It can't have escaped the attention of many pub-goers that London has experienced something of a beer 'renaissance' over the last few years. Some observers adopt even stronger hyperbole, referring to it as a 'revolution'. Either way we've seen a massive surge in the popularity of non-mass-market beers in London, accompanied by a huge increase in the number of local independent brewers. There are currently over 80 commercial brewers operating within the M25, most of whom have sprung up in the last few years.
So it seems that lovers of good, independently-brewed beer are almost spoilt for choice in London. But amongst the ever-increasing number of pubs selling craft beer, which, if any, are the best?
Somewhat pedantically, before we try to answer that question we need to establish some criteria. We're not going to get bogged down in trying to precisely define what, if anything, the term 'craft beer' refers to (beer writer Pete Brown covers that debate rather well if you're interested), but we are going to focus on pubs that serve a regularly-changing selection of high-quality beer from from a variety of independent brewers. We're also going to acknowledge that, for a drinking establishment to qualify as a good craft beer pub, it firstly needs to be 'a good pub' — places that serve good beer but present an unpleasant drinking environment do not make the grade here.
Finally, in the interests of variety, where several potentially-qualifying pubs are siblings (e.g. owned by the same organisation), we will choose just one for the list, although we may mention some of its brethren.
The Southampton Arms, Kentish Town
A refurbished and revitalised incarnation of an old-fashioned boozer, the Southampton Arms has managed to retain a relaxed, local feel, even at busy times. Twelve hand pumps on the bar are mostly used to dispense cask ales from independent UK brewers, and six further pumps behind the bar offer ciders. There are also two keg taps, serving beers from the likes of Camden Town. Food offerings seem to mostly revolve around pork — ranging from packets of scratchings (of course) to meat from a roast joint. The pub's location, awkwardly between Kentish Town and Gospel Oak stations, might be mildly inconvenient for some, but once you're there you'll be happy to hang around for a while.
The Southampton Arms, 139 Highgate Road, NW5 1LE
The Harp, Covent Garden
Situated right in the middle of the West End, this old pub of compact proportions was never going to be quiet. And once you factor in the high quality of its beer – predominantly of the cask-conditioned variety – and the efficient and friendly welcome from its staff, you can see why this pub is popular for more than just its location. Adding to its general acclaim is an impressive list of beer-related awards, the pinnacle of which is undoubtedly CAMRA's National Pub of the Year in 2011; the massive real-ale-loving organisation essentially considered it to be the best pub in the country at the time. This all contributes to The Harp's relentless busyness, so this might not be a sensible destination for the weary-of-foot, as they would rarely be guaranteed a seat. Some respite from the (generally affable) crowd can sometimes be found in the surprisingly elegant upstairs room, but in general it's best to only visit this pub if you're happy to drink your excellent ale vertically.
The Harp, 47 Chandos Place, WC2N 4HS
The Queen's Head, King's Cross
The Queen's Head is one of those pubs whose minor ergonomic challenges tend to work slightly in their favour. Sure, finding an entirely comfortable drinking (or ordering) space can be a bit awkward at busy times, but here it seems to add to the place's pleasantly bustling atmosphere. This is another pub to have gained CAMRA's public approval, though curiously not for beer — the bearded ones have actually declared the Queen's Head to be a great place to drink cider. Not to worry though, this is still a great place to consume more sensible drinks as well. Their beer selection, while not vast, is usually well-judged with a handful of often locally-brewed offerings on both cask and keg, as well as some great options in the fridge. They also stock a fine selection of whiskies. Food is of the things-to-nibble-while-drinking variety – bread, cheese, cured meats, pies and suchlike – which works rather well.
See also: sister pub Simon the Tanner in Bermondsey
The Queen's Head, 66 Acton Street, WC1X 9NB.
The Earl of Essex, Islington
Given its slightly off-the-beaten-track location in the residential back-streets between Angel and Canonbury, it's surprising how busy this pub can get. At popular times beer geeks flock from far and wide to hang out here. Why? Well for a start the beer selection is not just excellent, it's also rather interesting, often comprising beer from a number of brewers who tend not to feature that heavily in London's other craft beer pubs, as well as their own in-house brew and some more familiar names (Camden Town, Magic Rock, Thornbridge, etc.). The food is entirely agreeable, focused more towards the gastropub audience than those looking for simple pub grub, and the woody, bright décor is immediately comfortable. Combine all this with a nice little beer garden at the back of the premises and you can begin to understand this pub's appeal.
The Earl of Essex, 25 Danbury Street, N1 8LE.
The Old Red Cow, Smithfield
More-or-less equidistantly situated between Smithfield Market and the Barbican Estate, the Old Red Cow is probably more compact in proportions than many of the other pubs nearby. However this has not prevented them from squeezing in a surprisingly wide range of interesting beers across two bars, with more than a dozen keg beers, a few good cask ales and innumerable bottles all vying for attention. With a good split between independently-brewed beers from the UK and US, and a large selection of European beers, this is a good place for any beer lover to spend a few hours. They also serve good food, including some of the best scotch eggs we've ever tasted.
The Old Red Cow, 71-72 Long Lane, EC1A 9EJ
Westow House, Crystal Palace
Of course, not all of London's great craft beer pubs are to be found within its central areas, and there are few better examples of this than Westow House. If you walk up the hill from Crystal Palace station you'll probably feel that you deserve a pint as you reach the top, but if you can avoid the temptation to quench your thirst in the CAMRA-beloved Grape and Grain and continue to the opposite side of the crossroads, you'll reach a much more contemporary beery destination. Westow House is a large Victorian pub, sporting dark paint, funky wallpaper, a 'library' of books, plenty of tables and chairs, and Chesterfield sofas. And beer. Eight fine cask ales, a similar number of keg taps, and a number of well-stocked fridges will ably slake your righteous hill-climbing thirst, and the well-executed food will help you regain your energy. With DJs until late on Fridays and Saturdays, lazy Sunday roasts, board-games and the occasional beer festival, the pub is understandably popular with 20-to-40-somethings. And why not.
Westow House, 79 Westow Hill, SE19 1TX
Craft Beer Co, Islington
Of the four Craft Beer Co pubs in London, we reckon this one is probably the most pleasant in which to enjoy a drink. That said, there's not much to differentiate them – they all serve the best part of three dozen draft beers on cask and keg, often featuring imported brews that are not available anywhere else in the UK, and they all stock hundreds of different bottled beers (as well as a fine selection of lesser types of beverage). However in our view, the Islington Craft Beer Co feels more comfortably 'pub-like' than its immediate siblings, with an agreeable ambience across three rooms, and a nice little beer garden. Food is very much limited to the 'snack' end of the culinary spectrum, but they've been known to offer decent pork pies and scotch eggs.
The Craft Beer Co, 55 White Lion Street, N1 9PP
The White Horse, Parson's Green
This big pub on Parson's Green is somewhat notorious for the perceived nature of its clientèle, earning it the nickname 'The Sloany Pony'. While there's some truth in this perception, not all of the pub's customers are annoying 'gap yah' types, and the selection of beer on offer is certainly beyond reproach. With a wide range of cask and keg ales from a variety of UK and European brewers, as well as some big (and sometimes expensive) American craft beers, there's enough variety here to keep an eager beer drinker entertained for some time. The pub further cements its beery focus with regular beer festivals (including a rather excellent annual American beer festival around Independence Day) and a conspicuous tank of unpasteurised Pilsner Urquell. The food's pretty good, too.
The White Horse, 1-3 Parson's Green, SW6 4UL
Euston Tap, Euston
Housed in what must be one of the most unusual pub premises in London, the Euston Tap works hard to make the most of a rather challenging space. The Grade II listed nature of the old Portland stone cube in front of Euston Station, combined with the pub's popularity since it opened in 2010, means it's often hard to find much space within. Because of this, and the almost perpetual drama that seems to befall the over-subscribed toilet facilities, this pub almost fails to meet our 'pleasant drinking environment' criterion. However, if you pick a quiet time, or don't mind sitting at the tables and chairs outside, you can often avoid the crush and enjoy an immense selection of craft beers in some rather unconventional surroundings.
The Euston Tap, 190 Euston Road, NW1 2EF
Despite the relentlessly hyperbolic bravado and attention-seeking that Scottish brewers BrewDog are notorious for, their Camden bar is actually better adjusted than you might think. Sure, they publicised the pub's opening a few years ago by driving a big tank around Camden Town, and yes most beers in stock sport an ABV somewhere north of 6%, but the day-to-day experience of this place is conducted some way below the shouty fever pitch that you might expect from BrewDog. Serving pretty much the Scottish brewer's full range, as well as beers from the likes of Mikkeller, Kernel and Green Flash, this is very much a destination for hop-lovers. Just don't expect any cask-conditioned ales, as everything is served from keg or bottle.
BrewDog, 113 Bayham Street, NW1 0AG
What do you think?
Of course, there are many other great beer-oriented pubs in London that didn't quite make our top 10. Let us know your favourites in the comments below.