London’s Best Craft Beer Pubs
Just Opened London’s ‘Best of’ series covers a combination of recently opened venues and established London favourites, to make sure you get the full lowdown on where to spend your time and hard-earned cash.
Words: Rachel Holdsworth
Craft beer is no longer a sideline to London’s drinking scene. It’s right at our beery heart, with major brewers joining the ranks of small upstarts to bring us more ales than we can ever hope to try.
This means that the number of places to drink craft beer has shot through the roof, with most decent pubs having at least one or two interesting brews on. Compiling this list of London’s best craft beer bars has been tough; even some well-loved haunts haven’t made the cut, such is the city’s embarrassment of riches.
We’re not getting into the old chestnut of what ‘counts’ as craft beer, instead going with a broad definition of drinks that are a bit different from the standard. Mind you, what does count as standard these days, eh?
This tiny pub in Borough Market has been serving excellent speciality beers since 2006, as an offshoot of the market’s Utobeer shop. The range belies its size: there are seven keg and three cask pumps, with 130 beers in the fridge. A sign declares the policy of “No Crap On Tap”. The vibe is studenty and on a Friday night there’s barely room to breathe – even in the spillover garden area. Try visiting outside peak hours, however, and you’ll have time to chat to the bar staff and truly appreciate your pint.
The Rake, 14 Winchester Walk, SE1 9AG
If we’re talking about tiny pubs, the Euston Tap deserves a mention. It – and its sister pub next door, the Cider Tap – used to be the gatehouses to Euston station. (We also remember when it used to be a women-only bar, but that belies our age.) Inside this small, square space you’ll find 19 beers on keg and eight cask beers, with 150 more in the fridge. Carefully carry your drink up the metal spiral staircase for more tables on the first floor, or take advantage of London’s rare good weather by standing on the pavement outside with everyone else. The very definition of small but perfectly formed.
Euston Tap, 190 Euston Road, NW1 2EF
Hopefully, the proprietors won’t mind us saying this, but the Old Fountain doesn’t look much from the outside. Inside, however, and downstairs, is an ever-changing range of ales (about 20 of them) in a dark wood, cosy bar, while upstairs there’s a modern terrace. Food is of the solid pub variety, and reasonably priced to say we’re in Old Street.
Old Fountain, 3 Baldwin Street, EC1V 9NU
London Beer Dispensary
When Late Knights brewery got kicked out of their space a while ago there were fears for the LBD (as there were for Beer Rebellion; see below). Much loved in south-east London, the LBD is a pub without a bar. You’ll still get served: just pick a beer from the well-stocked fridge or select from one of 12 ales and ciders, and a member of staff will pour it for you. Its long, thin shape reveals its origins as a former shop (via being a wine bar); the atmosphere is far more convivial than a Marks and Sparks, though.
London Beer Dispensary, 389 Brockley Road, SE4 2PH
Go to this Camberwell pub and it’s likely you’ll wait a long time before getting your first drink. That’s no slur on the staff, it’s because you’ll spend ages studying the options. It’s an embarrassment of riches. 23 beers on keg and cask and our heads spin if we also try and take in what’s in the fridge. The hand-drawn pump clips are also a nice touch. If you’re further south, try Stormbird’s sister pub The Star and Garter in Bromley.
Stormbird, 25 Camberwell Church Street, SE5 8TR
This pub is so popular with King’s Cross’s after-work crowd that we’ve taken to nipping in about 4pm to bag a table. It’s a hard life, suffering through an extra pint in the pre-horde Victorian ambience. You’re almost expecting a stream of mill workers to pile in come 5pm. There are over 20 ales and ciders on tap, three on cask, and four pages worth of bottled beers printed out and stuck to clipboards for your perusal. We also have to nod to what they term their Ever-Expanding Whisk(e)y List, and the food ranges from pork scratchings, via a decent Ploughman’s, to cheese, charcuterie and chocolate (yes, really) boards.
Queen’s Head, 66 Acton Street, WC1X 9NB
The Beer Shop
If the London Beer Dispensary has the faint remembrance of its time as a shop, this Nunhead micropub screams ‘corner off-licence’. Yet it’s comfortable and sun-drenched in the afternoons and, though it only has five taps, two still manage to be cask. We have no idea where they keep the five pages worth of bottles but there’s enough choice to make your head spin (at the time of writing, they had four – count ‘em – imperial stouts). They’ve also got a nice spin on 500ml+ bottles, saying they’re for sharing. Plus there are spirits with mixers for £4. Bargain.
The Beer Shop, 40 Nunhead Green, SE15 3QF
The Italian Job
Not a tribute to Michael Caine but a pub entirely dedicated to the Italian craft beer scene. Twelve draught beers come from house brewery Birrificio del Ducato and guests, while bottles are mainly from Birrificio del Ducato but boy, do they have a range. This is an Italian place, so there’s a decent wine list and coffee, plus excellent grazing food. The bar itself is heavily redolent of Turin; you half expect boys on Lambrettas to rock up at any moment.
The Italian Job, 13 Devonshire Road, W4 2EU
The Southampton Arms
They don’t take any crap at The Southampton Arms. No cards, no reservations, no phone and barely a website, but the pub picks up CAMRA awards like there’s no tomorrow. Twelve handpumps serve mainly cask ale, with six cider taps also available. They also boast of a ‘fridge full of lovely meat’. It’s dog-friendly and has a beer garden and a piano. This could well be the pub of your dreams. If only it was closer to a station.
The Southampton Arms, 139 Highgate Road, NW5 1LE
Alright, this is where things get complicated. From here on in, we’re talking pubs in the plural: siblings, chains and neighbours. It’s a sign of just how healthy London’s craft beer scene is that they’re multiplying…
The Lyric, Soho / The Harp, Covent Garden
This pair is within walking distance of each other, which you might need because they’re both so small and popular that they’re regularly too full to get in. Overflowing hanging baskets mark The Harp, as do the crowds spilling onto the street. Inside the walls are covered with beermats or beautiful Victorian-style mirrors and paintings. Really, it’s astonishing that this is a Fuller’s pub.The Lyric is similarly old-style with a vast panoply of beer options. Both have a small upstairs area if you can fight your way to the stairs.
The Lyric, 37 Great Windmill Street, W1D 7LU
The Harp, 47 Chandos Place, WC2N 4HS
The Jolly Butchers, Stoke Newington / Crown and Anchor, Brixton
Stokey’s finest has a large bar with taps all the way round, serving beers from local breweries and carefully selected offerings from around the world. Cider gets a good showing, and it’s worth popping in just to see if they have any one-offs on the go. It’s been showered with awards and as such, even though this airy pub is a good size, it can be difficult to find a table. Its younger sibling, the Crown and Anchor (pictured), is similarly popular if a little bit shinier. Both do stonking plates of hearty but elegant food.
The Jolly Butchers, 204 Stoke Newington High Street, N16 7HU
Crown and Anchor, 246 Brixton Road, SW9 6AQ
Old Red Cow / Hack and Hop / The Dean Swift / Hansom Cab
These four fall under the Local Beer House umbrella. Their modus operandi is to get as many excellent beers as possible into a classic modern pub (think: sage green wood panelling, leather banquettes, wood tables with wrought iron legs). The Old Red Cow is one of the finer pubs in the City, but if you can’t fit into its modest space you should make your way to one of its siblings. And we have to tip our hat at their imaginative, and well-priced beer snacks: the things these people can do with a Scotch egg.
Old Red Cow, 71/72 Long Lane, EC1A 9EJ
Hack and Hop, 35 Whitefriars Street, EC4Y 8BH
The Dean Swift, 10 Gainsford Street, Butler’s Wharf, SE1 2NE
The Hansom Cab, 84-86 Earls Court Road, W8 6EG (pictured)
Holborn Whippet / Pelt Trader
The Holborn Whippet has been dispensing beer – and drinkers into the street of Sicilian Avenue – for several years now. There are six cask pumps and 10 kegs, yet the kitchen has always been almost as big a draw as the beer, doling out fresh pizza and snacks like currywurst and popcorn shrimp. The Pelt Trader takes pizza one step further, bringing in Ray’s Pizza – and the scent drifts up to the rail bridge of Cannon Street station, wafting into trains as they pass. Cask and keg are evenly split here (6:7) and there’s a bit more space, though it still gets full with City workers grabbing a pint before the train home.
Holborn Whippet, 25-29 Sicilian Avenue, WC1A 2QH
The Pelt Trader, Arch 3, Dowgate Hill, EC4N 6AP
Mother Kelly’s / Well and Bucket / King’s Arms / Sebright Arms
It’s too much to pick out one or two of Bethnal Green’s excellent craft beer pubs, so we haven’t tried. Mother Kelly’s is a sibling of the aforementioned Queen’s Head, but so different in spirit: set in a railway arch, it’s stripped back and graffitied with wooden bench seating. The beer is the star, with 19 taps and six huge fridges. Street food traders park up outside at weekends.
We have much love for the Well and Bucket, which combines Victoriana with a steampunk vibe and a beer menu that makes our head spin with the variety and tiny writing. Carrying on the Victorian theme, the kitchen sells oysters and other seafood. If that wasn’t enough, there’s also a beer garden and basement cocktail bar.
The King’s Arms looks like an old school pub, but has 20 beers on the bar and more in the fridge. Meat and cheese is the grub on offer, and the gorgeous deep blue walls are decorated with lepidoptery, if that’s your thing. Finally, the Sebright Arms (pictured above) is best known as a music venue, but they know their local breweries and have as many on tap as they – and you – can handle. Food comes from a rotating series of residencies.
Mother Kelly’s, 251 Paradise Row, E2 9LE
Well and Bucket, 143 Bethnal Green Road, E2 7DG
King’s Arms, 11A Buckfast Street, E2 6EY
Sebright Arms, 31-35 Coate Street, E2 9AG
Now we come to the chains. Unlike sibling pubs, you know what you’re in for whichever branch you decide to spend your money in.
Late Knights’ demise, or hiatus, depending on how optimistic you are, meant putting the brakes on its little micropub expansion. London Beer Dispensary is under new management and BR Sydenham has closed. But we still have the original at Gypsy Hill and the one by Queen’s Road station is hands down The Best Pub In Peckham (disagree? Bring it, haters). Other bars may have more beers, and more seats, and better toilets, but nowhere is better for attitude.
Beer Rebellion, 129 Queen’s Road, SE15 2ND
Beer Rebellion, 126 Gipsy Hill, SE19 1PL
Craft Beer Co.
You know you’ve entered a Craft Beer Co pub by the long bar with lots and lots of taps adorned with colourful pump clips. There’s always a great choice, by sheer number but also geography and style. They’re coolly modern places with lots of bare wood, but look out for individual touches like the bright stool covers in Limehouse or the beautiful ceiling in the shape of a clock at Clerkenwell.
Craft Beer Co., see website for locations
Another nice, classy chain that likes to inject a bit of funkiness wherever it lands. They’re also not afraid to head to west London, which makes a change from City-and-east-London centric craft beer. The beer range is as eclectic and well-chosen as you’d expect by now, and the food has a decidedly American influence. We’re big fans of the one at Old Street – lots of space to spread out and, as a bonus, a tank of unpasteurised Pilsner Urquell.
Draft House, see website for locations
Obviously, the full range of BrewDog beers are available here (don’t try the Tactical Nuclear Penguin, even for a laugh. It’s not worth it) and a lovely range of guest ales from breweries like Mikkeller, Beavertown and To Øl. The Shepherds Bush pub has an astonishing 40 taps; there’s a good selection elsewhere and the requisite long list of bottles and cans. BrewDog’s rebellious spirit comes out in their bars, which are fun and frivolous – though not when it comes to the beer. Never the beer.
Brewdog, see website for locations