Thankfully, given my unfailing ability to overlook the finer details, I’ve never been much of a completionist. Throughout my life I’ve left a wake of unfinished collections – from baseball cards to He-Man figures, Garbage Pail Kid stickers to Simpson’s box sets. I did have the whole set of the Just William books, but the second one fell into the swimming pool on holiday, and was never quite the same again…
With this scrupulous inattention to detail you may have thought it wouldn’t have bothered me to find out we’d missed one of the stops on my first attempt to crack the Bermondsey Beer Mile. You would have been wrong. But first, let’s go back to the beginning.
The BBM is a collection of five breweries that have sprung up around Bermondsey, starting at the arches in Druid Street and stretching across to the Bermondsey Trading Estate. Yes, it stretches the definition of 1760 yards somewhat, but the Beer Mile and a Half doesn’t have quite the same ring.
Originally I embarked upon the challenge early on a drizzly July Saturday (the only day all the brewery's tap rooms are currently open) with my faithful accomplice, the magical Stealth. A fortifying walk up East Street market and we were ready for our first drink, at the Kernel Brewery in Dockley Road. There are many different theories on the best ways to do the trail, but we decided to hit the centre point as Kernel are the busiest and also close the earliest (9.00-2.00).
The Kernel were the first of the new wave of brewers to set up around these parts and quickly became a huge success with owner and brewer, Evin O'Riordain, being awarded the British Guild of Beer Writers Brewer of the Year 2011. This success doesn’t come without cost, hence their early closing as they struggle to contain the crowds of thirsty south East Londoners who cram into the railways arches every Saturday morning.
The Kernel has been a favourite since my first visit a couple of years ago; from their hard hitting pale ales and IPAs, flavoured with a variety of different hops; to their Christmassy stouts, a favourite of the Ewing; to their quaffable table beer. In the past I've I've sunk a lot of their range, with the highlight being the night I turned up at Stealth's house to find she had filled the bathtub full of bottles bought fresh from the brewery that morning.
One I haven’t yet tried was their London Sour, and here it was on tap with added raspberry. A (almost) healthy fruit-filled start to the day – we hadn't had any breakfast yet – and not too full-on at 3.6%. This was a fabulous beer, fresh tart and tangy, balanced with a hint of sweetness. A great warm weather drink and very refreshing. Stealth had the Export Stout, a much bolder brew at 8.2%; a bruiser of a beer with plenty of chocolate, leather and coffee flavours with a creamy finish; another cracker.
Next stop was Partizan; tucked away in the arches in Almond road. Thankfully a very helpful guy in a hard hat appeared just in time to show us the way through the hoardings when we feared we were lost in the midst of an abandoned building site.
Partizan’s approach, like its surroundings, is very stripped back. They offer a range of beers on keg, alongside a selection of bottles which are all advertised on pleasingly ramshackle, handwritten cardboard signs. In contrast to their signage, the bottle’s labels are pretty damn snazzy and we picked up a lemon and thyme flavoured saison for the Ewing to drink later.
Stealth’s request for a recommendationwas met with a rather blank look – I’m not sure everyone is ready for her mumbled enthusiasm so early in the morning, so I stepped in to choose her a ginger saison, knowing her love on Jamaican ginger beer. A decent enough drop, but somewhat lacking the fiery flavour she was hoping for. I turned to the dark side with a saaz, made, unsurprisingly, with saaz hops and tasting like a light fruitcake mixed with stout, a very agreeable combination.
The best part of our visit was when Stealth enlisted a poor man next to us, quietly trying to enjoy his pint, to take a photo. While I think he may have fancied himself as a bit of a David Bailey, I think he may have imbibed one too many shandies. Still, at least there was one snap with our heads still intact, so points for that.
Next up was a trawl around the Bermondsey trading estate, where another very nice man we hosing down his work van downed tools and actually lead us to Fourpure (who said anything about unfriendly Londoners), the furthest Brewery on the trail.
The staff here were super friendly and enthusiastic, especially the lady who served us and offered to split a schooner of the Roux Brew – a 5.6% Belgian Ale - between two different glasses before coming over to our table tell us a bit more about its providence and ingredients, including orange and coriander seeds.
The beer was originally brewed by Fourpure head brewer, John Driebergen, as part of a competition organised by the London Brewer’s Alliance, which saw 12 London breweries battle it for the title of “Roux brew”, a special “house” beer paired to be with a seasonal menu at the Le Gavroche, Roux at Parliament Square and the Landau restaurants. Fourpure were victorious and this very tasty beer was the result.
I don’t know if it’s still on tap, but if so get down and fill yer boots while it’s still summer. The rest of their beers are decent too, and nice and portable in their distinctive cans, we even had time to enjoy a Amber ale (toasty, malty, touch of caramel) and an IPA (piney, spice, grapefuit) The brewery and tap room are the largest on the tour, if you don’t fancy a drink you can always call in for a game of ping pong , there was even a hen party being shown around when we visited.
At this point the tour took a slightly random turn; buoyed by beer we headed back towards the Druid Street arches and what we though was the last stop. A comical route ensued, lead by Stealth holding Googlemaps on my dying phone (hers had already expired), aloft and leading us in concentric circles Camus would have been proud of.
Eventually we found ourselves back at Marquis of Wellington, a stalwart of a pub featuring of good old fashioned fizzy lager and a no nonsense ‘proper’ bar staff. We decamped for a much needed pint of lime and soda – something which I originally felt a bit tight ordering, not wanting to see these fancy upstart weekend only tap rooms usurping the proper working class gaffs of old, until I was charged a fiver for two glasses of squash. Well, I hear you say, it is London…
Still, it’s worth a visit, just to have some good old fashioned banter with the barmaid and assorted clientele who were interested to hear about our boozy morning thus far - banter which lead me to discovering the flaw in our plan; we had walked straight past the penultimate stop.
At this point the logical workings of a sober mind would have would have concluded we should backtrack on ourselves (anathema to both Stealth and I) to grab a quick pint at Brew By Numbers, the stop we had missed, and come back for a final fling across the road.
But, staring into the bottom of our glasses of weak lime cordial, we knew it was a brewery too far. The heat, our feet and general levels of inebriation being what they were we reasoned with ourselves that we had gone off piste, that the Marquis of Wellington was our fourth stop and it didn’t really matter…
Decision made we popped over the road to our last stop, Anspach and Hobday/Bullfinch brewers. The former are a Kickstarter funded set up with the latter sharing their brewing equipment.
Beered out, we went with a Jensen gin and tonic - distilled around thee corner, they also have their own bar, too if you fancy popping in for a cocktail - and a trio of the Ansbach and Hobday brews to take home for the Ewing; an IPA, the Porter and the Smoked Brown. (Sadly the paper bag they were supplied in made it as far as London Bridge before the former two bottle met their fate with the pavement. Luckily the surviving Smoked Brown - a brown ale made with smoked barley - went down very well.)
Mission accomplished, or so we thought, we headed back to Stealth's for a little siesta and a couple of Alka Seltza. It was only on reviewing our adventures later that day that I realised that I wouldn't be able to rest without visiting the final piece in the brewery puzzle. (This was, of course, metaphorical, as I had already been asleep for the most of the afternoon.). I knew that, unlike my abandoned Batman Topps trading cards and my half finished Esso Italia 90 coin collection, I would have to return to complete the Bermondsey brew house set.
Luckily the Ewing was the second willing accomplice who agreed to wander around South London with me drinking beer and getting lost, and we headed back a fortnight later for doughnuts and ham and cocktails (see the forthcoming Bump Caves blog for that exciting installment) and, finally, a visit to Brew By Numbers, found down in the arches on Enid Street.
Brew by Number’s beers are named after a very simple premise. The first number relates to the style of the beer, while the second number indicates the incarnation e.g. what hops/brewing methods or flavourings are used. E.g. the number 4 denotes their Berliner Weisse, which is available as 1 – classic; 2 – double strength and 3 – lime versions.
Shamefully, after all the fuss, I'm not even sure what I ended up drinking, but I'm (fairly) confident it was the Session IPA, hopped with both chinook and amarillo, for a hoppy punch at a low (4.5%) ABV. From the colour I know the Ewing went with the Original Porter, her customary favoured style of beer.
Brews in hand - they also offer rather good looking scotch eggs, which even as an avowed egg avoider I was tempted by. Has anyone every come up with a plausible substitution for the egg bit? – we decamped outside to enjoy our drinks in the sunshine.
One the oddest bits about drinking here came with the positioning of the lovely Welsh chap by the entrance, who seemed to have been given the rather thankless role of telling people that they had to sit within the packing crate seating area. Possibly something a sign, or even some rope, could have solved far more efficiently - but working with the public myself, I know that signs are merely put there to be ignored.
First rounds sunk, we went back to the arches for a beer at Ansbach and Hobday/Bullfinch to try the beers straight from the tap. Initially I was rather discombobulated, as they had moved their keg taps from straight ahead as you enter, to being positioned on the right hand wall. Thankfully everything else was present and correct, including their sign for their Mr Barrick's pie and pickle, which I still haven’t sampled but I’m planning to make third visit lucky. They also get extra brownie points on account of the Folk implosion’s Mechanical Man playing and the fact the barman was wearing a Minnesota Twins shirt.
To drink I had the Bullfinch Hopocalypse, a pretty easy going 6% pale ale that currently features Zythos, Mosaic and Galaxy hops. The Ewing picked, after much deliberation to the amusement of the barman, the Smoked Brown she had enjoyed in the bottle after my previous visit. We also had a bottle of Bullfinch’s Dapper - celebration of the Great British Hop brewed in the style of an American IPA – in honour of the very well dressed, but sadly absent, Stealth.
There was even time for another beery selfie by the arches. Firstly, to let Stealth know that the trail was finally complete, and secondly to remind myself of my own achievements. Not lest the facts the next morning - after several more beers and quite a few cocktails - should seem little more than an alcoholic haze. (They were, but that’s another blog…)