Great place for pubs, London. Not so great for beer, though. But before sundry London brewers (sorry, Mr Keeling) get apoplexy, let’s qualify that. Yes, London has Fuller’s. It used to have Young’s, too, although that belongs to Bedford now. And lots of other regional brewers also maintain a presence in London: Greene King is well-represented (but then it’s probably well represented on Mars); so is Shepherd Neame.
There’s loads of Adnams, a bit of Badger, and (get down on your knees, you worshippers of ale) even some Harvey’s. Sam Smith, by a coup de main many years ago, snaffled a hefty parcel of some of the most historic pubs in the capital, but not all of them serve ‘real ale’. Stick to the bottles, but be prepared to pay.
But London is not microbrewery territory and never really has been. There used to be Pitfield, of course, the first micro ever to win the Champion Beer of Britain competition (Dark Star, 1987 – I worked round the corner from the Beer Shop then, and oh how I wish I still did); but that has moved to Essex. And there used to be the Blessed Bruce’s Firkin brewpubs, but they have passed into legend.
For high property prices and a more or less total lack of genuine free trade stifled the development of micros in Old London Town: today it has eight, four wholesale and four boutique – less than half the number of micros in Staffordshire. Or Cumbria. Or Devon. Or… I think you get the picture.
Using the 2007 Good Beer Guide, I tried to put together a crawl of central London pubs where you could be guaranteed a pint of the unusual from some quaint micro or other. The GBG lists only seven such, and trying to cram them all on to one circuit would be more of a routemarch than a crawl. Starting at the Market Porter in the Borough, you’d cross London Bridge and wend nor’east to Whitechapel Road and the Black Bull; then west to Heneage Street and the Pride of Spitalfield. West again to the Jerusalem Tavern in Britton Street; then north to Tysoe Street and the Old China Hand, once O’Hanlon’s; north again to Wenlock Street and the Wenlock Arms (oh bliss!); and finally west to Euston and the Doric Arch, the former Head of Steam. And you wouldn’t half need a drink after that!
So I never got further than the Borough. But did I need to? No. For if you (like me) love Old London Town, its markets, and its pubs, then the Borough is very heaven. (It’s even better if you hate fresh air and anything green, like grass and trees). But let’s not start at the Market Porter. Let’s start at one of London’s oldest pubs so that, by a neat trick of symmetry, we can finish at one of its newest.
What needs to be said about the George, its warren of little rooms and forest of pitchblackened beams hidden snugly in its yard off the High Street? It’s London’s last galleried coaching inn, you know that; and the names of the yards running off the High Street are poignant reminders of how many there once were. Shakespeare performed in the yard (allegedly); you probably knew that too. It’s actually mid-17th century, check; two sides of it were demolished to make way for the railway in the 1890s, check; it belongs to the National Trust, check. But did you know it was managed for the Trust by Greene King? Still, it used to be Whitbread…