When Merideth and I last visited London a little over two years ago, there were only a handful of breweries left in the vast city. Fast forward to early 2013, the craft beer revolution has hit the British capitol, now boasting over three dozen breweries and still counting. With our 800 brewery milestone looming, we fancied a return visit to London to see what was happening in the beer scene.
Many of these new breweries have made the London borough of Hackney their home. Consulting with our friend and London beer guide Paul, we decided a six brewery tour of Hackney would be a good first day outing to see what was going on in London.
With our jet lag, it was admittedly a bit rough to make our late morning meeting at the Westfield Mall in Stratford City. Adding to the jarring experience was that our first stop, Tap East, was all away on the opposite side of a shopping mall from the Tube stop. Bright lights, loud music and sensory overload was compounded by hordes of children clamoring to go into the Lego shop and toy stores.
We found Tap East and eventually Paul at the end of the mall’s upscale food court. Tap East, with its muted colors and eclectic decor, was a contrast and refuge from the bright lights of Westfield Mall.
Tap East had a large range of beers in cask, keg and bottle, some 150 choices in all. But we were there for the house-brewed beers. Of the three choices, I went for Tonic Ale, while Merideth had the Jim Wilson Bitter.
One of the joys of being in England is that the beers are so, so different from what we drink at home in California. Big and bold is replaced by sessionable and subtle. Tonic ale was a perfect example of this. At 3% ABV, the soft, light-bodied, hoppy and refreshing brew was a perfect start to a jet-lagged day of beer drinking.
Catching the overground, we just had to travel one stop down to get to our second destination of the day, Crate Brewery. Forget the gritty industrial park setting on one side of the building. With its canal-side location and outdoor seating, Crate looked like the perfect stop on a nice summer day. Too bad it was February.
Crate’s tranquil setting along the canal contrasted sharply with the electric fence topped with razor wire on the opposite bank. Reminding both Merideth and me of Derry, interspersed security cameras completed the police-state look. Asking Paul, he explained we were on the edge of the Olympic Park. It was sobering reminder of the world we live in.
We had heard that Crate could be quite busy. But on a Monday in February we were the only customers besides a gentleman drinking tea. We grabbed seats at one of the long tables with a view of the canal.
Crate had a nice menu of artisan-type pizzas and it probably would have been a good idea to get some food to help us through the day. But lacking the hindsight, we stuck with the beer-only route.
Merideth, already tired of real ale after less than a day, sucked it up and ordered the 4.3% Best Bitter. I bucked the real ale trend and went with Crate’s kegged IPA. A number of new breweries in the UK are forgoing cask only and providing their beers in keg as well. Crate’s keg IPA was much more like what I would get at home, both in terms of mouthfeel and its 5.2% ABV.
A further two stops down on the Overground was Hackney Central station, maybe soon to be the epicenter of the London brew scene. A few steps from the station was the Cock Tavern, home to the Howling Hops Brewery.
Walking into the dark tavern, made even dimmer by the dark wood interior, we found only one other customer in the pub. It just happened to be John the Ticker sitting at a table along the wall. (John is one of the many interesting, colorful characters Merideth talks about in Teachings from the Tap).
At this point, Merideth had a revelation. She didn’t have to order full pints, she could order half-pints. She went with the bright and refreshing Duchess, a 4.0% ABV Single Hop Ale that came in a cute tiny dimpled mug (The single hop being Duchess, a trial variety). My choice was the 3.3% ABV Mild Ale. While the pump clip proclaimed “Hopped for Export,” I found the brew to be a nice malty one, with lots of caramel and a hint of roast.
Finishing our beers, we felt the jet lag kicking in. Talking with Paul, we decided to cut the tour from six to five. Command decision made, we headed to our next stop.
A short ten minute walk down Mare Street was London Fields Brewery. As I peered into their closed, under construction tap room, I remembered seeing on Twitter a few days previous that they were reopening the upcoming Saturday. Oops. At least we know where it is, in case we make it back over.
Joining the canal again on the way to our final stop, I envisioned a summertime return to London featuring a canal-based Urban Beer Hike. Bundled up for the February chill, I imagined myself making the same journey in shorts and a t-shirt on a warm summer evening.
Leaving the canal, we found our last stop, Hackney Brewing, in a railway arch. Only trading since last June, we have to thank the busy Jon and Peter for letting us pop in to see their operation. After chit-chatting about being a new brewery in London, we sampled the very nice Golden Ale and American Pale Ale.
Our day ended with a long walk to the Wenlock Arms and a quick pint. We can’t thank Paul enough for helping us with our Hackney brew tour. Giving blood that night, Paul as a real trooper, sipping on tea or water while we enjoyed beer after beer. That is a true friend!