The Craft Beer Co., Leather Lane, London, EC1N
Ridiculous. There is only one word for it. It’s the opening night of the latest addition to London’s expanding specialist beer scene – The Craft Beer Co. – and already the bar is five deep with tickers, swiggers, quaffers and the downright curious all vying for the cohort of bar staff’s attention.
In fairness to the servers, visibility is hampered by the giddying array of pumps and taps that populate the bar. Though it takes a good 20 minutes to get hold of our first drink, which can’t be good enough in anyone’s book. And speaking of books, we’re presented with the bottled beer menu halfway through our first beer. It’s overwhelming. We flick through it giggling, intrigued and genuinely flabbergasted at the extraordinary selection of bottles from far-flung places I never knew had even heard of beer, never mind brewed it.
The emerging craft beer scene is one that’s gained a firm foothold in London. Outlets such as Mason & Taylor in Bethnal Green, The Rake in Southwark and The Draft House in Clapham and Tower Bridge sell a broad range of beers to an ever-growing number of punters. Bloggers wage digital, twitter-borne warfare on television cookery programmes to proffer beer as a viable alternative to wine as an accompaniment to food. And you can no longer dismiss beer as a cheap, unsophisticated alcoholic drink vastly inferior to its grape-based rival.
Having now been open for a few weeks, The Craft Beer Co. has already been hailed as the future of pubs. Sister to The Cask in Pimlico, the new venture boasts it will always have 37 beers on tap (that’s more than 10 times your usual pub offers) along with more than 150 different bottles. On its opening night, it appears to have attracted the lion’s share of London’s beer aficionados. At least, the ones who weren’t invited to the sneak preview the night before.
There are so many beards and ales in one place, it feels like a beer festival in a small room. We count nine women, although this is an unfair observation as many more people have spilled outside to enjoy the late June setting sun. But it’s an interesting demographic nonetheless; everything from the socks and sandals brigade leafing through well-thumbed notebooks to the hop-seeking hipster desperately surfing the zeitgeist is jostling for attention under the impressive mirrored ceiling. And it’s this reflective roof that convinces me I’m not sitting in the future of pubs at all.
Mirrored ceilings are the reserve of the unswervingly conceited. Always have been. I half expect the floor to be clad in scarlet faux satin sheets. While mildly diverting for a while, it soon becomes the pub’s most garish feature, a title for which it competes valiantly with the keg taps and the whitewashed walls. Yet it takes a second visit for this truly to hit home.
It’s one thing spending the evening comparing notes on a range of obscure and expensive beers only the most dedicated (read: alcoholic) have heard of. But it’s quite another bringing along a group of good, honest, thirsty beer drinkers just looking for a decent pint. Around 16 cask ales it may have, but it’s no good if they’re all pale ales, no matter how well crafted they are. The helpful bar staff strive to assist, offering tasting samples and trying as best they can to explain the qualities of each. But nothing hides the fact there are no standard brown beers available, a fact they acknowledge is difficult to explain away.
My companions are not beer nerds. They are unimpressed by the surroundings. They care little what hops a beer contains or whether it’s finely balanced. They just want a reasonably priced beer in a pub. What they get is a National Trust Ale EmporiumTM, which ticks a huge array of boxes, none of which unfortunately are ‘good boozer’. That there is a place for these kind of watering holes looks beyond doubt – they’re springing up all over the place as fast as tired, old, failed, so-called gastro-pubs are closing down. And they do have merit – if you want to try a molasses-based imperial porter from Upper Volta, you’ll more than likely be able to find one here. And I’ll doubtless be back to indulge my taste for mind-alteringly strong Belgian Trappist beers.
Whether or not this faintly ersatz pub experience will eventually replace the genuine article is yet to be seen. On the strength of my follow-up visit, I suspect not.