LONDON–For years we’d thought of this city’s lovely old-fashioned taverns and tap rooms as the holy grail of good beer, thanks to the Campaign for Real Ale launched back in 1971, when most of us Americans were still guzzling Schlitz in squat pop-top cans. Things looked to be headed in the same direction in the U.K. until the real ale movement, now called CAMRA, was founded by four drinkers concerned about the homogenization of both the beers they were drinking and the pubs where they were being served.
Thanks to CAMRA’s work, years later London’s rustic, real cask ales were what inspired our city’s most famous craft brewmaster to start brewing–that being Brooklyn Brewery’s Garrett Oliver. A few decades back, the Queens native headed straight to London after college, returning to the States with a budding ability to create homebrews so good they eventually scored him a job at one of Manhattan’s many 1980s brewpubs.
(To find out which one of those is the last remaining, by the way, check out our brand new Alcohol issue; meanwhile for more about Oliver’s own path to pints, see this profile on the brewer from 2010.)
These days there are signs boasting “real ales” on many a London bar–but the hyper-flavorful pours most of us Americans associate with the words craft beer are still harder to find, thanks in part to a centuries-old British tradition of, well, spending hours and hours at the pub. That calls for what suds geeks call “session” beers–those that might lack a little punch on the palate, but spare you the one to your faculties.
Add to that the fact that in England many bars are actually still brewery-owned–there’s the Fuller’s London Pride joints, the pint and meat pie palaces owned by Young’s. We’re fondest of the few of those that still trumpet the name “Truman’s,” the old brewery complex in Shoreditch that’s been turned into something a little like London’s own Smorgasburg. Happily these days a smaller Truman’s in a new location just started making a classic British bitter called Truman’s Runner.
For smaller, independently owned brands like the new Truman’s or Meantime (in Greenwich, of course), or the tiny Kernel Brewery making bottle-conditoned, hop-forward ales in the up-and-coming neighborhood called Bermondsey, you have to go to what’s called a Free House, where beers from all makers are poured. Just as in our own NYC boroughs, there are a growing number of craft-minded free houses popping up around London–check this TimeOut London roundup for a roster, if you’re headed UK way. There are also a few oldies of note like The Rake, the beer garden that sits just outside the stalls at the deservedly famous Borough Hall Market.
(Somewhere on the wall of scrawled signatures from brewers and bar-owners worldwide, our barkeep told us, you’ll find the John Hancock of none other than Joe Carroll, the owner of Williamsburg Brooklyn’s most excellent Spuyten Duyvil craft beer bar.)
The Rake is owned by UTO Beer, which runs a well-stocked craft beer stall inside the market (imagine that!) and also distributes many better craft brands citywide. At the Rake–and elsewhere–we were constantly pleased to see American brands lauded on menus, tap handles and on shelves, most especially our city’s very own Brooklyn Brewery.
In fact at the excellent Mason & Taylor in Shoreditch, which trades in the dark wood and tapestry of ye olde London ale houses for NYC-like stylings and small plates of farm-sourced, post-modern British comfort food, we geeked out on their fancy-pants printed beer menu description of Brooklyn Lager, our own city’s premier everyman pint. It read: “Viennese style lager containing caramel malt. With roots in prohibition-era New York; a modern day classic. (New York, USA) 5·2% ABV.”
How proud we were! Though as dutiful locavores, we have to admit we ordered a Kernel.