10 Years of… London beer

Published on 8 October 2009 in , , , ,

It might sound a bit of a cliché, but when I first moved to London, one of the questions I’d get asked by people up north was “how do you cope with the beer down there?” as if there was something almost poisonous about the London beers!

The Ship and Shovel, Charing Cross, London

I always found it a funny question as I found the beer world improved enormously when I moved to the capital!

Maybe it was the pubs we used to visit up there, but choice was rarely on the radar. I grew up near a lot of Robinson’s pubs, but if it wasn’t Robbie’s then it tended to be a choice of Boddies, Boddie’s or Boddie’s.

That’s not to say that there’s not great ales or great breweries in Manchester – Hydes, Holts, Lees to name three – but we just never seemed to end up in a pub that didn’t sell Boddingtons or Robinsons.

And to be honest, I never really got on with Boddingtons.

So to arrive in London, all that had to happen was that I found more choice and I’d be happy.

Not being overfull of money, initially Catherine and myself tended to favour Wetherspoons outlets, but soon our repertoire grew. We’d make a point of seeking new pubs, and trying new brews.

Cos when it comes to beer, London has a great choice. There’s the two main local brews – Fullers and Youngs – but also other brewers from further afield seem delight on visiting the capital. Greene King from Suffolk, Shepherd Neame from Kent, Badger from Dorset and Sam Smiths from Yorkshire all have estates here, and there’s countless free houses and other operators too.

Of course the other big difference is not in choice, but in beer style. Northern beers, of course, use sparklers on the handpump in order to give the beer a smooth, creamy head, whilst southern beers tend to be served without a sparkler.

I confess I do sometimes miss the northern style – but the important thing is that I only miss it on beers which are supposed to be served that way.

Arriving in London, I got to try Courage Directors without one for the first time, and haven’t looked back since – even confusing bar staff up north by asking them to remove it when dispensing a pint. Breweries tend to make beers to be served either with or without a sparkler, so having it served the “wrong” way makes a huge difference to the taste and the experience. (Some brewers do make beer that works both ways). Southern beers don’t work served Northern style, and it’s no good trying to serve a Northern beer the southern way!

Incidentally last Christmas, I went on a bit of a pub crawl of Manchester with an old friend Jacko. During the crawl we popped our heads in a couple of pubs where Jacko had been a regular as a student at UMIST, which had previously had handpulls but now seemed to be keg only. We tended not to stay, but it didn’t stop me checking out the range, and one beer was very noticeably absent. In pubs where once the Cream of Manchester would be a compulsory fixture – even in keg form – it had been usurped by a Yorkshire interloper. For it seemed that in Manchester city centre at least, the war of the beer roses had been won by a certain John Smiths…