Friday, 15 April 2011

London Pubs - A Booze-Up in Borough


The area around Borough at Southwark is one of my favourite parts of London. The reasons for this are many and varied. It's not just because it has one of the finest and tastiest food markets in the world, or because it's one of the oldest parts of London and so important in the Capital's social and literary history but also because it's home to a great choice of lovely pubs that are 'must visits' on any trip to London.

I like Borough and Southwark pubs because they offer up a merry marriage of modernity and tradition - some of the pubs look to their historic past, while the others are looking firmly to the future.

Hops play an important part in the trading history of this part of London. They were brought up from Kent in vast quantities to be bought and sold at market here and in 1866 a Hop Exchange was built to facilitate this trade.

Unfortunately, no hops are traded today but the product of the hops, beer, can still be bought in some stunning pubs in the area. I wanted to get a flavour of what was on offer in these pubs. So I planned on visiting a few of them to dip a beery toe into the Borough boozers and, hopefully, have a satisfying Southwark session.

Over the course of the day, I would visit five pubs in the area - The Rake, The Market Porter, The George, The Royal Oak and Dean Swift at Tower Bridge - and drink some lovely beers that showcased some of the best from a resurgent London beer scene.

My first stop was The Rake at the edge of Borough Market. In a few short years, it has established itself as one of the finest purveyors of quality beers from London and beyond. It is a beer drinker's Mecca and the beating heart of the London 'craft' beer scene. To say this place is revered by drinkers and brewers alike is not an understatement. One of the inner walls of the pub has the signatures and comments from some of the globe's finest brewers and it is a testamant to the esteem and regard that the pub is held by the international brewing community.

Much of the credit and plaudits for this has to go to Glyn, The Rake's Manager. His energy, passion and commitment to the beer cause has him working tirelessly to keep The Rake and the London beer scene fresh, lively and interesting. Every revolution needs a vanguard and Glyn is very much at the forefront of the Capital's beer revolution.

I landed at The Rake in the middle of their London Beer Week and was blown away by the depth and range of the beers available. Glyn's London Beer Week is a fantastic idea and a great way of introducing drinkers to the excellent variety of London Breweries and beers available. The format was simple but must have been devilish to organise. Each night had a meet the brewer event and involved were brewers from the likes of Kernel, Camden Town, Redemption and Meantime.

London Beer Week at The Rake

The beers available during the London Beer Week were superb too. A dozen London breweries were involved including Kernel, Brodies, Windsor and Eton, Sambrooks and Zero Degrees. I have to admit that I stayed longer than I intended and even revisited The Rake the following day for some more lovely, refreshing London beers which included some rare beasts indeed - Cask versions of The Kernel's Export Stout and their Black IPA, which is a Kernel and Bar Manager Glyn collaboration. Both were stunning.

The Rake seems unstoppable in their quest to bring the best beers to London's drinkers. Look out for their Cumbrian Beer Festival during the weekend of the Royal Wedding where some of the best examples of that part of England's beer offerings, including beers from the excellent Hawkshead Brewery.

Pump Clips at The Market Porter

After The Rake, I headed the short distance to The Market Porter. It's seen by some as a Borough Institution and I can, partly, see why some drinkers think so. It is a nice, homely pub to have a pint in, and the hundreds of pumpclips that adorn the walls and ceilings certainly attract and interest the eye but I always find the Real Ale range available when I've been in a wee bit boring and not very exciting. It's all a bit middle of the road for me - some Wychwood here, a splash of Jenning's there. At least they have Harvey's Best Bitter as a regular as well as Brewdog and Meantime on Keg. However, when I was in two of the three Meantime beers weren't available.

The Market Porter

It's not the first time I've left The Market Porter feeling a wee bit disappointed. It's a lovely pub but I feel that the beer range could be a bit more challenging and diverse.

Next on the list was a visit to one of London's oldest pubs and the last remaining 16th Century galleried coaching Inn, The George. It was rebuilt in 1676 after a fire swept through Southwark and it is drenched in history. Dicken's immortalised it in Little Dorritt and it's cobbled courtyard may even have played host to some of Shakespeare's plays as he watched from the gallery above. It is on the list of Camra's national inventory of pubs with historic interest and thankfully it's now in the safe hands of the National Trust. Sitting in the courtyard, with a beer in hand as the sun streams down is a lovely way to spend an hour. It is simply a beautiful pub. The choice of beers are mostly from the Greene King stable with one or two guest beers that tend not to push the boundaries.

Three down and two to go. Next up is a favourite of mine. Not just because it is a lovely looking pub but also because it happens to serve a great range of Sussex Brewery Harvey's, particularly one of my favourite low ABV beers, their 3% Sussex Mild. This Harvey's owned pub, The Royal Oak, dates back to 1870 but the location goes back even further to when it was The Tabard Inn, which was where Chaucer's Pilgrims set off in The Canterbury Tales.

The Royal Oak

It is a cosy and welcoming pub with two bars divided by stained glass and carved oak and since Harvey's acquired it in 1997 it has built up a reputation and regular clientele attracted to the tasty, well kept beer and lovely inexpensive food. The Sussex Mild was on top form, as was the Harvey's Pale Ale. You can see why so many drinkers source it out and tick it off on any beer visits to London. It's reputation is well deserved.

From a couple of old historic Southwark pubs to a relatively new kid on the block a short walk away at Tower Bridge is where I finish my journey, Dean Swift SE1. It has recently opened and is proving to be a big success with those into hip hops in London. In former lives it was an Aussie themed pub as well as a stripclub but the only Trashy Blondes you will see now come from the BrewDog font in the corner.

 It has a great range of  bottles including some Kernel Stouts, Porters and IPA's, Sierra Nevada Torpedo as well as Anchor, Flying Dog and Odell. It also has four cask beers which were Redemption Hopspur, Dark Star Hophead and Oakham Citra and JHB when I visited. I was in around teatime on a Tuesday and it was full of confident, strident, stripey suited young (and not so young) thrusters from businessland nearby. Don't let that put you off though. I'm assured that they drift off after a post work pint and head back into the 'burbs to be replaced with a better class of hophead.

Dean Swift, SE1

I had a quick chat with Manager, Max and his beery knowledge was impressive and he seems very keen to bring great beer to his thirsty and appreciative clientele. The purists will say that Dean Swift is a gastro-pub but what's wrong with an establishment that sells not only quality, tasty well made beer but also quality, tasty well made food. There's nothing wrong with that in my book and beer goes great with food, so what's the problem?  Food and Beer matching is the new the garlic bread, I tell you, and judging from the amount of people having bottles of Kernel while tucking into their food, it's clearly a strategy that works for Dean Swift.

Finishing my beer, I move outside and reflect on my Borough booze up. I've had some lovely beers made by some great breweries in attractive, historic and welcoming pubs.

 Time for one last beer, I decide, so I make my way back to where I started, The Rake.

 Back to the future of beer.

for other beer monkey blogs on london pubs see here and here


  1. Truly blown away by this write up. Thanks!

  2. @rabidbarfly

    Thanks, Glyn. Glad you like it. It is just my honest opinion of what a good job I think you and The Rake are doing. You are always pushing things forward and making the beer scene fresh and very interesting. Hats off to you, Sir.