Quibbles and Bits in London
by Warren “BeerSensei” Monteiro
Gently, gently, don’t spank them too hard, cautions the angel of my right shoulder to
the bad boy on my left. It’s London Beer Week, parenthesized by the Great British Beer
Festival and the London Craft Brewers Festival. You’ll feel better soon. Falling back from
those beastly historic highs, London’s cool and palatable in August. I love these events.
So why my discontent?
I want things to evolve faster. London’s beer scene has been marred for many years by
internecine conflict between cask and (gasp!) keg beer. CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale),
the monster lobbying entity and festival champion of real ale (read “cask”), has
maintained that beer dispensed with CO2 (read “keg”) isn’t “real”. But there’s been a
meta-shift in the beer world here, particularly the colossal success of styles never found
on cask like NEIPA’s and sours, has CAMRA flailing around to somehow get on board and
keep their principles.
So this year a sizeable sector of the Great British Beer Festival was devoted to “craft keg
beer”. It was the hit of the Festival, with lines of drinkers milling around brewers like
Tiny Rebel, Siren, Magic Hat, Wild Beer, and a wall of other unique tastes. The point was
driven further home by displaying an ecological crushable keg machine that really
worked. My distress? I hope it hasn’t come too late.
I’m not frowning too much that the Champion Beer of Britain retro-ed to a tame but
tasty Best Bitter. Surrey Hills Shere Drop (4.2% abv) carries vanilla, honey and caramel
notes through to a fine short, dry finish. But to my great dismay it beat out Winter
Champion Lacon’s Audit Ale (8.0%), a superior brew.
That said, all the runners-up were sharp and strongly defined, especially
Oakham Citra (4.2%) and Grey Trees Afghan Pale (5.4%) – both really IPA’s! Yes, I’m
growling again. U.S. style IPA has been digging in here in London for nearly a decade. It’s
easy to find several tasty NEIPA’s down on the Bermondsey Mile. Yet to this day, IPA is
still not considered a judging style by the Campaign for Real Ale. This stodginess has got
to melt away. This is not a good time for retreat to the 19 th Century. It’s a style! Come
on! Join the 21st century. It’s also a fact that real ale taps in London are shrinking fast,
replaced by sparkling keg beer designed to catch younger drinkers chasing U.S. styles.
The same drinkers, in fact, that I met at the end of the week at the London Craft
I have to say, if you must choose, this is the event to embrace. Tobacco Wharf, in the
East End, sported a base of UK craft keg beers surrounded by an array of international
selections designed to keep our radar up. Hundreds of beers from 80+ brewers kept us
busy. And the beauty part was the pay-once for all you can sample heartiness that you
get in the U.S., but sadly not at real ale festivals. A reasonable £40-45 got four+ hours’
worth of unlimited 150-ml pours of too many styles to contemplate to a well-behaved
young crowd. LCBF has swelled to over 10,000 attendees, a rising challenge to, shall we
say, other festivals.
Some standouts: Fierce Beers & Spirits (Edinburgh) blended beer cocktails: Razz Gin,
Rum Slushies and a concoction that tasted just as it was named: Kit Kat. Sweden’s
Dugges/Deer Beer Port Stout (13%) with plum spices dazzled. The U.S. was no slouch
either here with two stunning barrel aged sours from Cascade: Brunch Line, adding
Chardonnay Juice (9.7%) and One Way or Another (7.7%) with Marionberries and Meyer
Lemon zest. Fullers again sponsored their Cask Yard and featured a Wild Card
collaboration Rhubarb Gose (3.3%) and delicious Fullers Imperial Stout (10.7%), also
available in bottles. Only dent in the armor was the lousy connection for the Android
app. Fix it, please!
Here’s one more curmudgeonly yip. GBBF is getting beyond the wallet of the average
punter. The price of pints this year exceeded the price of some of the same beers on the
street, which in London means New York prices. This is particularly abused with the new
trend of third pints. (about 6 ounces). Really high test ales can run over £5 for that 6
ounce pour. This works until you realize it’s nearly $20 for an English pint. Gotta be
tough on those country folk who save up all year for this event. Hmmm.
Finally, better news. It’s a good year to wave our tattered flag: the three most
impressive beers I savored were at the GBBF International (no longer American!) cask
bar and they had some teeth. Brooklyn fetched up a mysterious Black Ops C&K Absinthe
Edition (11.5%); down the line was Port/Lost Abbey Hop 15 (11%) totally belying the
notion that IPAs don’t dominate a cask. And lastly, an entry from a new American Beer
Star who splashed out all over London Beer Week.
That Fifth Hammer must have been Thor’s. Brewer owner Chris Cuzme featured
cask Sonic Architecture Wave 2 (7.8%) at GBBF. Then he served keg Tangelo Crème
Regime Cream Ale (4.8%) at his own booth at LCBF, and finally took over 8 taps at
prominent craft bar The Axe. These featured yet more unusual ales like Cold Brew
Stout (4.5%) cold-filtered with coffee, Strawberry Rhubarb Sour (5.5%) and one-off BA
Shut Your Face Barley Wine (12%), impossible to find anywhere else on a foggy day in
Stoke Newington. A hero, forsooth.
Grousing aside, I do love these beer festivals. Hell, I love all beer festivals. And I suppose
if one gets out the calculator, paying as you go at GBBF is probably in the same ballpark as
the one-time fee at LCBF (maybe). GBBF made a good start at bringing up their game,
and it’s hard to argue with 1,000+ beers from 250+ breweries. Considering they also
added a gin bar, which I noticed did tempt the ladies, there was a bit more general dash
this year. So I’ll still attend both shows. Though I’m getting tired of being the oldest guy
in the hall at LCBF. With CAMRA that’s never a problem.
Just a Bit of the Bermondsey
by Warren “BeerSensei” Monteiro
When in London I spend Friday or Saturday afternoon on the Bermondsey Mile. Just a
little southeast of Tower Bridge you’ll find roughly 17 breweries, 2 distilleries, and a
clutch of specialty food stalls all tucked away underneath the railway arches. While the
Mile really is closer to 2 miles now, I’m directing you to one particular block that should
occupy an entire day’s drinking if you do it right. Enid Street boast 5 separate and
distinct brewery taprooms either next to each other or a short stumble a few arches
away. Here you will find, along with some food trucks:
Moor Brewery (of Bristol), 71 Enid Street, specializes in IPA’s and lovely barrel-aged
stouts. London Calling Sweden (#72) features Poppels Beers from, well, Sweden with
guests. Cloudwater Brewing (#73) is my personal favorite here. Their IPA’s and sours are
world class. Brew by Numbers (#75/79) is London based and works out of two arches.
One is usually quieter than the other. Their specialty was saisons, but they’ve added
some delicious IPA’s and stouts. Farther down the block (#83-84) is Bianca Road. Six
unusual beers here, in small batches. How about a cinnamon and ginger milkshake IPA?
Something you need to know is that nearly everybody on the Mile is cash-free, meaning
you’d better have a credit or a bank card along. This is a growing trend in London in
general, but particularly underneath the arches. While I agree on the security aspects,
there doesn’t seem to be any provision for running a tab, which means using that little
card a lot.
Bermondsey-beer-mile.co.uk is the most helpful resource as it is updated a couple of
times a year. Check them for hours. Saturday and Sunday are the liveliest days, but
Friday at 3 is the quieter approach if you want to catch them all. As you should.