A Tour Through London's Pubs by Bob's my Uncle

The following is courtesy of a local NEPA beer lover...Bob's my Uncle...with pictures to follow...
Londoner’s take their drinking seriously. Pubs open at 11 am and have a decent crowd before noon, most of whom are local workers in for a pint and some lunch, though the crowd stays steady through the day, into the evening and until closing which for most pubs is 11 pm. Some pubs qualify for a late license, but on weeknights these are few and far between and, unless you have an experienced guide, difficult to find.

Most pubs in London are owned by breweries, though there are some independents. Despite this, every pub I visited had a great selection of beers, both on tap and in bottle, although American beers, aside from Budweiser products, were scarce. This, I learned, is because Anheuser-Busch operates a brewery within the London city limits.

As I suspect most people do, I expected that drinking in an expensive city (where the average studio flat runs $1500 per month) would be equally as expensive. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Most of the pints I enjoyed were 3 GBP or less, which at the time was $4.50. And, as pub employees are paid by the hour, tipping isn’t required, and in some cases, seen as an insult.

In ten days I visited quite a few pubs, always making an effort to stop in when I saw a pub that was interesting, had some historical value, or when I was thirsty which, traversing the expanse of London on foot, was often.

Two blocks from my hotel I found what would become my local for the duration of my stay, The Rising Sun. I immediately took to it. The barmaids were friendly, full of questions about my visit and poured a perfect pint and the atmosphere reminiscent of Dugan’s Pub in Luzerne, my original home away from home.

Served just below room temperature, a casked Fullers’ London Pride, with its rich, smooth, malty body and very crisp hop overtones, was perfect for a gusty, overcast Friday. Having only had it in the bottle in the States, it was quite a different experience, and at 4.1%, the two I had before lunch weren’t debilitating.

The Rising Sun also featured Fullers’ IPA, casked as well. Being a fan of IPAs I was eager to try a pint, but found it very disappointing. Unlike America craft brewed IPAs; it was lacking a distinct hop flavor, and seemed quite flat, which may have been an effect of the hand pump.

A pint that surprised me was Staropramen, a beer brewed in and imported from the Czech Republic. A light, crisp, slightly hoppy pilsner, along the lines of Troeg’s Sunshine Pils, Staropramen was a welcome change from the complex ales on an unseasonably warm afternoon after miles of walking.

Two blocks in the opposite direction was a completely different type of pub. The Marlborough Arms, centered among King James College, The University of London, and London College University is a quintessential “uni” bar. Populated by twenty-somethings, the Marlborough Arms features more cider, wine and a more diverse selection of everyday beers, including Stella Artrois, Budweiser and Becks; session beers. The crowds outside smoking leave the inside roomy and the service quick. At any time, the smoking crowd was twice the patrons inside.

Before settling for a pint of Becks’, I tasted a few of the ales available – the bartender was a great help, obviously excited to have someone interested in something other than the typical session fare. After tasting several, I settled on Harvey’s Thomas Paine Original Ale, a very interesting beer with fruity malt, flowery hops and a hint of molasses, both sweet and hoppy, I was surprised to find out it is considered an ESB, and at 5.5% packed a little more of a wallop than the London Pride, though I would consider them in the same class.

The Marquis of Granby, in London’s SoHo section, is a one of a kind pub. It isn’t the selection of beers; they presented the common fare, but its atmosphere. Populated by writers and artists from its opening in 1830, it has a bohemian vibe that is very comfortable, but the distinction is its communality. There are a few tables for two, or four, but the majority of the seating is large low wooden tables with benches, where patrons are encouraged to sit with others.

I took this as an opportunity to see what others were drinking, ask about favorite beers, and get a better feel for what Londoners were drinking. I had to laugh when the bartender arrived with a tray of Guinness. To be honest, I limit my Guinness consumption to an annual pint for St Patrick’s Day, which I typically observe in Dugan’s pub. To be even more honest, I never cared for it, and do so out of respect for my home away from and its Irish proprietor. I trusted my new friends, and with the first sip realized this Guinness was a completely different animal, sweet and creamy, unlike American Guinness, which I find to be watery and bitter.

I learned later on that the reason for the exceptional difference between the two pints is geography. The Guinness you buy in the UK is brewed in St James Gate, the home of Guinness. American Guinness is brewed in Canada. The distinction goes a long way.

I did in my travels find American microbrews, at the Borough Market, a gourmet farmers’ market on the south side of the Thames. Open in all seasons, the Borough Market offers the best of London’s food and drink. In the southeast corner I found the beermonger.

A beermonger. An actual live, living, breathing man who lives to sell beer, any beer, and every beer you can imagine. High blue shelves offered hundreds upon hundreds of types of beer, from American microbrews to Belgian triples, and everything in between. There was every Rogue in both 12 and 24 oz, at pretty reasonable prices, and a great selection of Troeg’s and Stone.

A few highlights:
The Market Trader in East London, site of Jack the Ripper’s fifth victim, and home of the original Blood Mary happy hour special.

The York in Islington, a worker’s pub, has a good selection of ESBs and IPAs and incredible burgers and meat pies.

The Spread Eagle off Oxford Street – well, so you can say you had a drink at the Spread Eagle.

On my next visit, I plan on a tour of the Fullers’ brewery in Chiswick and look forward to writing about it – in a timelier manner.


About Bil Cord

Founder, owner, author, graphic designer, CEO, CFO, webmaster, president, mechanic and janitor for mybeerbuzz.com. Producer and Co-host of the WILK Friday BeerBuzz live weekly craft beer radio show. Small craft-brewer of the craft beer news sites and one-man-band with way too many instruments to play.

3 comments (click to read or post):

  1. Professor Bartels19 May, 2009 08:48

    Nice write up, thanks.

    I spent a week in Ireland in March and could not detect much if any difference between irish (even dublin) Guiness and american. Both tasted watery, light and full of nitrogen bubbles.

  2. I'm a firm believer in the "Guinness Difference" After doing my Bachelor party in Dublin a few years back, and after drinking the city dry of Guinness, I really did taste a significant difference. I tried to blame it on the environment and the thought that it simply tastes better because I'm in Dublin, but I believe it's simply different. Whether it's the travel or the processes it goes through for the travel, whether it's brewed in Canada or simply just not as fresh...for my taste buds it was significant.

    Either way I'm sure you'd agree, in the interest of science, we should all go back to re-test the theory for a few pints. ;)


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