Originally Told: August 6 2017
When traveling, I often do a fair amount of research. Not so that every moment of every day is planned, but so I can get a general sense of the location. Bars. Restaurants. Neighborhoods. Sights. Culture. History. I gather a list of “must sees” and then a list of areas to wander around and get lost in. I am always fascinated by how beer plays a role in people’s every day life, to unwind, converse with friends, share new experiences, compliment food, or maintain traditions. When we travel, beer destinations are a focal point, but mostly as way to gain insight into the larger cultural and social movements going on in a given city or country.
One a cold winter day, I went to one of my favorite coffee shops in Cambridge (Massachusetts, not England) to research our upcoming Memorial Day weekend trip to London. Having traveled to London before, we didn't have much interest in the touristy spots, but were more focused on getting a feel for the different neighborhoods and eating and drinking our way through the long weekend.
I started with the Monocle Guide to London, making notes about spots I wanted to try. I turned the page to the essay portion, flipping through the topics when Essay 05 popped up, “Drink and be merry: Craft-beer revolution” by Pete Brown, a well known English beer writer. Brown’s brief essay on London beer history reminds you that although wildly popular in the United States, India Pale Ales (and Porters) are not American-born styles, but rather UK inspirations. London has a proud beer tradition, but as of 2006, London brewing had declined with a mere 2 breweries in the city. Over the past 10 years, however, the world-wide craft beer movement served as a launching point for a renaissance in the city and today London boasts over 75 breweries.
We’re only there a few days, and I want to get a feel for both the old and the new. The traditional cask ale, and the modern take on the London-born, American favorite IPA. I sought out the opinion of a beer writer through Twitter that I have followed for a while, Matthew Curtis. He quickly got back to me with a list of recommendations. Between Pete Brown’s recommendations, Matthew’s, and those of a former London-living beer-loving friend, I feel slightly overwhelmed at the number of recommendations to choose from.
I hate flying to Europe overnight. I always forget how much I hate it. Even if you sleep, it’s 4 hours. It’s not London, it’s the flight to anywhere in Europe. It’s brutal. We arrive at Heathrow Airport and after an hour going through customs, catch a cab into the city. Since it’s a weekday, the traffic is worse than normal, 90 minutes to our hotel.
In choosing our hotel, we went with a chain we became familiar with while in Amsterdam, The Hoxton. Similar to the space in Amsterdam, The Hoxton Shoreditch has a modern feel, almost like an industrial loft. Located in East London, Shoreditch is not a tourist area. Driving through it, the streets are lined with restaurants, bars, and residential buildings. And despite being a hotel, The Hoxton is as much for locals as for visitors. Over the last 15 years, Shoreditch has become a more popular and fashionable part of London. Home to many technology companies, Shoreditch has experienced increasing property values and wave of of traditional “gentrification” coupled with “hipsterfication.” It reminds me of areas of Brooklyn.
As you walk in to the hotel, you’re met with communal spaces shared by patrons and local residents: large couches and chairs surrounded by bookshelves where people are on their phones, working, or conducing business meetings. To your right, a coffee bar with waiters and waitresses hurrying up to and then away from the counter as they work quickly to deliver espressos and cappuccinos. Behind the coffee counter is the restaurant with an open glass atrium and full bar. To the left, a large fireplace with the “Hoxton crest,” a throwback to what I imagine to be in the homes of the grand estates of Great Britain hundreds of years ago. But just to make sure you remember that this is not a traditional London hotel, there is a photo booth stationed near the check in desk. More retro than modern.
Our room isn't ready yet, so we leave our bags at the front desk and sink into one of the couches with a coffee. Sadly the beer options at The Hoxton leave a lot to be desired. Oddly there are no English beers, the tap handles read Amstel Light, Lagunitas IPA and Heineken. But, they mix a mean Old Fashioned so all is forgiven.
After eventually checking in and changing, we head out for our first adventure: lunch at The Clove Club. Originally a supper club in a Dalston flat in 2010, The Clove Club opened its Shoreditch restaurant in 2013. Having taken over the old Town Hall, the building now houses the restaurant and also serves as a popular arts and events space.
The front of the restaurant is a more traditional looking bar area, while the back is a combination dining area with open kitchen. Our table is front and center to where the food is plated, affording a view to the chefs. Behind the concept is Isaac, Johnny and Daniel who wanted to create a “restaurant for a new generation - a place where people can come for good food, enjoy personable service, and feel comfortable.” The environment is comfortable, but the food elegant. An appetizer of fried chicken pieces just nudged out the lamb chop entree I devoured as my favorite part of the meal. Coupled with the Redchurch Bethnal Pale Ale I ordered, it was the perfect way to kick off our trip. Although not a beer destination specifically, the food was incredible and the restaurant’s Michelin star is evidence that others agree (look for the Michelin Tire Man perched on the shelf).
We leave The Clove Club more awake than when we came, ready to tackle the town. As we walk around London, we see the impact of craft beer's rebirth everywhere, especially in Shoreditch and Bethnal Green, more residential, up and coming areas. We hit a few stores on our way to a spot recommended by many. Mother Kelly’s.
Paradise Row is a strip of bars in London’s Bethnal Green area, the kind of spot you hope for in your home city. Combination bottle shop and tap room, Mother Kelly’s was a suggestion from nearly every person I consulted before our trip. No matter the scene you’re looking for, you can find it here. Need to get some work done while enjoying a beer. This is the place. Want to meet friends for beers after work, before dinner, on a weekend day. This is the place. Like many spots we visit the crowd is a casual mix of young and old, solos and groups, social and work.
Mother Kelly’s identifies as a New York inspired tap room. The outside has tables scattered over a patio, while inside the space opens up like a warehouse. Repurposed wood floors, metal walls painted with street art-type designs, and a half dome ceiling welcome you as you walk in. 6 massive fridges full of selections to consume on site or purchase and take away sit against the left wall, while the back bar is lined with sheets of metal, the scraps and blemishes giving the view character. 19 metal tap handles jut out, the painted yellow numbers assigned to each aligning with the numbers on the menu. In red below each handle is a fraction, indicating the pour size.
I look at the draft list. Torn between a few choices, I walk to the bar and allow the bartender to pick my pour. She reaches for handle #13 and Pale Fire by Pressure Drop Brewing, an American Pale Ale, flows into the glass. I grab my beer and walk over to the fridges to preview the can and bottle options. The selection is organized by style with bottles and cans from various breweries intermixed. Some I have heard of, some are from American breweries. Others I haven’t. Next to the cases is a shelf filled with beer books, stacks of coasters, and t-shirts. I recognize a few of the titles, including “Food and Beer” by Evil Twin’s Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergsø and chef Daniel Burns, co-owners of Tørst in Brooklyn. I slowly walk back to the table, take a seat and settle in to relax.
It’s a beautiful day outside so despite being late afternoon, Mother Kelly’s is active. More and more people start to pour in as the minutes pass and I order my second beer, an IPA by The Kernel Brewery. Both of my beers come in 2/3 pint serving sizes, ideal for tasting. After another 30 minutes of chatting, I gulp down my last sip and we pack our bags for our next beer adventure, another pub with multiple recommendations, The Kings Arms.
A 15 minute walk from Mother Kelly’s, the Kings Arms is what I picture when I think of an English pub. Given that it was established in 1835, it would have to be. Wood bar. Wood floor. Wood walls. So really, lots of wood. Smaller than Mother Kelly’s, the majority of seating is either at the bar, or at quiet tables in the back. Outside, picnic tablesline the sidewalk where groups of friends chat. In contrast to Mother Kelly’s modern exterior, The Kings Arms sports a more traditional and grand facade of glass and dark blue, while the pub’s name is stenciled across the top in a font you’re likely to find on the family crest of an English Lord. It’s comfortable though. Patrons chat with the bartender, and unlike newer multi-purpose breweries or bars, it’s clear that everyone here is there to drink and enjoy beer for the sake of that activity alone.
We choose two stools at the bar and look at the menu. Being in London, one goal of the trip was to try cask ale. Knowing absolutely nothing about it though, I let the bartender choose. She picks the Ilkley Spring Oatmeal Pale, a 4% oatmeal pale ale with a blend of New Zealand, US and UK hops. It’s warmer than I had expected. It goes down smoothly, but the temperature is something I have to get used to as I work my way through the pint. In all honesty it isn't my favorite, but I vow to order another at the next stop. Next up I taste the Cloudwater NW DIPA, a monster 9%, thankfully served in a half pint pour.
While there, the pub was hosting a launch for a new beer from Four Pure Brewing Co, called Hop Tripper. A self-proclaimed “San Diego DIPA,” the poster displayed a nautical design in orange, blue and yellow colors, a scene you would be more likely to find on the back of a t-shirt in La Jolla versus in the UK. The Kings Arms encapsulates the essence of London’s blended beer scene: a nod to and respect for the proud traditions of the past, with beer from the new wave of breweries and styles that have put London back on the world beer map.
After beer, food lands a close second on the priority list for most of our urban adventures. Being in London, we were pumped for Indian food. Our own research and the recommendations of others confirmed that Dishoom was the place, or at least one of a handful they frequent(ed). Turns out, one of the locations sits in Shoreditch, a quick 15 min walk from our hotel. Given that our afternoon was spent bar hopping and we needed to eat something, this seemed like as good a night as any to check it out. We had been warned that the lines were long, so we threw our name on the list (it was an hour wait) and headed to the bar to order drinks and some samosas.
The restaurant is a lot larger than I thought it would be. The outdoor seating is charming with table and couches sitting below streams of white lights and sprawling green plants. Inside the bar area is small and crowded with people eager to order a cocktail for their wait. The space for tables, however, is large, with additional seating downstairs. The crowd is a mix. There are those coming directly from work, their suits and/or laptop bags the giveaway. Locals waive to friends as they walk in. And then there are the visitors like us, looking around, taking it all in. Our buzzer finally goes off and we’re escorted to our table.
We scan the menu. Luckily a friend had made recommendations as the typical Indian dishes you find in the states are not listed and we needed some direction. Our waiter confirmed that we made solid choices so we go with the the Black Dahl and Murgh Malai Chicken. He walks away and all I can do is scan the tables of the other patrons, eager for our food to get there.
When it comes, it comes with force. Plate after plate, bowl after bowl lands on our table. Naan, rice, sauces, chicken, the Black Dahl lentil dish. I don't even know where to start. We grab spoons and start dolling out small tastes, using the naan to soak up the sauce. It’s amazing, the best Indian food I’ve ever had. It makes me instantly wish one would open in Boston. We devour the food. I eventually pause and realize I ate too fast, but I don't care. I grab the last bit of naan, dip it into the Black Dahl and toss it in my mouth. I swallow it down and then make a “done” motion with my hands indicating I can’t possibly fit anything else in my stomach.
We head for home, thankful the walk is helping with the digestion. As we walk, we pass street art on a variety of buildings. One example is a stencil of Trump’s face with the statement “Hair ‘Em Scare ‘Em” under it. Above it is spray painted “The Original Globe Theatre Was Built On This Site in 1576.
Whether the actual site or not, the two visuals in such close proximity to one another speaks to the mix of old and new we experienced all day. One is the London of Shakespeare, Henry VIII, the Tower of London, pubs and cask ale. The other is of hipsters, political art, and the new London IPA. Tomorrow we will get the opportunity to visit a brewery on the forefront of the renaissance of that style, Beavertown.
Allagash, little Brett