The good, the bad and the ubiquitous: what makes a good pub?

Within the span of one week, I experienced a pub dichotomy. Visiting two purveyors for the first time- both boasting a craft beer selection- I was left disheartened by one and encouraged by the other. The former was a lacklustre attempt at jumping on the ‘craft’ bandwagon; it was a misjudged attempt at balancing on-trend features with a selection of beer that- frankly- fell flat. The most audacious of their offerings? Well, it was Camden Hells lager on keg and a handful of Beavertown cans in the fridge. I spotted no inclusion of ranges from the myriad of local breweries, which was shocking given their pedigree and proximity to this particular bar.

I’m reluctant to pass such severe criticism on a new business venture, especially at the risk of sounding like a pretentious or insufferable elitist. For me, the nadir was that this bar is within walking distance from my flat, yet my desire to return burns as intensely as my need to swill a syrupy Swedish cider- a range of which were prominently on display.

Onwards and upwards, I discovered the latter pub six days later in the form of Howl at the Moon in Hoxton. I was instantly smitten as I ambled through the door: everything appealed to me- the harmony of the quirky décor and fixtures, the inexplicable presence of a caged cockatiel on the bar, the laidback and approachable staff that- admittedly- weren’t as savvy on their beer as I expected. But it just didn’t matter. The beer selection was exceptional given the modest size of the venue: on keg, there were two iterations of Brew by Numbers, Wiper and True, Siren, Mondo and Kernel. I didn’t even get to the fridge, but a quick recce revealed an abundance of Kernel, Beavertown and Hammerton Brewery in bottles.

Howl at the Moon in Hoxton: quirky and casual.

Howl at the Moon in Hoxton: quirky and casual.

An immense beer selection is highly seductive and the obvious prerequisite of a good drinking pub- but I can’t help but wonder what the winning formula is? What designates one pub as exceptional and another as disagreeable? It all stems from personal opinion, naturally, and I acknowledge that I have a penchant for East London idiosyncrasies in the manifestation of upcycled church pews, plywood banquet tables and exposed lighting fixtures, all in a traditional boozer setting. Awkward space, stools pulled up at the bar- these endearing elements are always welcome.

My bugbear is manicured veneers, where bars exhibit random backlit displays of bottles (art?), chandeliers are suspended from the ceiling and décor and fixtures are all too coordinated. For me, this projects a sense of a slapdash, soulless shelf bar- a bar in a box- that is devoid of any desirable atmosphere. I occasionally find myself drinking at such establishments, usually in shopping centres, event spaces or airports. But given the option, I crave the balance of character and a solid range of beer.

But what about the ubiquitous taproom? Where do these fit into my spectrum? Usually modern, minimal and intentionally stripped bare of esoteric charm, they still appeal to me, but perhaps on the most primitive level- here, the variety of beer and the breweries represented are the focal point. Simply put, they deliver on their promise and the staff are usually highly trained and passionate.

Impressive ranges available at BrewDog Soho.

Impressive ranges available at BrewDog Soho.

I can always count on a Brewdog bar- although pouring their own ranges, they always have a generous guest menu on tap- or Mother Kelly’s in Bethnal Green to deliver on these fronts; this is why you’ll often spot me in deep concentration, scrutinising their ever rotating choices. Walking through the threshold of a taproom, you’re confident that you’ll find something worthy- even that elusive DIPA that you’ve been trying to track down for weeks (I found it in Brewdog Soho).

Mother Kelly's never fails to please.

Mother Kelly's never fails to please.

So, while the ambiance plays a significant peripheral role in identifying a superlative watering hole, it has to be unforced and inviting. Passionate staff also elevates the experience, especially when they can make astute and educated recommendations to scrupulous customers. Final commended flourishes include a wafting background soundtrack of a vetted playlist and an enticing rotating food menu. But now we’re describing a figurative beer nirvana- a rare idyllic venue- so what’s at the crux of a good bar here in reality? 

Well, obviously, it’s the beer. But the interplay between an outstanding range of drinking and a touch of other elements can be the tipping point. Personally, I’m always happy at The Chesham Arms in Hackney, where I not only get a good pint, but can hunker down on a stool at the bar and always feel amongst friends- the kind of friends that delight in a good beer.

The Chesham Arms: a real diamond in the rough.

The Chesham Arms: a real diamond in the rough.

A tidy East London craft beer pub crawl

East London has long played a prominent role in London’s brewing scene, stretching back to 1666 when the original Truman’s Brewery was founded in Brick Lane. These days, a plethora of craft breweries have taken up residence in the Hackney/Homerton area. Some have outgrown their brewpubs and relocated to larger premises- this includes Beavertown, moving from Hackney Wick to Tottenham Hale in 2014- but local demand and loyalty for their beer remains unabated. It therefore comes as no surprise that there’s such a high concentration of pubs and taprooms serving an exceptional range of craft beers within walking distance of each other.

Any respectable East London pub crawl kicks off at The Cock Tavern in Hackney Central. Once home to Howling Hops- another brewery that outgrew its tanks and moved down the road- this pub showcases a vast and alternating selection on keg and cask. You’ll find their current in-house microbrewery, Maregade Brew Co, on offer alongside local heroes such as The Five Points Brewery, Redchurch Brewery, Howling Hops and Pressure Drop. Other UK-based favourites, including Weird Beard and Moor Beer, are likely to be featured as well. The bar is cash only and the décor is no frills, but you are guaranteed to discover a good drop here.

Nearby, The Chesham Arms is a pub with a backstory: once designated to become another notch in a property developer’s portfolio, it was saved by the local community. Perhaps the most bijoux, friendliest and most authentic pub in East London, it promotes a concise- but excellent- selection of beers. You’ll often find Beavertown, Pressure Drop and The Five Points Brewery on keg and perhaps Dark Star and Hammerton Brewery on cask- but these will be changed over in front of your eyes. There’s a constant rotation of beers to choose from.

Moving on, other local favourites include The Adam and Eve and The Jackdaw and Star. Located across the road from each other, both carry a standout collection of proper beers. The former is a trendy boozer hidden behind a ramshackle exterior, but the inside is impressively capacious and kitted out with a pool table. Expect to find The Five Points pale ale on tap in addition to a great soundtrack, outstanding food and a local crowd. The latter is renowned for its affable and knowledgeable staff and offers another outstanding food menu. Here, The Five Points is again represented and other breweries, such as Camden Town Brewery, are also featured.

For something slightly off-kilter, another unmissable Hackney stopover is Machine No. 3. Although technically a cocktail bar, it carries a meticulously curated range of bottled beer, including a pale ale from local brewery 40ft, The Five Points pale ale, Fourpure’s Beartooth and Gypsy Hill’s Southpaw. All of this is set in a former laundrette, offering a quintessential East London experience in addition to the great beer.

It’s impossible to overlook the trendiest spots in Hackney Wick, namely the Howling Hops tank bar and Crate Brewery. Practically backing on to each other, it’s easy to manoeuvre between the two. Howling Hops is the UK’s first dedicated tank bar- where pints are pulled directly from the source- and their entire range is lined up, literally offering punters a wall of beer. All of their core beers are outstanding and their pale ales frequently pop up on London’s ‘must drink’ beer lists.

Crate is a brewery guaranteed to be heaving with revellers, but their ability to cope with the throngs has significantly improved over the past years. They brew onsite and have released a commendable and growing range, including their sessionable sour and black IPA. The brewery is idyllically located canal-side on the River Lee and offers rustic wood-oven pizzas to hungry wayfarers and ferrymen, who dock their canal boats feet from the bar.

This is a non-exhaustive list of drinking holes in East London that barely scratches the surface of where craft beers can be enjoyed in the area. It’s merely a springboard for those fortunate enough to live in- or visit- East London. For the rest of us, a large contingency of East London breweries are available through the Honest Brew shop with delivery included, allowing anyone to vicariously make the craft beer odyssey without leaving their sofa.

This feature originally appeared on the Honest Brew blog here.