I have a confession. I am an introvert. As a traveler, that creates some problems for me- my default is to not go out, not talk to strange people, and avoid crowds. Fortunately, I have had a companion for the past 7 years who has helped me venture forth when we journey. My trip to London last week was done alone, and it was scarier than I remember single travel being. But I persevered to bring you, good reader, a drinker’s tour of downtown London.
1) Beer/Cider/Wine is Cheap
What? This man has lost his damn mind, you must be thinking. But hear me out. I typically pay $6-8 for a pint of decent craft beer in a large American city (Atlanta, LA, etc.). An American pint, which usually weigh in at 12 oz. I could get a FULL pint (16 oz) of good beer in London for between 3 and 4 pounds. Now, if you’re converting your American dollars to pounds, that’s not too great of a deal. But if you are LIVING in England and earning pounds sterling with your hard work, then this is an outright steal. Liquor, however, was about as expensive as it is in American cities. I believe this is because taxation rates are based on alcohol concentration- liquor will have a higher tax rate than a 4-5% beer or cider. Even wine comes off fairly cheap at 12-15 pounds a bottle at a pub. When was the last time you paid less than $20 for a bottle of wine at a restaurant?
The southeast of England, of which London is central, produces a lot of apples. Many of those apples aren’t in prime condition for selling, so instead they get turned into cider. Every pub had at least one cider on tap, and I found my first cider-only pub in the world at The Cider Tap. They had amazing variety- sparkling, still, dry through sweet- enough for you to entertain yourself on cider tasting all day long. Unfortunately, the cider is ultimately not interesting or complex, particularly compared to American craft cider.
I was tempted to say the beer is not good, but that’s not it. The beer is fine… for a typical bitter or even APA. But that’s it- the styles are so banal you would think they were cooked up by Budweiser. Which, actually, is probably the problem- Londoners’ palates are so wrecked by the dominance of light lagers that they apparently aren’t interested in complex, flavourful beer. Every cask ale I drank at pubs and brewpub and brewery I visited were normal and boring for the style. I expected more from a large, vibrant, international city.
What’s the problem, you may be thinking. As someone who can appreciate hops but is not all starry-eyed about them, this is a problem. At London Field’s Brewery, they gave us a sample of porter and said, “If you think that’s sweet, you should try the stout!” Neither was even malty, much less sweet. And both the porter and stout were over hopped for the style. As England’s southeast grows apples, they grow hops. Which means, for centuries, Londoners have been able to experience fresh hops, and their palates have adapted. See the problem they have with lagers, above, and you can understand how they are accustomed to only hoppy styles. I tried to find a malt-forward style (heck, even a malt-balanced style) the whole time I was there and failed.
5) The Locals Are There to Drink
I had a chance to speak with the head brewer at Brew Wharf, and he said he was excited to even see people drinking his beer. Apparently, Londoners are not particularly discerning regarding their beer- they seem to drink light lagers right along with local craft drinks, without any preference. It seems that locals drink to socialize more than experience drink itself. Which is fine but, again, surprising in a cosmopolitan city.
6) London is Scary
I don’t mean physical-safety scary. I mean, for an introvert, the pubs were daunting as hell. I walked into Brew Wharf and witnessed this wall of people in the bar, but almost no one sitting in the restaurant 10 feet away. I actually asked the bartender if it was all right to drink and eat at a table in the restaurant and he looked at me as if I was daft. London Field’s Brewery had only 20-30 people in the tap room, but there was no sound baffling and everyone was talking at once, raising the volume to impossible-to-hear-what-our-beer-guide-was-saying levels. Every single pub I walked in to- even on a weeknight- was packed. Completely packed. So packed I couldn’t even make it to the bar to put an order in, much less find a place to sit and enjoy my drink. For someone who loves English countries partly for cozy, quiet pubs, it was a disappointment.
So what did I learn? I discovered that not all cities- even internationally cultured ones in Anglosphere countries- have evolved to appreciate alcohol as we do in the US. I confirmed that Australia is freaking expensive, since I pay way more for a pint of beer in little Hobart, Tasmania than I do in downtown London. And I learned one reason why I like to have Susan along. To co-opt a quote from the newest Middle-Earth-located movie, “Perhaps it is because I am afraid, and she gives me courage.”