Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Bermondsey

The Beer Mile:

Over the past couple of years, breweries have opened up all over London. I’ll suggest a collective noun and call it a sparge of breweries. Sparging (or lautering) is when hot water is gushed through grain to extract the sweet wort – the pastry body that beer is built on.

There are plenty of vacant railway arches and industrial lots in London so many budding brewers have set up business in them. In Bermondsey just south of the Thames, a brewing neighbourhood sprang up by chance but has developed its own consciousness and can now be technically be called “a thing” in its own right. 

The first brewery of this generation was Kernel. It was soon joined by the folks from Partizan, Fourpure, Brew By Numbers, Anspach & Hobday, Bullfinch and Southwark. There is also The Bottle Shop where you can drink the stock on the premises so this can be included amongst the destinations. At the time of writing – eight separate beer entities exist along the mile.

In order going from east to west with the one furthest from Tower Bridge Station, the breweries (and shop) are: Fourpure, Partizan, Kernel, Brew By Numbers, The Bottle Shop, Anspach & Hobday/Bullfinch (same arch) and Southwark Brewing. 

If we start on the assumption you’re a visitor to Bermondsey and will need to get back to the National Rail or tube system afterwards, it makes sense to start at the furthest point and gradually make your way back to Tower Bridge. You could do it the other way around instead but be aware that you’ll end up in a business park under the influence of multiple beers and in a part of London known only locally. You’re unlikely to recognize anywhere. It’s not a long walk to Bermondsey tube station from Fourpure, but it’s easy to get lost. If, however, you work your way back towards Tower Bridge Station, you’re coming back to Borough – an area most Londoners and tourists know. You’ll also be guided safely back by the Shard skyscraper – a constant presence on this outing.




There are other factors to consider too. The jewel in the crown (to me at least) is Kernel. It shuts at 2pm whereas the rest are open until 5pm. If you can take drinking early in the day then it’s not a problem but even if you just gave yourself half an hour per location and assuming you had one beer per stop – you would have to have had either 5 beers first if you came from the west end (Tower Bridge Station – Borough Market) or 2 beers first if you’d come from the east end (Bermondsey Trading Estate). All that beer would be need to be downed before half past one in the afternoon. Personally I would suffer.

Another factor is a potential problem to me but might be fine for many drinkers: Southwark Brewing is unique in the beer mile insofar as its ales are very traditional and all casked. It’s a different kind of beer to some of the brutes you’ll likely find on the route. If you’re doing the trip east to west, do you really want to finish by drinking a bitter after punchy high ABV IPAs, tart sours and imperial stouts? It’s an issue for me. I’m by no means saying the traditional beer is lesser, just a bit calmer. If it’s your last destination, there will have been an escalation of beer styles and strengths leading up to it. On my last visit, they had started serving 5 hop – an American inspired hoppy beer that might end the mile nicely but I actually do love a good bitter if it’s on offer, just not after a beer arms race.

After a few goes and some fine-tuning, this is the order in which I actually do the mile - it looks a bit mad at first: Southwark, Kernel, Fourpure, Partizan, Brew By Numbers, Anspach & Hobday/Bullfinch and finally the Bottle Shop if I think I can manage it too. 

All this is so I can enjoy a bitter/pale ale to whet the whistle and then go straight to the brewery – Kernel - that closes early so I can appreciate it properly. This means I start at 12:30 – 13:00. I can just about live with that. From Kernel I then go out to the furthest brewery and start working my way back. I leave the Bottle Shop for last – it’s only a few doors away from Anspach & Hobday/Bullfinch so the bother of retracing steps back and forth doesn’t become an issue. If you’ve never done the mile before, here are my directions from London Bridge Station:

Come out of London Bridge station on the Duke Street Hill exit. Simply turn right (downhill) and keep on walking along for ten minutes. You go past an entrance to The London Dungeon and one for The Britain at War Museum. Duke Street Hill becomes Tooley Street. You will eventually find Druid Street on the right. Go down Druid Street – it goes through a little housing estate park/seating area and then bears you left and hugs the railway arches. The first brewery you get to is Southwark Brewing at number 46.

                                                             


Southwark Brewing - along with Fourpure Brewing - is one of the larger venues on the beer mile. By chance, each sits at the eastern and western poles respectively. Southwark Brewing is also the best lit. Inside the room is scallop shaped with the brewing equipment down the narrow end. It’s airy and spacious with wooden picnic tables and leather sofas. It also has free internet WIFI. It’s the newest brewery on the mile so maybe with time it’ll start to resemble the organized chaos of the others and accumulate its own teetering stock columns. It has a neat sawn wood effect bar and a charming emblem – an elephant rearing with one foot on a beer barrel. There are four beer engines. With the occasional exception, it’s the only brewery that casks the beer on the mile. It also stands out from the others insofar as the beer is very traditionally English. 

The proprietors have been in the industry for 30 years whereas the founders of the other breweries are younger and comparatively new to the game. On this visit there was Bermondsey Best Bitter, London Pale Ale, Gold and 5 Hop – a modern take on American hopped beer. I was given a taster of 5 Hop and it was grapefruity and bitter like Citra – much more in keeping with beers you’ll find in the other venues. 



I wanted to start this crawl with a couple of lighter drinks though, so I had a half of the Best Bitter and a half of the Pale Ale. The Bermondsey Best Bitter is 4.4 ABV and is a gloriously glowing burnished oak in colour. It has a sherbert tanginess to it – not unlike the Fullers yeast – balanced against a ginger biscuit malt. There are notes of orange peel. It’s quite woody and dry on the finish. A very robust bitter that screams English. The London Pale Ale is 4 ABV and a light sweet corn gold. It’s immediately floral – a bit like elderflower or a light touch of custard. A very light sudsy body. As it went down, it does bitter up a bit and had the same woodiness as the bitter.

I love the elephant motif


Exit the brewery and turn right. Continue to let the railway arches be your guide. You’ll pass Anspach & Hobday/Bullfinch and then the Bottle Shop after a couple of minutes’ walk. When you get to Abbey Street, you’ll find the pavement runs out on the north side. Go under the bridge and cross the road so you’re still travelling west. Find the arches on the south side and follow them again. You are now on Enid Street and you’ll pass Brew By Numbers. Go past it for now and continue straight on. You’ll get to a couple of small side roads. Cross Spa Road and walk down Rouel Road until it shares a corner with Dockley Road which you’ll see disappear under 2 bridge arches – one vehicular, one pedestrian. Ahead stands a huge stilted structure associated with the railway. I don’t know what it is but it makes a good landmark. The Kernel Brewery is tucked inside Dockley Road on the other side of Dockley Road from the tower and behind some railings. It’s Arch 11. Because it has virtually no identifying sign and because people aren’t spilling out of the front like the other breweries, it’s very easy to miss and I still do.

"resting" between wars of the worlds


Kernel was the first brewery in this neighbourhood and was originally sited very close to where Anspach & Hobday/Bullfinch is now. It outgrew the former premises. As mentioned earlier, it shuts to the public at 2pm. Another restriction – well indicated within – is that you can’t take any drinks outside. That accounts for the lack of punters hemorrhaging from the front entrance – a clear visual clue to location with the other breweries. 
The arch is actually two archways joined down the middle. The left leg contains all the staff bicycles hooked to walls, brewing equipment and serving bars, the right leg is the public space. Bottles can be bought at the front but the fresh beer is around the back.

Easy to miss - Kernel


It seems darker than the other breweries because you’re more cut off from the daylight. Once inside, it feels quite clandestine due to its withdrawal. Strip lighting illuminates rows of benches with long tables and the atmosphere evokes something else for me too – an air raid shelter or a war room. How much more London could it feel?

The Kernel website has a mission statement – a couple of sentences of which always come back to haunt me when I’m there: “Beer deserving of a certain attention. Beer that forces you to confront and consider what you are drinking.” The reason these words whisper to me when I’m there is because I often find myself sipping a beer and then holding it aloft to stare in wondrous disbelief. It’s like a weird double take. Staring at the liquid and getting it to catch the light won’t somehow divulge its secrets. Even so, I’ve done this with a few beers but it’s with a Kernel beer I do it most often. Many beers have been my favourite over the years – Evenlode by Thornbridge, Chiltern Ale, Elland 1872 Porter, Taras Boulba by Brasserie de la Senne. Now I’ve had Kernel’s Biere de Saison – 5.1 ABV. It’s so light in colour - a pale yellow wash like over dilute lemon squash. The aroma is exactly like white wine rather than beer. Gentle carbonation. White sauvignon grapes and uric acid on the palate. Light milky mouthfeel. It’s fruity rather than dry and the most delicate beer I’ve ever drunk. In short, it had me confronting and considering what it was because I couldn’t fit this beer into my usual nose, malt, hop, body & aftertaste template. It reprogrammed me. 

Utterly divine Biere de Saison
An unbelievable range




Another recent contender was the London Sour Cherry – 4.5 ABV. It’s dark crimson with a lactic head. Stewed cherry skins on the aroma. The cherry carries the flavour perfectly. It fills out every corner of sourness. It levels it, taming the edges making it not too tart. It’s intrinsic to the beer like it’s not an adjunct (added ingredient). It has good carbonation. Again, Not the malt body & hop layering most beers are constructed from. On further reflection it was like a beetroot smoothie and it sounds daft but actually makes sense – cherry and beetroot have similar flavour profiles. When you add the “echo” of the sour beer to the cherry it enhances it to be more like the blousiness of beetroot. A beetroot smoothie or beetroot and plain natural yoghurt are the tastes and textures that stayed with me. My palate – like everyone else’s – is individual so it might not be exactly as others might experence it. Both drinks are divine and simply reveal new dimensions in beer to me. I’ve hardly made a secret of my fondness for Kernel. Currently, it’s my favourite brewery on earth.

If you can bear to, leave Kernel and make towards that towering industrial plant that looks suspiciously like one of H.G Wells’ tripods biding its time. Follow the path it stands in – it’s called Lucey Way and it follows the railway with tenements backing onto it. After a few hundred meters you’ll come out on St James’s Road and be facing Blue Anchor Lane as a continuation of Lucey Way on the other side of the road. Cross over and follow Blue Anchor Lane. It comes out onto Southwark Park Road. 
Turn left at a pub called The Blue Anchor and proceed down the main drag passing a couple of pedestrian crossings. It’s a good area to get battery chicken legs fried in buckets in. You catch up with the railway again as it goes over the road and you see a mini roundabout and a pub called The Ancient Foresters on the corner of Galleywall Road. 
Go down Galleywall Road all the way and you hit upon Rotherhithe New Road. Turn left and walk until see a large industrial/business estate on the other side of the road – Bermondsey Trading Estate. Cross the road and go through the main entrance with the security cabin at the gate – so far, nobody has been in it when I’ve gone past. Walk in and follow the road camber around to the left. You’ll ask yourself – as I did - whether this is some kind of wind up. Where’s the next bar? Down a manhole? There are some interesting signs reminding you not to urinate against the wall but keep going – it will be worth it. You go under the railway yet again. Once you’ve gone under the arch, you’ll see Fourpure Brewing beckoning you from unit 22.

Plus an illustration too!
It really is there - Fourpure




The Fourpure Brewing Company is the only site not under a railway arch but it’s still within spitting distance of one. Like Southwark Brewing, it’s spacious and has the added facility of a ping pong/table tennis/wiff waff table. The shining brewing equipment gloats against the back wall.

It seems these guys like making trips to America to have some of the native influence rub off on them. They’re also the only brewery that always has a lager (in this case a Pilsner) on - something I’ve not yet tried. Their Amber (5.1 ABV) had a high light beige froth helped up by the natty branded tulip glass. I got butterscotch and a hint of cloves. The taste of Theakstons Old Peculiar also rears up – probably from the clovey note. It has a really springy malt base and buzzing carbonation. Dry aftertaste. If anybody is in doubt about keg’s ability to deliver all of the weapons in beer’s arsenal, let them try this. As a whole, the beer reminds me of a brune abbey/trappist style beer but the route it came by is maybe more American. So it’s a British take on an American take on a Belgian beer - simple. 

 




When you come out blinking in the sun, cast a look right and you’ll see the Shard keeping tabs on you in the distance. I can never seem to anticipate which direction it will pop up from. Retrace your steps out of the business park – careful not to urinate against any walls – and go back down Rotherhithe New Road and up Galleywall Road as far as The Ancient Foresters. At this point turn right and immediately right again before you walk under the bridge. This is Almond Road and Partizan Brewing awaits you under arch 8.


Beware the eye of Sauron....
                                                         




When I was recently there the outside was a bit of a building site. Drinkers mingled with guys in high-viz jackets working on the railway. Partizan is the smallest brewery on the mile and when I walk up to it, it reminds me of a crammed closet whose contents are tumbling out. It’s also enchanting whenever you catch sight of a fleeting train overhead and the whole watering hole rumbles. 



There is a small serving bar. Most of the beers are bottled at Partizan but there are always a few on keg. On this occasion mine was a glass of Pale ABC (Amarillo, Bravo, Chinook) 4.5 ABV. It was a light custard colour and opaque from the alpha acids. It had a parching lemon rind bitterness which siphoned up all my saliva. It was maybe a bit turgid but would’ve held its own with an equally snarling Roquefort cheese and it balanced on a stack of palates as romantically as a jug of cider on a haystack.

Opaque from the apha acids
The cupboard
                                                           


Go back towards The Ancient Foresters and return down Southwark Park Road to The Blue Anchor. Turn right up Blue Anchor Lane and refind Lucey Way. In the distance, you’ll see the Shard first of all hide behind a tree and then behind the stealth H.G Wells tripod. Go past Kernel (now sadly shut) and get back to Enid Street. Brew By Numbers is at arch 79 and can be identified by the crates outside and the consumers lounging and supping on them.










The brewery is rammed with equipment meaning that most customers drink outside through necessity though there are several tables inside. It’s the mad laboratory feel to this one I find so endearing. A sign indicating the queue for the toilet produces an orderly line through the towering brewerania unique to this site. The facilities are used in all the other stops but a proud conga line only forms in this one alone. 

Brew By Numbers, as the name suggests, uses a number system for its beers. The first number is the style, the second the recipe. The style might have numerous recipes so you augment the second digit accordingly. Style 1 is for saison, 2 is for golden ale, 3 for porter etc. There is an amazing range including Berliner weisse, witbier, brown ale, barrel aged and brett aged. 

Style 16 is for red ales and red Ale “Tap” Coffee was on cask (it’s the third red ale recipe so 16/3). It has a 5.4 ABV and is gravity dispensed. It’s cloudy brick red with a light beige bubbly head. Rich and malty, the coffee comes straight through. Freshly ground barista coffee assaults the nose. Like an expressionist painting, you feel you can’t just depict the subject but must become the subject – get inside it. Well this gets inside you. There’s something else I find about coffee when its heat is temperate. When it goes cold – or conversely warms up if it’s been crushed with ice in a trendy “frappucino” - I find the caffeine becomes more potent. When I’ve had coffee in a sealed thermos cup that has cooled down, you open it and the diffusion of heat has changed the air inside leaving condensed droplets. If you drink it at that point, you get an added fug that the heat had hitherto overwhelmed. The caffeine is felt more, like a tuning prong being struck inside you or a growling Northern Line rumble within. It’s that rumble that menaces within this beer. It’s definitely not something you could drink a lot of though it’s one of the most remarkable beers I have drunk (remember my remarks about not ending the mile on a bitter?). You feel you may have to do a few star jumps before leaving to try and get it out of your system. It’s brewing genius.



   


Leave stage right, cross over Spa Road, go under the bridge and get back on Druid Street. You’ll hit The Bottle Shop first at 128 Druid Street. Anspach & Hobday/Bullfinch is just a few metres away at 118. I suggest you pay them a visit first.

Anspach & Hobday own the brewing kit in arch 118. The Bullfinch Brewery use A & H as a cuckoo brewery. Most of this arch is taken up by equipment and stock. Several picnic tables inside and several outside. The staff of either brewery man the same bar and serve any of the beers brewed on site.




Anspach & Hobday Smoked Brown 6 ABV. This was the first beer they sold to the public and quite bold as many new brewers launch straight into the powerfully hopped new world beers instead. It’s quite a murky dark mahogany. Tangy and smoky like charred bacon. There is a coffee dimension too. It’s almost like the juices running from a stake but refreshing and, ironically, sets your own saliva flowing. To contrast this, I then went for the Bullfinch RyPa 5.8 ABV – it was bright tangerine in colour with a thin rocky head. Slightly hazy – I think from the chill. It was full of the sweeter citrus fruits. Orange and mango are in there. Didn’t get any pepper from the rye on the first sip though there’s definitely caramel in the body as in other rye beers. Further sips bring out pineapple and melon zest on the palate. Both beers are pictured sitting pretty atop the same key keg.



Anspach & Hobday Smoked Brown



....and Bullfinch RyPa


Finally leave arch 118 and nip back to arch 128. The Bottle Shop originated in Canterbury and much to the delight of Londoners – hasn’t added any “London weighting” onto the price of its wares. If the previous seven breweries weren’t enough, you can now savour some of the best beer from around the world. There are also a couple of taps for fresh beer. The Bottle Shop has stocked beers from foreign breweries that have only exported to them and nobody else in the U.K like Green Flash from the USA. The venue is similar to 118 but has the added feature of an upstairs gallery you can sit in. If all that weren’t enough, they also regularly pay host to other breweries that come and do a tap takeover in the premises such as Siren Craft Brewery or Weird Beard. The Bottle Shop will also deliver to your home as an online stockist.


Here's one I finished earlier - Brasserie De La Senne
                                                           


The only reason I save The Bottle Shop for last is firstly to gauge if I can actually drink anymore after completing all the breweries. Secondly it’s mostly a psychological thing about moving onto bottled beers. They might be stronger and more carbonated. You might also decide that instead of continuing to drink right now, you’ll buy some interesting bottles and weigh your options at home later.



Brasserie De La Senne – Zinnebir bottle conditioned 6 ABV. This Brussels brewery is named after the culverted and hidden Senne river which still seeps under the Belgian capital. Though a huge fan of Belgian beers, if they have a default problem it’s that they can be too sweet. Sugar is often added to beers in Belgium. Brasserie De La Senne is a complete departure from that. Its Zinnebir is so crisp and zesty – somewhere between the glacial crisp of a Pilsner and the strong zest of an American IPA but light in body. It’s light golden in colour and just refreshes – something else a lot of Belgian beers don’t do.