I had the good fortune of discovering the Harp in the days preceding the start of my time at the brewery. I was looking for a place that served Sambrook's beer and it just so happened that the Harp was the closest known outlet for the beer I required. The Harp is a rather unassuming pub. Both the facade and interior are small but very well kept in the traditional style of English pubs. What sets the Harp apart from the myriad of other pubs I've visited in London is the ale. All told, the Harp boasts nine hand pumps (manually operated suction beer taps used almost exclusively for cask ale). Before I elaborate on why this is important, a few points must be distinctly understood on cask conditioned ales and the art of cellarmanship.
First, in cask conditioned ales, there is a secondary fermentation and conditioning process that occurs within the cask itself. The main activity in beer during this period is the breakdown of remaining fermentable sugars by the yeast into ethyl alcohol and carbon dioxide. As opposed to kegged beer where carbon dioxide is added extraneously, all of the carbonation from proper cask ale comes from the process mentioned above. Since yeast, a living organism, is responsible for the secondary fermentation, conditions of the cask must be meticulously managed to ensure that the beer is properly conditioned before being served to customers. This is almost entirely the responsibility of the publican to perform and if done incorrectly, can lead to poor quality beer. Second, cask ale is dispensed by letting beer flow out through a dispensing hole (called a keystone) and letting ambient air flow through another hole called a bung. This presents challenges for the publican such as oxidation of the beer, loss of carbonation and the possibility of infection from spoilage micro-organisms (these can be mitigated somewhat by a device called a cask breather, which is against the official rules of CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) and; therefore, has not yet caught on in the UK. It will probably be explained more in a later post).
Managing all of those tasks is no easy feat and becomes much more difficult with the number of taps behind the bar. In my opinion, it is because it is difficult that there is such a disparity between how well casks are stored at pubs and producing a corresponding disparity in the quality of cask ales. Said differently, you will not always get the same pint every time even though the tap handle may say differently.
Based on the above, it becomes apparent why managing nine hand pumps is impressive. Bridgette (the owner) and Sara (the manager) manage their cellar as well or better than any I've yet seen. Each pint is consistently wonderful, with a beautiful head and delightful carbonation that virtually dances on your tongue. Further, Bridgette and Sarah only stock brews from small, independent brewers within the UK. There is consistent turnover in beers, so you can expect to always be able to have something different whenever you visit the Harp. What makes this even better is the that the Harp probably has the most knowledgeable and well trained staff of any pub I know.
Altogether, these factors have made the Harp my favourite pub in London. I'm not the only one to notice how stellar of a place it is either. Over the past decade, CAMRA has awarded the Harp many times, including National Pub of the Year for 2011 (yes that is CAMRA's assessment that the Harp serves the best cask ale of any pub in the entire UK). It has also caught on with the London public and pretty much any day past 3:00pm it is so crowded as to be almost impossible to navigate inside. In fact, the only negative remark I can make about the Harp is that it is just too damn popular. Because of this, I tend to enjoy my pints at the Harp before 2:00pm so I can enjoy the ale to its glorious zenith.