There’s no denying that people like the romantic story of The Kernel: a homebrewer setting up shop in a foodie corner of the South Bank, and within a year winning widespread respect among beer connoisseurs, awards from fellow brewers and coverage in the national press, complete with the inevitable mention of the brewery’s location in a railway arch. You don’t get much more London than being underneath a slowly crumbling Victorian railway line in red brick; it gives the enterprise an immediate sense of place. Just south of Tower Bridge and round the corner from where Barclay Perkins and the hop factors of Southwark once did business, it’s immensely satisfying to drink a 19th century style London porter in the heart of the city where the stuff was invented. One can almost feel the ghostly presence of Dr Johnson — [Get on with it – Ed].
Be that as it may, it’s The Kernel’s beers that have cemented its reputation. “The brewery springs from the need to have more good beer”, is the refreshingly matter-of-fact mission statement, and the beers are similarly unpretentious: revivalist porters and stouts, pale ales loaded with Oregon and antipodean hops, simple beers done very well. London’s brewing heritage and New World influences meet here and combine; it’s much more exciting than just copying the Americans.
When I arrive on a fresh Friday morning, Toby greets me and shows me around the brewery. It’s bigger than the “brewing under a railway arch” trope leads one to believe; London has some pretty big railway arches. Most of the space is taken up with storage, though, and the brewing space itself is about the size of someone’s living room.
Evin appears and the first thing he does is check the progress of the beer in the fermenters. There are four round open fermenters, one square and one odd windowed affair resembling a bathysphere. All have a thick yeast head on them and smell fantastic. In particular I am rather tempted to climb into the square that contains the export stout, but I think better of it.
Then it’s onto brewing. Though The Kernel is known for its strong, hoppy pale beer and stout, we are brewing an amber ale of under 5% today, rather less typical, so we need a bit less malt than usual. This is absolutely fine by me, as I’ve volunteered to dig all the spent grain out of the mash tun again when we’ve finished.
There is no grain hopper in the brewery. No point in over-engineering these things, remarks Toby, and we use the simple method of sticking a hose into each sack of malt and turning it on to let the jet of hot water wash the grains into the mash tun. It works very well and the mash is pretty well mixed by the time we have added all the malt. The grist is pale, crystal and wheat.
We leave the mash to its own devices for an hour; there’s work to be done elsewhere. Over the road in another railway arch is a stack of empty pallets. They need to be loaded onto a van so that Chrigl can drive them back to their rightful owners. The teetering pile of wood is scary and I contemplate that if I have to die I’d probably rather drown in that vat of export stout than be crushed under a pile of timber. Eventually we manage to get the van loaded up and Chrigl drives off while Toby and I head back to the brewery to do the sparge.
When we get back across the road, a stack of trays of bottles marked LARRRGER is at the front of the brewery. There are nearly two thousand of them and they all need to be labelled by hand. It’s the “Imperial Märzen” brewed in collaboration with Dark Star. Its 9.1% leads Evin to joke that it’s a tribute to Tennent’s Super and should have been packaged in cans. Mark from Dark Star has also arrived with an essential bit of equipment – the rubber stamp with Dark Star’s logo, to be added to the house label on the bottles.
First, though, we stop for a taste of the beer. It’s dominated by the “traditional” (ahem) hops used – Centennial and Motueka, and not very larrrger-like at all, but it’s delicious. Then it’s on to polishing and labelling bottles. Packaging beer is a pain for small breweries whichever approach they take. At The Kernel, doing everything by hand means they spend one day a week brewing and three days packaging. Alternatively, you can have it contract bottled, squeezing your profit margin, or you can invest in a huge bottling line that’ll take years to pay for itself even if you can get finance for it in the first place. There are no easy answers.
Toby tends to the sparges and run-off. While we were away Evin has thrown some extra roast malt in the mash to darken it a little.
I get to weigh out the bittering hops. Toby notices the surprised expression on my face as he tells me a figure only slightly more than the amount I’d use for five gallons at home, and explains that this is just the first charge and a much greater quantity will be used at the end of the brew.
Back to the bottles. Sitting around labelling bottles and chatting about beer is not that bad really. Especially since we keep trying new beers. Mark has brought along some Thornbridge/Dark Star Coalition. With grilled cheese sandwiches one of Evin’s IPAs is perfect.
Time to dig out the mash tun. Fortunately the mash tun is so small that it only takes about twenty minutes to have it emptied and all the draff in two wheelie bins (Tip for all beer writers: make a point of visiting tiny breweries). Then back to bottling again.
Toby comes over with a sample jar of wort from today’s brew. It tastes full-bodied with lots of digestive-biscuity malt, not so bitter. The hop character will emerge as it ferments and dries out. The original gravity is 1.047. Amber Ale. It’s going to be nice. I could woffle about the renaissance of brewing in London but Evin would probably just say it’s another couple of barrels towards satisfying the need for more good beer.