive as its reputation implied, and lunched down the road at Fuller’s beer-and-food stalwart, The Parcel Yard. I spent altogether too little time at the Cock Tavern in Hackney—a marvellously unspectacular pub from the outside but which houses a stripped-down and most inviting bar within, featuring equal and extensive selections of casks and kegs—and was tempted by the suggested beer and food pairings at the Three Compasses. I also paid a visit to the Islington branch of the Craft Beer Co., one of six in the group. With about a dozen hand-pulls and twice that number of taps, it proved a most harmonious place in which to while away an afternoon.
Of all the modern London pubs I patronized, however, by far the most emblematic was The Three Johns, also in Islington. For in this attractive but not especially notable pub I discovered not just 14 taps and a handful of casks (all to a greater or lesser degree impressive), but also a menu featuring a wide array of wood-fired, thin-crust pizzas, and extremely good ones at that.
The Three Johns // Photos courtesy of The Three Johns
In other words, here was a pub that almost anywhere else would be considered exceptional and more than worthy of a trip across town, yet in today’s extraordinary London was just another corner boozer. Which frankly speaks volumes about the current state of what may indeed be the world’s greatest drinking city today.
While good beer is becoming more ubiquitous in London, there are still pubs that stand head-and-shoulders above the rest. To find them, consider investing in the highly recommended “CAMRA Guide to London’s Best Pubs & Bars” by Des de Moor, available through CAMRA Books and online retailers.
Widely acknowledged as one of the world’s leading beer writers, Stephen Beaumont is the author or co-author of 10 books about beer, including The World Atlas of Beer (2012) and two editions of The Pocket Beer Guide (2013 & 2014), all co-written with Tim Webb. His new book, The Beer & Food Companion, will be published in October 2015.