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Good Beer Hunting

Nov 30, 2019

London is blessed with hundreds of great pubs. But for me one stands tall above the rest: a beacon of everything that is great about this British institution. It also happens to be my local.

The Southampton Arms in Kentish Town, North London feels like it’s been there forever—it’s all worn wood, rickety chairs, stained walls, and sepia photos. It breaks all the perceived rules of running a pub. Up until last year it had 12 cask lines, six cider lines, and just two keg lines. It didn’t take cash and only served a few bar snacks. It had a one-page website and an almost untouched Twitter account. On paper it shouldn’t work, and yet the perfectly kept casks flowed constantly. Things have changed a little since then, but not by much. On a Monday night, during the live piano performances, you can hardly move; on Tuesday, during the pub quiz, the same drunk man screams questions over the top of people’s heads at the bar. Even at the height of winter, Friday and Saturday crowds spill out into the tiny backyard area, blocking the way to the outhouse toilet. It’s the most effortlessly welcoming, cozy pub I have ever been to, and it quickly became my favorite pub in the world.

Amazingly, it only celebrated its 10-year anniversary in November. Its cofounder, Pete Holt, is a soft-spoken guy who has that enviable skill of seeming to like exactly what everyone else likes. Despite the rise of keg beer and gastropubs he wanted to open a simple real ale boozer, and it seems everyone in North London approved. 

He did the same with the Cock Tavern in Hackney, when he opened the borough’s first brewpub in 2011. Howling Hops started in the basement but just a few years later expanded to its own brewery and taproom site in Hackney Wick, where it now pours a wide range of beers straight from the tanks. Its beers are staunchly modern and usually hop-forward, but you’ll still see lots of Howling Hops casks at the Southampton sat next to breweries that have been stocked for the full decade—breweries like Marble, Thornbridge, Moor, and Oakham.

In my conversation with Pete, we talk about the inspiration behind his three sites; the unique challenges of running a business that spans production, logistics and serving; and what it’s been like to watch London change over a decade through the lens of beer.

This is Pete Holt of Howling Hops. Listen in.