The mass exodus was in full swing as I walked into King's Cross station, the day before Christmas Eve. While hordes of hopeful travellers gazed longingly at the departures board, I had rather less ambitious plans: just a wander around some pubs in the north London area. But I was early for kick-off, it being only 11.30 with most places scheduled to open at noon. Just as well there's a decent pub in the station, then.
Trade at The Parcel Yard was brisk, with groups of travellers having final pints near the doors, ready to dash for their trains. As always, an extensive range of Fuller's beers was on offer. A well-turned pint of Bengal Lancer would have been the sensible option, but there was also the winter seasonal Jack Frost, one I had never tried before and had heard rumours of its imminent discontinuation. Putting aside the fact that I've never heard a good word said about it, I ordered a half. And you know, I quite enjoyed it. It's a dark red colour and rather than the sweet confection I was expecting from a blackberry beer, it's only mildly fruity with the blackberries hovering respectfully at the front of the palate. This fades quickly and it turns into a normal, albeit rather plain, brown bitter, only for the dark fruit to return in the aftertaste. Not at all sweet, nor overpoweringly flavoured. I'm glad I took a chance on it.
The first scheduled stop on the tour, and its southernmost point, was The Queen's Head, a little Victorian pub not far from King's Cross that has been getting some very positive mentions lately for its beer. Sadly, mentions are still all I have as it was closed. I happened to meet the manager later on and he said business had been very slow in the weekend before Christmas so it's possible I would have been the day's only punter. I wasn't fazed, however, and set off up the Pentonville Road to The Craft Beer Company's newest outlet, in Islington. Manager Emma was polishing the brasswork and apologised straight off for the poor cask showing: only four beers as they, too, were in the process of winding down for the holiday.
Thornbridge's Jaywick caught my eye straight off. This is an American-style pale ale, pouring a hazy shade of orange and exuding a waft of mandarins in the aroma. At 4.8% ABV it's a little stronger than your average English pale ale but the texture is very light making it extremely easy drinking. Not that it's bland, mind. The flavour is a complex mix of oranges, cloves and sandalwood spicing. I followed it with the house beer, Craft Pale Ale, commissioned from the Kent Brewery. This is a limpid pale yellow colour, and a rather more typical 3.8% ABV. Though it looks the picture of blandness it's actually properly bitter, following the initial smack with some more subtle lemon tones. Sometimes this style of pale ale tends toward washing up liquid, but this avoids that completely. Simple fare, but very decent.
There weren't so many gaps among the tightly-packed keg taps. I took the opportunity to try out a couple of British breweries I've been hearing about. First up, Epic Saison by the Wild Beer Company. Sorry, I just don't get this. The whole thing is dominated by a plasticky harshness that I expected to get used to but I didn't. I wouldn't be a major fan of the saison style, but there are plenty I like. This one is like drinking a glass full of pure dregs. I could just about detect some form of fruit in the background but it's buried under the intense sharpness. Next to it was a smoked IPA from Tiny Rebel, called Hot Box. It's dark red -- almost black, really -- and the smoke is laid on thick, at the expense of the hops. Overall it's a little bit harshly phenolic and not what I'm after in either a smoked beer or an IPA.
By this time a small group of other punters -- regulars and tourists -- had gathered. Talk around the bar was largely of Southern Tier's Crème Brûlée stout. I had a taster for the road. It's crème brûlée all right: lots of vanilla and brown sugar. Still very drinkable, though, despite the nerve-jangling sweetness. Since I was a pub ahead of schedule, Emma suggested trying a new place on the other side of Islington, The Hops & Glory.
A short ride on the bus took me there, finding the pub in stark contrast to the plush cosiness of Craft Beer Co. The Hops and Glory is one of those big, wood-floored, wood-walled, pew-furnished village hall style pubs: a little cold and cavernous. Still, there were a few interesting things on tap and I got to tick off another new brewery: Redemption, and their Hopspur bitter. It's a bit dull, to be honest. Musty, grainy and no hop flavours to speak of. Maybe some sherbet if I'm being nice. Down the hatch it went and I sought something more interesting next. Kernel's 4C IPA looked like what I was after. It's a pale and hazy orange-gold colour, lightly textured and gently carbonated. You have to wonder where it's managing to hide 7.1% ABV. The hop flavours are heavy and resinous to begin with, lightening up later to a long-lasting grapefruit. The aftertaste lingers for ages, which is just as well, as the next part of my journey was a long one.
I left The Hops & Glory in daylight but it was pitch dark by the time I arrived at The Bull in Highgate. Inside it was a hive of activity with a constant flow of diners and drinkers. I perched at the bar where three beers from the on-site London Brewing Company were available, as well as other options. Seeking a thirst-quencher I opted for the Dark Mild first. It immediately reminded me of what mild is supposed to be: jet black with a big ground coffee aroma it's immensely sinkable and wonderfully refreshing. The flavour offers perfect balance between that coffee roast and chocolate sweetness. At only 3.6% ABV I felt I was doing it a huge disservice by only having a half. I followed it with Beer Street, the 4% ABV bitter. A clear gold, this is very nearly brilliant, starting out with fresh and bitter jaffa oranges but finishing on a nasty soapy note. Every sip brings a zesty celebration followed by a clanking dischord. I don't want my beer to be an emotional rollercoaster. Last of the set was Wheat. 5% ABV and a vaguely hazy gold, I found it sharp and a little vinegary, leaving behind the normal wit-weiss spectrum and veering towards Rodenbach territory. It still manages to keep the sourness under control, however, and has a pleasant soft wheatiness in lieu of any of the fruit or spice normally found in this style.
Journey's end was in Hampstead and a return to The Horseshoe, now no longer a brewpub itself but part of the successful Camden Town Brewery empire. Gentleman's Wit provided an interesting counterpoint to the previous London Brewing effort, but it was the guest beers that took my fancy at The Horseshoe. Windsor & Eton's Guardsman was on cask, a slight twist on normal brown bitter, having some interesting elements of gunpowder and sherbet in the mix, and a trace of TCP as well, I think. Next to it, Dark Star's Winter Meltdown finished the evening on an especially festive note. This red ale is packed with unsubtle cinnamon flavours which only its unctuous warming weight lets it carry off. Not for everyone, but just the perfect beer to unwind over, with my day's work done and no place left to go.