“Decisions are made by those who show up.”
I was in London for five weeks during December 2012 and January 2013, which gave me a lot of time to drink a lot of beer. London’s craft beer scene isn’t large (yet) or obvious (at first). There are a ton of pubs, and while many of them look very similar, not many of them serve the really good stuff. But once you know where and how to look for craft beer, you’ll find it. After sifting through recommendations, exploring bars, and trying many beers, I present to you:
Where to Drink Craft Beer in London: A Brief Guide by an American Craft Beer Enthusiast
Real Ale Tap Room, Islington
This place was a pop-up and closed while I was in town, but I spoke with the owners and they said they were working on a more permanent setup. It’s on my list because it appears to have popped back up. This place is a real ale only establishment. All their beers are served from casks, which are carefully curated from local breweries. They offered a reasonably priced flight of three beers on my last visit, so they likely still do. They also made a kick ass stew. This was a great place to warm up on a cold winter night. Go find out if it still is!
Powder Keg Diplomacy, Wandsworth Common
This place has style like nobody’s business. If you’re into a steampunk / Victoriana aesthetic, go here to drink. Their beer menu isn’t large, but it’s good, and here you’ll find ales that may be difficult to locate at any other bar in London. The service is excellent and their food is fantastic, so make sure to bring an appetite. Unless you are sitting at the bar or the informal area near the front windows you will need a reservation, so call ahead.
BrewDog Shoreditch, Shoreditch
BrewDog, BrewDog, BrewDog!
Here you’ll find lots of BrewDog bottles, specialty BrewDog taps, and rotating guest taps. They cook up a small menu of really good Japanese food, which pairs nicely with their beer. The staff is very friendly, patient, and helpful. They will happily pour tasters and help you decide what to order. This BrewDog location is also the home of UnderDog, their beer-centric basement cocktail experience. The ambience down there is fantastic.
They serve 50cl pours of Tactical Nuclear Penguin and Sink the Bismarck! at £6 each, but you can also buy full bottles of these elusive beers at £50 each if you are so inclined.
Ask to meet their resident End of History beer squirrel.
BrewDog Camden, Camden Town
I like the Shoreditch location better, but if you’re closer to Camden, you won’t go wrong popping in here. Their menu features burgers instead of Japanese. If you’re itching for a beer from the States, you’ll find some 500ml bottles of American craft in the fridge to satisfy. But be warned, some of those bottles are going for £20 each, and they aren’t even rare stateside. (For example, a Stone IPA or Port Brewing’s Wipe Out IPA will run you £20, but would be about $5 in California.)
Holborn Whippet, Covent Garden
The Whippet features a fine, if small, selection of ales on tap and cask. No bottles here. The staff is nice, especially the manager I chatted with (in the pic facing away from the camera). I didn’t eat when I visited, but I heard their food is excellent, and would definitely return to try the menu.
Craft Beer Company, Islington
Craft Beer Co has a few locations in London, and of the two I visited (didn’t make it to Brixton), I like this one the best. Their Clerkenwell location gets loud and very busy at peak times, though an early afternoon visit shouldn’t be too bad. This location is bigger, lower-key, and the service is friendlier. Excellent cask, tap, and bottle selection. There are also a few interesting books about beer behind the bar if you want some reading material.
CASK Pub and Kitchen, Pimlico
CASK has an extensive bottle, draft, and real ale program, and it’s all good. If you’re looking to drink some American craft beer, they’ve got you covered, but you’ll be paying for it. They have a nice selection of Mikkeller and Nøgne Ø bottles. Beers on draft are diverse and more reasonably priced than their bottle selection.
The Rake, London Bridge
Owned by the same people who are responsible for the excellent Utobeer bottle shop, located steps away inside Borough Market, you can expect an interesting cask and bottle selection and a packed crowd during the after-work hours. It’s not a large space, so you will likely be standing. There’s a patio out back, but that will probably be packed, too. Don’t be intimidated by all the suits, just elbow your way to the counter and be ready to order.
Duke’s Brew and Que, De Beauvoir
Duke’s is home to Beavertown Brewery, which brews in the kitchen during the daytime hours before the restaurant opens. Beavertown beers aren’t widely available in London yet, so go to Duke’s to drink them. I recommend their black IPA, Black Betty.
Their BBQ is great; go for the pork ribs. But be aware of two things. First, due to differences in butchering technique between the UK and the US, across the pond you’ll be ordering single ribs instead of a half or full rack. Don’t worry, two or three ribs with sides and you’ll have plenty to eat. Second, the prices for those delicious and filling ribs are quite high.
The Dove, Broadway Market
Go here for Belgian beer! The Dove boasts an extensive Belgian bottle selection with many beers I hadn’t seen outside of Brussels. I was impressed. Their food menu is reasonably priced Belgian and British pub fair. I enjoyed the fish and chips.
The Greenwich Union, Greenwich
Get your Meantime here! Lots of Meantime beer on tap and in the bottle. Their Belgian bottle selection is nice as well. This is my favorite place to drink in Greenwich.
Cafe OTO, Dalston
If you want to drink good beer at a coffee shop, this is the place. The beer selection is small, about half a dozen bottles, but quality. The cafe closes at 5:30 PM to become a music venue in the evenings. I should also mention that their coffee is good and they have a selection of Japanese single malt whiskies.
Jolly Butchers, Stoke Newington Central
After Cafe OTO closes you can catch the bus up to the Jolly Butchers, get some dinner and enjoy some more great beers. Nice tap, cask, and bottle selection. Not as big a menu as CASK or Craft Beer Co, but solid. Good food menu. This place fills up, so if you want a seat, get there before 7 PM.
The Kernel, Bermondsey
Only open on Saturdays, this brewery offers a large tasting space and many beers to try. Get there early because they will run out of some beers. You can bring your own food, and you should if you plan to linger. Many people hit up the neighboring charcuterie, bread, and cheese shops for snacks, but those stores close earlier than the brewery, so don’t wait too long. Bring a jacket, because the tasting space isn’t heated.
A Note on Craft Beer London
That’s my list! Before I end, I want to give a shout out to the Craft Beer London (CBL) iPhone app. It’s a very helpful app that catalogues places in London that serve craft beer. But be careful: some of the places it lists aren’t worth trying. Here’s the secret to using this app effectively:
CBL employs a 5-star rating system for pubs in their database. Don’t go to any pub on the list with less than 4 stars.* That’s it! Stick to the 4’s and 5’s and you’ll be enjoying tons of quality craft beer in venues throughout London.
* Of course there are exceptions to every rule. The Dove has 3 stars on CBL.