Our resident beer expert Ben McCormick delves into a new title from Hoxton Mini Press.
Around a year ago, I built a small pub in the space under the stairs. It wasn’t much. Just a beer tap, a fridge, a cooling unit and a lot of pipework. The country had been plunged into lockdown too late as a deadly virus was seemingly allowed to ‘let rip’ through the population, so frankly it was anyone’s guess as to whether I’d ever make it to a pub again. Fast forward 12 months and I’m drumming my fingers waiting to set off for a drink outside a pub for the first time this year. In the time since building my pub, I’ve been to four actual real-life ones, but each visit was subject to somewhat puzzling if purportedly well-meaning restrictive measures and felt a bit weird.
Today’s visit is likely to be much the same. No inside drinking, social distancing in place, masks to be worn, payments to be made only in the lacuna between porch and pavement – that kind of thing. I’m disproportionately excited, but I know this will be a pale simulacrum of a genuine pub visit. This is a sensation heightened on leafing through a teal-coloured volume dubbed London Pubs. Published by Hoxton Mini Press, this is one of a series of ‘opinionated pocket guides to London’ for people who, according to the press release, ‘don’t want more information, they want the right information’.
It definitely hits the first part of that remit, with each of the 52 listed pubs – one for every week of the year – granted around 50 words of blurb at the most. But that’s just part of the story. As you flick from page to page, your eyes are treated to a feast of photography quite clearly taken before all this madness descended on us. Not only are these pictures beautifully taken, they depict scenes we have largely only been able to dream about for what seems like forever – people, randomly and casually drinking in and enjoying the pub. In a way, the scant descriptions are joyously complementary. While more detailed than the mere musings of a punter sitting a table nursing a pint and ensconced in a thousand-yard stare into the middle distance, the text seems to exist purely as a tiller to guide your booze-filled reverie. Deftly succinct tasters of what you might find if you were to venture into each of the carefully chosen venues.
And given there are only 52 covered, there were undoubtedly some hard choices made in terms of which to include. Like many who will pick up this guide, I found myself idly and mentally noting the ones I’d been to, those that had reinvented themselves and some I really ought to visit. More ominously, as I turn the pages and my eyes gorge on the beguiling scenes on display, I find myself wondering how many have come through this incredibly challenging time for the pub trade. Are there already casualties of the pandemic among the list? Will the pubs featured here ever be able to offer the same level of joy and hospitality to punters ever again? After a year of lockdowns, it sometimes feels like you’re not perusing a guidebook so much as flicking through a historical snapshot that could just as easily be subtitled: the way they were.
For me, there are some surprising omissions and one or two I’d have left out. I suspect if you asked the author to write the same book again next year, the list would change too. But as this is an opinionated guide, it’s the author’s choices at the time of writing that matter and he’s done an admirable job. What’s more, you come away with a real sense he and everyone else involved with the book genuinely treasure these places. This is not a truncated ‘London good pub guide’. It’s a pocket-sized, easy to flick-through tasting menu of the variety of pubs you can visit in all four corners of London – from solid traditional boozer to high-end gastropub and all points in between. As we emerge from this prolonged period of darkness, this is a little book of pub calm that will help shed some light on some of London’s best boozers.
‘An opinionated guide to London Pubs’ is out now and available here (£9.95).