Sunday 11 August 2013

Craft Beer In Islington - A Beginner's Guide

Craft beer is a term you hear a lot these days. Way back in the dim, distant days of .. ooh, 2011? .. most of us had barely heard of "craft beer". Quite a few people of the "I preferred their first album" variety were already very familiar with it, and had been following the progress of the American-influenced revival of craft brewing for the previous few years. But there is no doubt that craft beer, or real ale, or whatever you wish to call it (and I won't go into the tedious discussions of what "craft beer" means ... I'll just assume if you're reading this you understand English), has exploded in London over the past couple of years, with a growth in craft-oriented pubs, breweries, enthusiasts, restaurant beer menus, pop-ups and events that is astonishing. This expansion has been too much for the mainstream media, who are woefully behind with the whole thing - beer bloggers, and applications like the supremely useful Craft Beer London app, or user-driven nerd-magnets like Untappd, have taken their place. Newspapers and even London publications like Time Out seem to be blissfully unaware of one of the best things to happen in London, and the UK in general, for ages - something which is improving the sum of human happiness at a time when our malicious rulers appear hell-bent on turning everything else to shit. As Bob Dylan might say, something is happening here, but they don't know what it is.

OK, rant over. Here in Islington, the past two years has seen us go from relative destitution in terms of places to get an interesting range of craft beers, to an embarrassment of riches. This post is intended as a survey for the uninitiated of the treasures on our doorstep. The vast majority of the places I will mention have opened their doors in the last couple of years. Perhaps because I think only of others, and never of myself, I have been diligently researching pubs, restaurants, and shops and seeking out the best craft beer in the borough for all of this time, so that I can share it with you.

The Craft Beer Co weren't the first company to open a craft beer pub in London, but there is no denying that the opening of their first branch in Leather Lane was an event. The Islington branch in White Lion Street, behind Chapel Market, has a similarly impressive range to the original, and is particularly strong in offering keg versions of Scandinavian beers from the likes of Mikkeller, Evil Twin, and Haand. The interior has been done in a more traditional style, with carpets and velvet curtains, and it is a very pleasant place indeed to have a drink. One of the great things about craft beer pubs is that you are guaranteed to get something you have never had before, and the staff in Craft are always knowledgeable.

The Earl of Essex on Danbury Street has a terrific range, displayed on a board rather than by pump-clip. American beers are particularly well represented, and as a brew-pub the Earl also has the distinction of being, to-date, the only brewery in Islington. It is up there with the best pubs in London in my opinion. The Exmouth Arms on Exmouth Market and The North Pole in New North Road - both the subject of previous posts on this blog - have similarly excellent ranges and also do very decent pub food. All nice places to hang out for an afternoon, or even an evening. The Hops & Glory on Essex Road, formerly the George Orwell, is the latest pub to get a thorough craft beer overhaul, and likewise has an excellent and changing range of beers.

Old Fountain Ales, close to Old Street station, is a bit different from the others in that it is not solely a craft-beer oriented pub, but rather is an ordinary pub with the standard range - Fosters, Guinness etc. - which happens to have a load of great beers from Magic Rock, Marble, Kernel and the like on tap as well. Definitely something for everyone here. There are local retirees meeting for a glass of wine alongside youngsters from abroad on beer pilgrimages. Old Fountain feels very like the way a pub should be to me. Old-school pub food is on offer as well. The Wenlock Arms is another unique pub, with a unique clientele and a fine range of traditional ales which has recently received a refurbishment fully respectful of its heritage and history. More than worth a visit, if you can find it.

The Real Ale Tap Room is an interesting pop-up that has popped up on Upper Street, serving high quality ales directly from casks, without the need for a pub cellar. The focus is on quality over quantity and prices are very reasonable. Definitely worth a visit. The place is basic, with benches and so on, but hey, it's a pop-up. The very fact that it is there is representative of a step forward for Upper Street and for human civilisation. The Lamb on Holloway Road is on the site of the old brewpub the Flounder and Firkin. The Firkin mini-chain of brewpubs suffered from a) being ahead of their time, and b) not making very good beer. The Lamb now has a solid and improving range of beers available, constrained slightly by a shortage of cask pumps, and is definitely the pub to recommend for anyone attending an Arsenal match who doesn't want to drink Carlsberg.

The Dove Tail in Jerusalem Passage specialises in Belgian beers, like the now-defunct Bierodrome on Upper Street, which perhaps came along about ten years too early and has now turned into a Karaoke joint. Not wanting to drag the pub survey out overly we'll now cut to the honourable mentions, which go to the Wenlock & Essex, The Barnsbury, The George Shillibeer, and, for any Clerkenwell trendies and babes, The Slaughtered Lamb. I'm sure there are others I have missed. It's getting better all the time.

If you would like to eat delicious food while quaffing craft beer, there are quite a few places to recommend. The Charles Lamb, just around the corner from the Earl of Essex, has a decent beer range (the likes of Dark Star Hophead on cask, Kernel in the fridge) and has long been known as an excellent gastro-pub with a short daily-changing menu. Great if a quiet lunch is what you are after. If you are a sprightly young thing you might prefer John Salt on Upper Street, which has hosted a succession of excellent young and happening chefs while offering a solid range of craft beers in bottle and keg. I'd recommend John Salt for a group of friends, perhaps to eat in the bar rather than the restaurant. The Longroom, just near St John restaurant on St John St, is worth a mention - they offer stuff like salt beef sandwiches, cheese toasties, and sharing platters, which went down pretty well with a Lagunitas IPA on my last research visit.

The Pig & Butcher, as any fool knows by now, is a terrific gastro-pub which does its own butchery for its meat-oriented menu. The food is excellent, the beer range is solid, with the usual likes of Kernel and Brewdog in bottle, and a few changing casks including the lovely Big Chief from Redemption on my last visit. Particularly recommended for Sunday lunch. In fact I would say that the Pig & Butcher's is about the best roast I have had outside a family home (it needs love and care to do a good roast, and so many places fall short of both). The owners of the Pig & Butcher are currently teaming up with Neil Rankin (formerly of Pitt Cue and John Salt) to open the Smokehouse on Canonbury Road (on the site that was 'The House' gastropub), which looks to have an even better beer range. I can't wait to try it when it opens. While we are talking food, an honourable mention should go to the excellent burger chain Byron, which has a hard-to-miss branch on Islington Green, and by far the best beer menu of all of the modern breed of gourmet burger joints (with the possible exception of the Lucky Chip residency at the Sebright Arms). Byron is a great option for people with kids who want to slurp a bit of quality beer while on duty.

In terms of buying bottles of craft beer to take home, outlets are not as numerous as they should be in a civilised society, but they are steadily growing. Probably the best in the borough is the legendary Kris Wines, tucked at the top end of York Way and boasting an incredible array of bottles. Range can come at the expense of freshness ocassionally here, particularly with imports, so it's best to check the bottling dates before buying. Elsewhere, Highbury Vintners has a quality beer range to match it's excellent wine selection. There are a growing number of very ordinary looking off-licenses and corner shops that now stock good craft beer ranges - examples I know of include Arsenal Wines on Blackstock Road, Jacks on Stroud Green Road, and the unglamorously named Handy Mini-Market on Mountgrove Road. It's worth checking the fridges of any random shops you happen to live close to. Some pubs such as the North Pole also do "off-sales" of hard-to-find bottles at reduced prices.

If in doubt, the Craft Beer London app will tell you where to get your nearest fix, wherever you happen to be. I know that's the second time I have plugged it but it really is about the most useful iPhone app out there, along with that one that tells you how to get home, should you have ordered one half of 7.3% IPA too many.

Old Fountain Ales 
3 Baldwin Street 
London EC1V 9NU

The Earl of Essex
25 Danbury Street
London N1 8LE

The Exmouth Arms
23 Exmouth Market
London EC1R 4QL

The Craft Beer Co.
55 White Lion Street
London N1 9PP

The North Pole
188-190 New North Road
London N1 7BJ

The Hops & Glory
382 Essex Road
London N1 3PF 


  1. Thank you, thank you for this nugget of intel about the Smoke House. We live literally across the street from this restaurant and had written it off after trying it quite a few months ago. We noticed it's closure and subsequent noisy renovation, but I had no idea that the owners of the Pig and Butcher were involved! So excited to try this now :)

  2. Shouldn't this blog mention thge great new kid on the block, Pressure Drop?