Not too long ago, I was sitting near the bar in The Axe, a recently updated pub in Stoke Newington, a little slice of London that sits on the boundary of where North meets East, about three miles from where I live. I was on a pub crawl with a few friends, due to cut further into East London, toward Clapton, Dalston and, eventually, Hackney. In a brief moment, when conversation was all a flurry around me, I paused to take stock of my surroundings. In that moment, I decided that London was the greatest beer city in the world.
The beer list seemed to agree with me. There were IPAs, of course—both hazy and juicy as well as bitter and dank. There was Harvey’s Best Bitter on cask and Camden Hells Lager. There were Pale Ales. There was Founder’s CBS just sitting idly on tap, not earning the usual attention it commands. In the fridges to the left of me, there were elegant Saisons from Blackberry Farm and Blaugies.
I opted for a pint of Mahrs Bräu Ungespundet—or AU for short—before opting for a second, and then a third. And then I turned my focus to the people around me. There were my friends, of course, beer enthusiasts every last one of them, tearing through halves of turbid IPA while passing around communal third pints of Stout. Then there was everyone else, locals, families out for dinner, rocking prams with one hand and drinking with the other, groups of friends and solitary drinkers alike. A wholly diverse and highly stimulated crowd—London, in a nutshell.
And yet, when I’m asked by visitors where to head in London, I rarely suggest The Axe. I worry that maybe Stoke Newington is too much of a challenge to get to. (It’s not, but catching two buses can sometimes feel that way.) Then I start to think of all the other places I don’t recommend for the same reason, which is ridiculous, because London has the best public transport system in the world. Even this city of nine million starts to feel small when you’ve lived here long enough. (For me, that's 12 years and counting.)
I get called “London-centric” a lot, which is ridiculous, because of course I’m London-centric. I live here. In fact, I like living here a great deal. I genuinely believe that, currently, there isn’t anywhere better for beer right now than this city. It’s something I’ve been dwelling on since that recent moment in The Axe.
I've traveled to plenty of great beer cities. From Leeds to Manchester to Bristol, west to Belfast and Dublin, across the channel to Brussels, Munich, and Prague, over the Atlantic to Chicago, Portland, San Diego. South of the equator to Wellington. I've been hungover in all of these places and more. And they're all wonderful beer institutions! But I always end up pining for my city when I’m done.
It’s easy to see the benefits of a smaller city like, say, Leeds. I visit as often I’m able. It has so many great and diverse beer destinations, all walkable of each other—that’s tough to replicate in London. In fact, some experiences—like grabbing a bite at Bundobust—are impossible to replicate. And that’s good, because Londoners would get complacent if we had everything within arm's grasp.
Some cities, like Chicago, offer a diversity of choice in spades. Others, like Munich, offer an endless seam of rich tradition that allows you to mine as deep—or as shallow—as you please. But London? London lets you choose your own adventure. You can head to East London and stroll around a few spots, you can bomb across town and hit the latest and trendiest bars and taprooms, or you can just find a quiet, undisturbed corner in a traditional pub. Or a modern beer bar. Or a coffee spot that also serves the local Pale on tap (while making the best damn boulevardier you’ve ever had.) For me, there's no richer beer scene.
The world's biggest brewing companies sure seem to think so. There's good reason why four of the most recent major takeovers or investments have been in London breweries. These aren't just any London breweries, either—they've each been brands built on a sense of place within a region: Brixton, Camden, London Fields, and Meantime (the latter as in Greenwich Mean Time). London's beer culture is so transcendent that the largest breweries intend to use it to market and sell beer using its namesake across the entire world.
Of course, it's not just the big guys that know London's value. Small and independent breweries are well aware of it, too. There's a reason why Bristol's Moor has already built a taproom here, and Northern Monk has recently laid out plans for a potential brewpub of its own. And there are plenty of other small—and not-so-small—breweries hoping to eek out a slice of London for themselves in the coming months, if the (many) rumors I'm hearing are true.
In fact, London’s beer scene is so broad that much of it simply flies under the radar. It feels like there’s five super hot beer spots any given month, and they shift and evolve as time passes, much like the city itself. Recently, I attempted to make a definitive list of every single great beer spot for the regular visitors that reach out on a near-daily basis. I tried to break it into traditional pubs, modern bars, taprooms, and everything in between. I wanted to be able to guide folks to a stunning pint of London Pride and then take them out for West Coast IPAs before closing out with incredible Lambics, or Imperial Stouts, or whatever—again, because it’s London. I quickly realised that a definitive list was impossible.
Oh, and we have The Kernel. There really isn’t a brewery like it anywhere else in the world. (Trust me, I’ve looked.) It took me travelling all over the globe to realise that my own personal beer paradise was right under my nose all along. You should visit! I’ll join you for a beer or two. Whether that beer is a New England-inspired juice bomb or a cosy pint of cask Porter, well, I guess it depends on what mood I’m in that day.