By Malu Lambert
Trains rumble overhead as I make my way under soaring railway arches in search of The Kernel Brewery. There’s a certain derelict magic about this part of London. I’m in Bermondsey, south of the River Thames, and layers of grime climb the stone walls like so many pages in a history book. Sure, it’s dingy, cold; but the feeling here is also electric: this city’s blood has been pumping for centuries and I feel as if I’m traversing the pulmonary vein—straight to its bubbling heart.
A tunnel spits me out into the wan sunshine of Maltby Street; and I’m greeted by a market of artisanal producers. There’s a fresh seafood stand selling whelks, scallops and oysters, a group of hirsute Italian men proffering salami and prosciutto; and even Namibians selling biltong (of all things). I spy the brewery towards the bottom of the market. A throng of people spill out of the arch it’s housed in, the brown beer bottles in their hands reflect the sun like flash Morse Code; and I imagine it decodes to: ‘the beer is over here’
Owner of The Kernel Brewery, Evin O'Riordain speaks with a mix of an American and Irish accent. “I’ll never achieve perfection,” he says referring to beer-making. “There are always things you can change.” His son is balanced on his shoulders; he has the same dark hair as his father. Evin is dressed casually in jeans and an open denim shirt over a turtleneck, and his feet are shod in black wellies; a necessity in this working brewery. The floor is covered in a slick of water and foam. The air smells like hops, yeast and ice—tinged with delicious aromas from nearby charcuterie, bread and cheese purveyors.
The railway arch, as well as adding poetic ambience to the brewery, also works as an insulator and inside it, it’s cold—the perfect condition for its inhabitants.
“For hundreds of years London was the centre of the beer universe. Styles like porters, stouts, and pale ale became popular here,” Evin explains. “But so much of that tradition and history has been lost. Our dark beers are based on old London recipes that we dug up at the metropolitan. We have nothing to compare the resulting beer to, so we have no idea if we got it right or not.” These beers are stamped with a date the recipe hails from, I spot one that states: “Based on a recipe from a London Brewery in 1890.”
London’s craft beer trade is booming once again (much like it is in South Africa). Evin explains the trend: “People are more careful about what they put into their bodies these days; from meat, to cheese, and even beer—they want to know the provenance of what they’re consuming.”
He holds a glass under a draught tap and pulls; filling it with butter-coloured liquid, the foam slopping over the top is more gold than white. “This is our Pale Ale, made with Chinook hops.”
This is what makes this brewery unique. Much like in single varietal wine-making, the hops used are highlighted and marked on the label. “We use over 25 hops, and 18 types of malt, in our beer-making processes.
“All the strains of hops have different flavour profiles; you can’t simply use just one for all styles of beer.” The Chinook for example lends a floral, citrusy flavour to my beer; with touches of lemon and wood too—ending with a clear, sharp bitterness.
I try another pale ale, this one made with a hops called ‘Centennial’. It’s pale golden in colour and sports aromas of grapefruit and elderflower; unlike any beer I’ve ever tried. “We want to teach people to drink differently, to approach each beer individually.”
Evin and his team are all self-taught. This fact seems incredulous when you consider the popularity of their beer. The product is stocked in Michelin-starred restaurants across the capital, and they’ve been collecting awards like beer caps after a cricket match: one of their stouts was also recently named Britain’s best bottled beer.
It all started when the pony-tailed beer maker, who used to work for neighbour; Neil’s Yard Diary, went to America on official cheese business. It was here that he was inspired by craft breweries, and the seed, or should I say, kernel, was planted to open his own micro-brewery with the focus resting on small scale production of utmost quality.
My next beer is a London Porter. Inky black in colour it’s a cornucopia of roasted flavours; from chocolate, raisin, and coffee to dark fruit and even leather. It’s the perfect beer to drink underneath cold railway arches.
There’s a sense of community here below the Big Smoke. All the small businesses and stands seem to have a shared purpose. “You can do so much more collectively than you can on your own,” says Evin. “It’s grown organically, it’s not like we set out to make it happen like this; everyone has the same principles.”
A number of the beers have soaring alcohol percentages, some reaching 10 percent; making them ideal partners for food pairing, especially when combined with the myriad of flavour components from pineapple-y beers to ones that taste of chocolate (Evin says he pours one of the porters over handmade vanilla bean ice cream, which he says is ‘amazing’).
The Kernel Brewery, and its counterparts, are the answer to a sea of homogenised beer that currently flows through the country’s pubs. Evin and his team have drawn on tradition and married it with contemporary thinking to create: “Beer that forces you to confront and consider what you are drinking. We bottle the beer ‘alive’, so that it can continue to grow.”
With a parting ‘cheers’ I make my way back down the tunnel, and wonder with anticipation what I’ll discover around the next corner.
*Since this visit the brewery has moved to another railway arch a couple of streets down. View their website for more information. http://thekernelbrewery.com