London Calling (No Longer on Hold)
By Warren “BeerSensei” Monteiro
Crawling from the wreckage of 2020 and the last 18 months, it’s time to start knitting back together my unravelled life of overseas beer. Couldn’t get to Bruges, but back in London now and proud as hell of it. Here’s the local scoop as I see it and taste it.
Once London lockdown hit in March 2020, beer vanished for a year except in supermarkets and via mail order. Pubs, bars, and restaurants, except for a failed reopening late 2020, stayed dark. Finally, there came a more cautious outdoor/backdoor effort during May into June 2021. Last August, when this American was first allowed to return, things were just emerging from dire to sketchy. I came back in November and the scene is looking up.
We’re back indoors and the drinkers have certainly returned, especially young people. A virtual scrum of punters (and punteresses) materializes outside popular pub doors around 5pm. Ah, but what are they drinking? Well, it’s not usually real ale. With its short lifetime from fermenter to pub to dispense, cask ale nearly succumbed to Covid during those dark days. Craft keg staggered back more easily but with shortages and delivery crises. I do worry about a retreat from traditional styles to the flood of phony sours, over-the-top designer IPAs, over spritzed seltzers, candy flavored ciders, and mass marketed low-to-zero calorie tasteless swill. All bloody popular now and cheaper than quality quaffs!
Harvey's iconic Christmas Ale, Wetherspoons Balcon Casks, The BeerSensei at The Kernel.
As a CAMRA member, I’m chasing real ale about half the time. So who’s holding the line in London? The bellwether of the crowd scene, JD Wetherspoon pubs abide, selling a little bit of everything potable at the most reasonable prices in town. Real ale is offered at their 100 or so London pubs on three, five, sometimes more handpumps, and usually well-fined. Their craft keg pours are now from brewers owned by The Budweiser Brewing Group UK.
In recovery mode, Brewdog will expand into the old Eurostar space in Waterloo Station. Mikkeller has launched a tasty micro operation in Exmouth Market. And Fullers is still here. Thanks to current owners Asahi for keeping the brewery open and the tours rolling, rather than translating it into high end housing as was rumored. Harvey’s abides. Its Royal Oak pub in Borough had to cut some autumn releases, but the bottle line is strong. And iconic Christmas Ale (7.5%) is back on the handpump.
The Bermondsey Brewery Mile is holding strong, though with abbreviated hours. So far, they haven’t solved the railway arch heating problem, so it’s chilly toping. An exception is the new Craft Beer Junction taproom and shop, pouring elusive keg beers and featured big IPAs and meads from Florida (!). They actually have decent heating and are open till 11 Wednesday thru Saturday. HOWEVER, just try to find one of these places open Monday or Tuesday. You’ll just have to go to Hackney.
Howling Hops, pouring directly from 10 tanks, shepherds its own little northeast enclave of small breweries under the Hackney Wick overground stop. Open all week. Four stars for nearby distributor owned Beer Merchants Tap, currently my favorite beer bar in London. We walked into an Omnipollo tap takeover and finished the evening with a phenomenally dry Drie Fonteinen one-off bottle called “Close, But No Schaarbeek”. Not cheap, not too British, but IT’S THERE and they’ve got the goods.
In southwest London’s White Horse Tavern (still the Queen of Parsons Green), I found a remarkable cask of Chiltern Bodgers Barley Wine (8.3%), a smooth, chestnut wonder that’s a blast from my thirsty past. The ambiance is still “Sloaney Pony” – noticed a fit young couple measuredly sipping frosted diet cokes over a spare lunch.
Festivals are returning. August ended with the revivified London Craft Beer Festival at Tobacco Wharf. Organizers required mask and lateral test scanning at the door. We went early, waded through an ambitious array of booths, brewers and fresh craft beers, all screaming “We’re back!”
Then in early December we hit the reopened Pig’s Ear Beer Festival. High marks, too, for this CAMRA event, featuring a gaggle of great barley wines, imperial stouts, and Christmas ales. And now the Great British Winter Ale Festival is scheduled for Feb. 22 in Birmingham. Ho ho ho! Hopefully.
Enter the uninvited guest. As I write, the Omicron Variant is stalking public gatherings leading into Christmas. It’s chilling seeing the level of vaccination resistance here - social, religious, political, conspiratorial. “Things fall apart, the center cannot hold.” Yeats had it down. Even as my old amenities return, the proverbial Covid chickens have come home. Huge sporting events and holiday gatherings provided the roost. I make a point of avoiding crowds.
We’ve been vaccinated twice. Got the booster & flu shots. We’re eminently scannable. The arts are trying hard. Venues like the National Theatre, the entire West End, the British Museum, require proof of vaccination, or a negative NHS home test to get in. But closings are back. As of December 10, all indoor gatherings now require a mask, with more restrictions likely.
I have hardly seen any Americans around London this visit. My Nov. 4 flight was empty. But traveling here is not incredibly daunting, even subject to overnight whims of government. Only three very real steps needed to get here. (1) Proof of vaccination (soon of booster as well). (2) A completed Passenger Locator Form on the UK.gov website. (3) A pre-scheduled PCH test in the UK within 2 days after arrival. To fly back, you need a PCH test within 24 hours of departure. The tests are pretty extortionate at £89 each, but an outfit called Biogroup schedules you a quick reliable 8-hour response. (Just got one.)
I will not bemoan my losses, and I’ll be back drinking and singing in pubs in February. Hope craft beer hasn’t gotten quarantined. It’ll still be cold and damp, but at least the damn mask keeps my chin warm. As I write this, I’m in the spectacular cut-glass and elegantly tiled Princess Louise having a Sam Smith Brewery Bitter, perfectly cellared. A clean, fresh whisper of Northern malt in the nose, 3.4% but what the hell, a fine taste at the end of the day. Or the week. Or one and a half years…
The now and future name of the paying game here is “Card Only”. A visitor had better have at least one credit/debit card that taps or swipes. Cash was starting to be sinisterly scarce pre-Covid, but now nearly every pub, brewery, and beer bar I’ve visited only takes a tap at the tap. Don’t snicker. We’ll all be seeing this soon in the Big Apple and beyond. Cash is on the run. Prepare.