Back in August, we hopped to the pond to spend some time in London during the Olympics. While we were there, it didn’t take long for us to turn our attention away from badminton and rhythmic gymnastics, and towards the quaffing of copious English ales. Eager to sample the spoils of the UK’s surging craft-brew scene, we hit up the Great British Beer Festival and trekked to some of the city’s new-breed pubs with the dogged determination of Mo Farrah. Here are our six favorite pints, culled from a sample group of at least 40—is there a gold medal for that?
Magic Rock Dark Arts
With their funky carnival-themed taps and focus on high-octane styles (including a West Coast pale ale and a 9.2%-ABV double IPA), these northerners are clearly out to make a statement. Still, we found that the less in-your-face stout left the biggest impression. It poured like liquid silk from a hand-pump at Craft Beer Co. on Leather Lane, with loads of chocolately malts and a nice roasty bitterness on the finish. You won’t find a better balance of drinkability and lushness.
Red Willow Headless
We caught up with the founders of this Cheshire-based newcomer during a “meet the brewer” night at the excellent Cask Pub & Kitchen in Pimlico, and we were thoroughly impressed with their offerings. Of particular note is their series of pale ales, all well-balanced and flavorful despite the moderate ABVs. Wreckless is the big award-winner—sturdy malts, intense tropical fruits—but for warm-weather sipping we prefer the clean and refreshing citrus tang of the Headless. We’d love to see more American brewers pack this much hop character into a 3.9%-ABV brew.
Fuller’s Brewers Reserve No. 4 (Armagnac Casks)
At the GBBF, the big guns of British brewing—Marston, Wells, Fuller’s—all have their own setups removed from the regionally-organized central bars. Most seasoned drinkers don’t want to waste any stomach space on beers they can regularly find on tap, but Fuller’s did a good job of making its station a must-visit by serving one of its uber-rare Brewers Reserve ales. This one had been aged for two months in oak casks previously used for Armagnac, then blended with fresh batches of the brewery’s classic ESB. Given the high ABV (over 8%) and whiff of cognac, we were expecting it to be too boozy. Instead, it’s beautifully balanced and not overpoweringly spirited, with great rich fruits and a hint of warming booze and oak coming through over the top. Masterful stuff from a legendary brewery.
Kernel is one of the outfits leading the resurgence of brewing in London proper—you can visit the Bermondsey brewery on Saturdays to pick up their latest releases, and you’ll find the bottles available at a lot of beer-focused restaurants around town. The IPA is a standout, marrying bready English malts with American hops to deliver a big citrusy finish. It’s hearty enough to stand up to a bloody rump steak at Hawksmoor, but it’s not a palate-wrecker by any means.
Dark Star Festival
While the brewing landscape has evolved significantly in Britain, with more hops and oddball ingredients in the mix than ever before, traditional English styles still dominate, particularly bitters. The subtle differences between them can easily be mistaken for sameness when tasted back-to-back in a festival setting, but this one from Dark Star stopped us in our tracks. It’s a resurrection of a bitter made by a now-defunct, family-owned brewery in Sussex called King & Barnes: copper-hued and a bit stronger than average (it’s really an ESB), with great dark fruit notes.
Crouch Vale Yakima Gold
It’s good to see English brewers not only embracing American hops, but doing something different with them. Hops from Washington’s famous Yakima Valley are common in some of the brawniest IPAs found stateside. Crouch Vale lets them sing at a lower frequency, incorporating them into this very tasty 4.2%-ABV session ale. The citrus notes ride the back of chewy malts, leaving a mildly bitter finish that keeps you coming back for more.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: THE WEIRDEST BEERS WE TRIED
Yates TropicAle (Pictured)
Just as stalwarts like Sierra Nevada and Dogfish Head stay current with a slew of experimental releases each year, Yates kept things interesting at GBBF with this offbeat cask ale, brewed with hops grown at Ventnor Botanic Gardens on the Isle of Wight. Honestly, it’s almost too funky, with a sort of wet earth and guava aroma that’s matched by an intense taste of spoiled tropical fruits. It sounds awful in retrospect, but we respect the effort—there was nothing else like it at the festival, that’s for sure.
Amber Chocolate Orange Stout
While not amazing in taste, this is a fun novelty. Terry’s Chocolate Oranges are a classic English candy—you’re almost guaranteed to get at least one around Christmas—and this beer is pretty much its beer equivalent. The orange-and-cocoa flavor is definitely there, though the citrusy sweetness tastes a bit artificial, like the marmalade in a Jaffa Cake. Still, for nostalgic appeal alone, it was a memorable brew.
Burton Bridge Bramble Stout
American brewing has spawned no shortage of fruit-enhanced porters and stouts, with popular additions including cherry and raspberry. Blackberries feel like a particularly English choice, though, especially when they’re referred to as bramble. Burton Bridge uses real blackberry juice to give the beer a pleasantly natural sweetness. The fruit clashes a bit with the roasty character of the malts, but we’d still reach for a pint of this on a crisp autumn day.