Yet maybe it's just true that seven out of ten of the best new beer and food bars did come from London. So on a recent weekend trip I wanted to see for myself what the city has to offer now by experiencing over two days as much of the beer scene as I could squeeze in.
I was due to head to London the weekend before last for the tail end of London Beer City week and the London Craft Beer Festival. As it was, as much as a weekend of craft wankerism would have been fun, I would have missed out on seeing a few of my good non-beery friends including my best mate from Manchester - Lewis - who moved to Walthamstow earlier this year. And seeing my friends is just as important as experiencing the beer so I came the weekend after London beer week instead.
I will write about the pubs and bars I visited in a later post, but first, as someone who frequently uses the term London-centric, I wanted to share what I found over a weekend experiencing so many places I'd read about on social media and blogs for a few years.
IT ISN'T EXPENSIVE REALLY
There can be no doubt that northerners love good value and love to grumble about the price of everything. Whatever you buy up here, even simple things like dinner at work, the first question you’ll be asked is “How much?” The stereotype that London is ludicrously expensive still to this day puts people off visiting and I would wager that around 80% of people ask upon my return from a visit, "How much did you spend?"
I think a lot of that stems from a time when Carling drinkers could get a pint for under £3 up here and so were disgusted to find beer for over £4 a pint in the capital. For those of us who drink good beer in specific bars though, the difference between similar bars in the likes of Manchester and Leeds city centre to those in London is negligible. In Brewdog Camden, for example, pints of such stalwarts as 5AM Red Ale are 30p more than Brewdog Manchester. There is no noticeable difference between prices in Euston Tap and it’s Mancunian counterpart Piccadilly Tap. Basically if you are used to drinking in the newer “craft” bars in any city centre then London isn’t much more expensive. I’d approximate a difference of about 30p-60p a pint which, when one considers the much higher costs of living in London, is not too bad at all and is scarcely noticeable when you are drinking halves.
The one occasion that we were disgusted at the price of a round was actually in a gin focused bar, which says a lot. Though admittedly we were probably choosing more exotic gins than we were aware of at the time.
LONDON IS MILES AHEAD IN BEER PROGRESSION THAN THE REST OF THE COUNTRY
I wrote a series of posts called the Darwin Link earlier this year and a couple of them looked at the struggle to get good beers in suburban areas. It still holds true that I can’t exactly walk to the corner shop or nip into any local and get really good, quality beer and choice. It still requires specialist beer bars and beer shops, as well as much venturing in search of it.
London, on the other hand, has streets paved with beer. Every place I went in over the weekend, even those that were not known for good beer, had a strong line-up of cask and/or keg beer. The majority too at least had the likes of Beavertown or Wild Beer Co. cans to fall back on if nothing on the bar took your interest. There was little need to hunt for good beer. It just existed.
I stayed with my friend in Walthamstow and spent much of my stay waxing lyrical about his local shop that is a Spar. There was a Spar near my mum and dad’s in Greater Manchester that was my local shop for a long time – and it sold little more than packaged bread, cheese-strings and Fanta. This is what Spars in the north are; crap versions of the Co-operative. Walthamstow Spar, however, would be considered a “posh delicatessen” if it existed anywhere near where I grew up. But forget the freshly baked olive loaf, home made chocolate brownies and Pieminister pies on the shelf, this place has a dazzling array of good beer on the shelves. Most of these are, welcomingly, from London based names such as Pressure Drop, Brew by Numbers, Orbit and the Walthamstow based Wild Card. Even Spar's rival convenience shop - a NISA across the street - had a better-than-average selection that I'd be happy with at any off license near me.
Most amazingly in Spar though was the wine filling station at the back of the store, that housed a Beavertown Neck Oil growler filler next to it. Growler fillers – in Spar! The action most associated with brewery bars or specialist beer shops exists here in Spar. IN SPAR. You know, “WE’VE GOT SPAR” whilst cocking your leg...
It’s also the first time I witness the moment that people have worked towards since the inception of this so-called revolution – the moment when cans of good beer are stockpiled next to the likes of Magners as just every day commodities.
But don’t let that take away from the enduring amazement that this was all happening in Spar.
TRANSPORT DOES MAKE ALL THE DIFFERENCE - BUT THEY ARE A LOT MORE ORGANISED
Whilst I can imagine that, if I were to be fighting my way at peak commuter times through hoards of workers and tourists, I would grow to hate the underground, as a visitor I marvel at it. Yet it's constant abuse and news horror stories has led to all outsiders who haven't experienced it to fear it. But whilst Manchester’s metrolink remains expensive, disorganised and slow, the underground seems to run fairly smoothly around a mass of confused visitors and sightseers. So many places are accessible and, coupling your visit with Citymapper and the excellent Craft Beer London App, makes everything simple and smooth.
For example, an impromptu trip with a friend to Stoke Newington led me to reach for the Craft Beer London app. Stoke Newington wasn’t on my extensive list of areas to visit, but a quick browse of the app led me to spend a joyous unpremeditated hour in the Jolly Butchers. Getting there was also incredibly simple even though I was lazing about outside Beavertown Brewery in Tottenham Hale when the suggestion was made.
Oh and if London folk have stopped marvelling at the way my contactless debit card can be used like an oyster card with no registering involved then they take too much for granted. It's the most satisfying transport upgrade ever made.
PEOPLE ARE RUDE COMPARITIVELY
Another stereotype suggests that Londoners are all insolent, soulless introverts that would rather have the tubes on permanent strike than engage others in decent conversation. Ironically, an experience I had in Draft House on Goodge Street last year led to me write about how bar staff are becoming increasingly less cheerful and chatty in modern times. It was then interesting that Lewis, as the outsider to London here, text me jokingly about an hour into my trip and before me and him had had chance to meet up, to ask if I was "infuriated yet by how rude people are?”
It transpired that Lewis was referencing hospitality staff here, rather than the people on the street. I didn’t agree at the time, as I was sat in Brewdog Camden where the bar staff were wonderful. Yet, as the weekend progressed I came to see more and more what Lewis was referring to.
It’s not that people are so rude that it comes across aggressive and infuriating; it’s just a general lack of bar skills. Staff want to take your order, take your money and then get back to whatever they were doing before you rudely interrupted with custom. Bar staff in groups seem to constantly be involved in an inside joke where they smirk at each other whilst serving you. Lonely bar staff will find the furthest point away from you at the bar to wipe down so they don’t have to involve you in conversation. Bar staff where I live go out of their way to indulge the bar flies in needless chatter.
A prime example – but one of a few – happened at the Duke’s Head Highgate. I arrived on my own having made the mistake of walking from Archway tube stop in 30° heat with weekend bags in tow. By the time I’d propped myself up at the Duke’s bar, I wanted to chat. I wanted to make rubbish jokes about my arduous walk from the tube stop. I wanted to talk about how I’d come just to get some of the cask Duke of Dank which the Duke’s fricking helped to brew. I wanted to be asked the questions I expected to be, like “Oh so where are you from then?” “What are you in town for?” “What made you come up here to us?” “What do you think of the beer we helped brew?” so that I could gratuitously talk about myself, because this is the role my local bar staff take on. Instead, after a very brief exchange, the guy serving said “well enjoy” and went and sat at the furthest point of the bar to me. Not to do work that needed doing but to play on a phone or tablet. He wasn’t gruff or impolite; he just wasn’t bothered. And this was a running feeling throughout the weekend; that London lacks the warm welcome to anybody who chooses to stand at the bar. I’m not used to that outside the very heart of the city centre.
This was not everybody of course and there were some examples of chatty bar people, none moreso than at the Village in Walthamstow.
As for the customers attitudes - there was an odd moment in Howling Hops Tank Bar where I realised the gents toilets are by a window that is directly next to, and in plain view of, part of the beer garden. I find myself unintentionally stood with my Johnson in my hand starring eyeball to eyeball with many enjoying a beer outside. This is hilarious, right? I couldn't help myself. I waved and laughed at those in the beer garden whilst making many witty remarks to the man next to me in the toilets. In Manchester this sad moment of humour would probably have led to laughter, high fives, the joining of groups and much mirth before departing as new best buds after a lot of hugging. Here I just received various priggish glares and back-turning. You could argue that it's because it isn't funny - but you'd be wrong of course.
If I hoped to have my eyes opened to something special in London then this weekend worked brilliantly, to the point where I started plotting a three year plan to move there permanently. I fell in love with our capital for the first time and if I ever complain about a London-centric beer scene again, you'll know that I am only doing so out of jealousy; like watching a friend go out with your crush. I'll share with you the places I visited that helped in due time but for now know that the UK beer scene only feels London-centric because they are getting so much of it right. Next time though I'm going to force the bar staff at every place I visit to have a long conversation with me.
I was recommended downloading the Craft Beer London app before my journey and I slightly stubbornly believed I wouldn't find use for it. I can not tell you how wonderfully useful and well designed it is. Highly recommended