The latest and most thorough update to my CAMRA Guide to London’s Best Beer, Pubs and Bars has just gone online, chronicling the development of the capital’s beer culture which shows no sign yet of slowing. The update suggests over 150 new venues and catalogues London’s mushrooming crop of breweries, which are on track to triple in number over just two years.
When the book went to press in April 2011, London entrepreneur and beer importer Martin Hayes had a single pub to his name – the groundbreaking specialist beer bar Cask Pub & Kitchen in Pimlico. Just before the book finally appeared on the shelves in July, Martin opened the first Craft Beer Co in Clerkenwell, immediately raising the bar for London beer venues with its dazzling range of domestic and imported specialist beers in all formats. In a mere 18 months since, three more Crafts have opened, two in London (Angel and Brixton) and another in Brighton, and all appear to be flourishing.
At a time when 18 pubs close every week in the UK, the Craft story is only the most striking example of how an unprecedented growth of interest in “craft” and other specialist beer is happily pushing at least one significant sector of the licensed trade against the depressing trend, in London at least. The three Draft House branches listed in the book are now five, and several other top class independent beer outlets featured have gone forth and multiplied – the Bree Louise, Jolly Butchers, Pineapple and Southampton Arms have all added sister pubs.
Small pub chains – Butcher & Barrel, Convivial and, most notably, Antic – have seen the commercial wisdom in creating showcase beer outlets and upping the ante across their estates. Fashionable bar operators that ten years ago would not have ventured within a long beard’s reach of real ale, like Barworks, Fluid Movement and Lost, are embracing the new age of hops and malt. Even big national pubcos are boosting their beer credentials – Mitchells and Butlers’ beer friendly Castle and Nicholson’s chains continue to improve with even some branches of more mainstream high street bar brands like O’Neill’s being transferred to them.
The turnaround of brewing in London is even more dramatic. When published the Guide contained details of all 13 breweries then operating in Greater London. 18 months later that total has shot up to 36, with further launches imminent. East London and City CAMRA’s Pig’s Ear beer festival in December 2012 featured a Hackney bar, dedicated to the brewing products of a single London borough which until August 2011 had not witnessed commercial brewing within its boundaries since the 19th century. Now there are six, with one of the most eagerly awaited of the new projects soon to join them when Truman’s re-establishes itself in East London at its new site in Hackney Wick this spring.
Pessimists are waiting for the first casualties of this rapid expansion, but so far there have been no brewery closures in London since Battersea folded in 2009. The capital, with just under 8.2million inhabitants, still has only 3.6% of Britain’s breweries for 13% of its population, or one brewery for every 227,000 people. For comparison there are now about the same number of breweries in the whole of Wales, serving a population only just over 3million, so there should still be plenty of room for more.
Keeping readers of the Guide up to speed in this rapidly changing world has proved a considerable challenge, and to keep this latest update within reasonable bounds I’ve finally resorted to including summary “Try Also” listings in the Places to Drink section as well as editing main entries. So every venue previously mentioned is once again included here in some form, and the full length reviews remain available on the website. I’m not sure when or if another update will appear as I’m hoping to agree a publication date for a fully fledged new edition of the book during 2013, but in the meantime please continue to send suggestions and comments to me via the form on the London page. Cheers!