By Michael Burt BottleShop:Bermondsey Bar Manager
As I walk out the front doors of The Kernel and on to the grey streets of a Bermondsey evening in February, a light drizzle of rain and the rumbling of a train greet me as I make my journey back to work. This is a completely unnecessary detour. I should really be on my way home but instead feel a giddy sense of urgency to tell someone about my day. I am drenched, an occupational hazard from cleaning out the mash tun and boiler, fingers stained green from hops - the heady aroma of citrus fruit accompanies me on my short stroll. My bag clinks with bottled gifts as I round the corner of Enid St. and on to Druid St. I am beaming. This part of London has an industrial charm that lends itself perfectly to the brewing of beer. Walking these streets, you are never far from the sweet aroma of malt or a stacked pile of kegs - observations that I usually take for granted have a certain poignancy in the fading London light.
In January I was offered the opportunity to spend the day with a brewery in the UK, the top of my list was a Bermondsey neighbour and an industry stalwart: The Kernel. When I found out that it was a go, I couldn't quite believe the news and obviously jumped at the chance. It is no secret that I hold the brewery in the highest esteem and over many years have been blown away by their level of consistency that seems peerless in the industry. When I talk to others about their beer and the quality, the constant question is asked: "have you ever had a bad Kernel beer?" and with a slow shake of the head, the answer is universally, "no". Spending the day involving myself in that process and witnessing the way the brewery operates, this comes as no surprise - their integrity and commitment to quality are evident in everything they do.
That morning, I am greeted inside the railway arch doorway by Evin, founder and head brewer. I first met Evin back in 2016 in Bristol attending a food and beer pairing dinner with The Kernel and Cloudwater, and was also fortunate enough to attend last year’s Zwanze day, where we briefly crossed paths over the course of the night. He welcomes me warmly as we head upstairs to get changed. As he slides his wellies on we chat about The BottleShop and about The Kernel- I am assured that they are still quietly going about their business, still not doing collabs. I ask what we will be brewing and am thrilled to find out that it is a single hop pale: Citra. When I came to visit a friend in London 3 years ago I was introduced to these pales for the first time and was duly blown away by their reassuring bitterness, balance and their ability to showcase the beauty of single hops. To help make one, today, seems surreal.
I start by emptying sacks of Pale Ale Maris Otter malt in to the mash tun, which is as good a morning exercise as I can imagine. When I am finished I head downstairs for a walk around the equipment. Evin leads me through each piece, kindly describing its role in the process. He asks me if I would like a coffee, which I gladly accept. If you want milk and sugar, he adds, we don't have any. He smiles at me, but I know he is serious. The coffee is great quality, a theme that runs throughout the day.
The mash is brought up to temperature and a reading is taken with one of the thermometers. We remove the other thermometer hanging on the wall and take a second reading. Evin smiles again as he tells me they both give slightly different readings and he isn't sure which is right- this time I laugh. Their process feels as ingrained in method and readings as it does in intuition and experience.
I get a tour of the brewery, which includes a visit to the barrel room. Here, in this beautiful brick vault lie foudres and barriques filled with treasured Biere De Saison- an absolute favourite of BottleShop staff and a sure fire modern classic. As we walk around the bottle store, I am pointed in the direction of many un-released experimental bottles. We pick up a bottle marked Biere De Saison: Crab Apple. Wandering back to the front of the brewery, Evin grabs some glasses and pours out 4 measures before handing them out to other members of the brewery team. The light golden liquid has a crisp white head and upon swilling delivers beautiful notes of red apple and a little funk. The beer is nice and tart with high acidity and some decent tannin. It really is very cidery, but delicate and delicious. We discuss a new iteration of the Biere De Saison- a damson version. I remember trying my first London Sour: Damson and try to keep my excitement in check.
The next step in the process is to weigh out hops to pitch in to the boil. We head over to a walk in fridge to select some Citra for this purpose. We use whole hops for the brew and as such, I begin breaking down the pressed bale in to a bucket for weighing. At different stages of the boil, different weights of the Citra are added for bittering and aroma profile. As the hops crumble in my hand they release the most beautiful waves of citrus fruit - my fingers will smell like this for the rest of the night and I am not complaining.
The stages that follow prove to be the most physically challenging and also the most fun - digging out the mash tun and cleaning it down. The effort involved is satisfying, shovelling load after load of steaming malt in to a large vessel and packing it down. When I am finished, I head inside and give it a good hose down with a pressure washer. There is an almost comical period where I remove the floor and spray each piece down, whilst trying to navigate the stacked floor slats. This proves to be very difficult and as I repeatedly knock them all over, it is evident that this is definitely my first time.
Digging out the hops after the boil is equally pleasurable - waves of hoppy steam escape through the small entrance and onto my face. It is good for your skin, Evin remarks. It does feel invigorating when I finish, a heady mix of exercise and a steam clean. I swear, there is a market in London for a malt sauna and hop aromatherapy sessions.
I am incredibly aware how lucky I am to have experienced a brew day like this. I spend my entire life in beer, but rarely get to peek behind the veil and see how the drink I love is made, day in, day out by incredibly passionate and hard-working individuals. For all of the hype and the 'fomo' beer culture currently in the market these days, it is reassuring to know that there are breweries like The Kernel who quietly go about nailing highly drinkable, exceptionally balanced beer - have always done, will always do. These beers seem the antithesis of ticking culture: made to be drunk by the pint. This level of drinkability is a special and rare thing: as I get half way down my pint of Table Beer, I am already mentally moving my plans for the day around so that I can have another.
After a series of pinch-yourself moments, as I head out the door at the end of the day, Mark Tranter from Burning Sky arrives and is being shown around by Evin. Of course.