The Best Craft Beer Bar in London?

Behind the bar, a hand pull without a clip is pumped a few times by the publican. The small measure that sloshes into the glass is raised. The serving area is more brightly lit than on the public side so I can see the light amber hue of the beer. It glows as it’s held aloft and turned from side to side. A nose is probed into the glass and then it’s knocked back and drained. He pauses and ruminates as if studying an invisible text. The answer’s no – a quick shake of the head confirms it. The remainder’s poured into a jug and the beer engine continues to be pumped. The ale wasn’t quite ready.

cleaning the line – a fast turnover but never rushed

What I’ve just witnessed is a man check the look, aroma and taste of the liquid he’s just drawn up from a cask in the cellar below him. Whenever I see the above choreography at a bar, I know I’m in a place that takes its beer seriously and the hundreds of people that patronise this pub daily obviously agree with me. Cask ale stands proudly under the craft umbrella even if it’s not seen that way – both by many drinkers of cask ale that don’t like the craft soubriquet and by other craft drinkers who regard it as dull. But think about the word craft and what it means in the broadest sense and then consider the care that goes into the brewing, sourcing, storing and dispensing of beer here; synonymity.

To wildly overgeneralise, two divergent experiences have evolved when it comes to cask vs (key)keg. We are talking about malt & hops versus yeast & hops. Cask beer has traditionally been very malty to the extent that even drinkers who cut their teeth on it can now feel put off by the sweet sweaty aroma of some of our older staples. Over the past couple of decades, as a reflection of the American craft beer scene, the hops have come up for equal parity and often dominate. This has produced a shift in cask ale tastes. Simultaneously, craft beer served from (key)keg has been dominated by heavy hop and yeast incursions. I needn’t draw attention to the modern hops arms race but with the kegs you also get the Lactobacillus, the Brett, the Saison and Lager yeasts that aren’t as well suited to cask condition. Whilst The Harp serves some good examples of keg beer (represented by Kernel and Mondo Brewing on my last visit), its staple is cask – the malt and the hops. I also find that cask beer starts off underwhelming but the attributes grow as the pint is downed. With keg beers, I find the character arrests you at the start but reaps diminishing returns towards the end. But maybe that’s me.

Whereas the general evolution of craft beer bars has produced those dominated by kegs with occasional cask, The Harp is simply a pub dominated by exceptionally well kept cask with some additional well-sourced keg. This pub is also a home to good cider and perry and a broad range of bottled beers.

The Harp has the most rapid beer turnover of any pub I know. This process was originally overseen by the landlady Binnie Walsh but has been kept up under Fullers who now own the pub. Over the past decade, I have spent hours watching to see what beer is about to come on – a process that takes a mere ten minutes here. I don’t normally subscribe to notions of “cosmic ordering” but I have found myself trying to wish a specific ale to appear. I once desperately wanted to try Greenjack Brewery’s Lurcher Stout. After the ten minute hiatus the clip was turned to face the public and there it was!

watching beers come on is a spectator sport in The Harp

Einstein calculated in 1951 that time equals money. Around 5pm on a Wednesday I watched as a pint was drawn 8 times per minute – this during a lull time. The Harp gets through around 35 – 40 firkins of the rotating guest beers each week. Into the evening the door creaks open and clonks shut as the babbling noise absorbs more human bodies. From an oblique angle, the hand pulls along the bar bow perpetually like pumpjacks on an oil field. It’s mesmerising to watch.

Every so often it rewards its customers with a cask of Fullers Vintage Ale – Fullers own barrel-aged barley wine. It’s that good it warrants its own paragraph as anyone lucky enough to have scored some can attest.

The variety of beer on offer at any time on any day is sweeping. There’s no point saying cask has a limited range when you’re confronted with a kaleidoscope of porters, bitters, pale ales, IPAs, milk stouts, rye beers, milds, black IPAs and barley wines. On a recent visit I had an obsidian black and velvety smooth Weird Beard Black Perle Milk Stout, a crisp, lemony hopped invigorating Dark Star Hop Head, a dark malty caramel Aylesbury Brewhouse Company Ursa Major and a zesty honey-like Vale Brewery Gravitas. Each charged from the life thriving in the hidden firkins.

you can hear the conversation drifting out of this image. Note also the concentration of the man navigating through the narrow straits with pints in hand

The pub also retains some clever and popular permanents at either end of the hand pull parade – Hop Head and American Pale Ale (golden, bitter and tropical) by Dark Star, Sussex Best (dark, fruity and malty) by Harvey’s. It’s also a pub that champions selling beer from local start-up breweries so they can get their foot in the door. It hosts tap take-overs, most recently from Kew and Oakham. Despite all these pros, there are also two gleaming Fosters taps to cater for people with impaired sensory chops. 

There are other reasons apart from the ale that I rate The Harp so much though:

There is a great crowd diversity. I watch young skinny-Jeaned calves in their twenties pick their way through the fattened herds. I see septuagenarians holding court with a flush of colour to the cheeks and the freedom to laugh aloud. I see the hipsters’ concave abdomens balancing out the CAMRA drinkers’ convex bellies. There are suited folk who have just finished work, retired couples dressed up for an evening in the West End and even MPs and celebrities. Everybody’s back to back loosening up in the communal warmth. The feeling of a shared experience, what the Germans call Gemutlichkeit, is overwhelming in this pub. The atmosphere’s never tense like it can be in many busy pubs and it’s there seven days a week, not just at the weekend.

The staff. Many of the good people in The Harp have been there years and have developed a near telepathic link with customers getting to the end of their pint. They sense it and instinctively gravitate towards you. There can be three layers of fellow primates between you and the bar but you’ll still be served in good time.

Warmth and comfort: this is something it really has over a lot of craft beer bars. The warmth is generated by the rich earthy colours in this pub and unlike many craft beer bars, it isn’t afraid of the light. It has a theatrical splendour with ceiling fans and chandeliers. The walls are filled with paintings and mirrors. The portraits aren’t of the subverted kind – they’re of straight study. You find yourself looking at the subjects’ faces trying to assess their thoughts and character. The main draw – a visual banquet – is the canopy of pump clips over the bar. In my ten years of coming to The Harp, I can actually scan the flanks of this collage and pick out memories amongst its cells. 

so many golden memories……

When the sun comes out the gorgeous stained glass windows that look out onto Chandos Place open inwards offering another means of refreshment. Upstairs there is a serene chill-out room like an opera house foyer with comfortable armchairs and soft light. I always see something I’d not noticed before. Last week I finally noticed the little wooden grotesques under the bar with the bag hooks. Wood – especially oak – is a material that acts as a sedative on a crowd.

Value: measures of cask beer cost considerably less than those of (key)keg craft beer. In London the latter’s about £6 and sometimes as much as £9. A session strength pint in The Harp is about £4.

When the turnover is quick, when the cellarmanship is tight, when the condition is induced, cask beer is one of the best value and rewarding craft beer experiences there is. It’s often more complex than a £20 barrel aged bottle conditioned beer and deeper and more engulfing than punchier primary-coloured equivalents on keg. Once a cask’s been tapped, there’s a narrow window of time it needs to be consumed in for optimum quality. It’s when this care isn’t taken or people don’t drink it that cask ale gets its poor reputation for being bland and flat – which it can equally be. You won’t find that neglect here at The Harp, it’s its reason for existing and it’s my primary reason for nominating The Harp as London’s best craft beer bar.

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