London’s weekly beer pilgrimage

Known in the 19th Century as London’s Larder, the riverside neighbourhood of Bermondsey has recently developed a new claim to fame: its mile of top-notch, artisanal microbreweries.

In hindsight, Jack Hobday wishes he had made just one decision differently. Along with lifelong friend Paul Anspach, in the span of 14 whirlwind months, the 26-year-old had gone from home-brewing hobbyist to crowd-funded co-founder of London microbrewery Anspach & Hobday. First, their spring 2013 Kickstarter campaign to raise £3,000 for a single-barrel brewing kit exceeded its goal by £2,000; then their home-brewed porter earned a silver medal in the “Stouts and Porters” category at the 2013 International Beer Challenge, where competitors included international companies like Sam Adams and Thornbridge.

The next step was finding a brewery space. After a five-month search, Hobday and Anspach found themselves in Bermondsey. It was a move that wouldn’t surprise London’s cutting-edge cadre of brewers: spilling from the southern banks of the River Thames with a western border informally marked by the Tower Bridge, Bermondsey historically was such a key production centre for food and beverage that, by the mid-19th Century, it had been dubbed “London’s Larder”. Yet in the early 20th Century, industry began shifting to other districts. German bombing raids during World War II hastened Bermondsey’s decline.

In recent years, however, this residential area has quietly reclaimed its niche, due in part to the arrival of six buzzed-about microbreweries, including Anspach & Hobday, all clustered together within a roughly 1.5-mile radius. The Kernel Brewery, founded in 2009, was the first to arrive; Anspach & Hobday, the latest, began brewing in November 2013.They came for a variety of reasons, including the amount of available space, particularly in the Bermondsey railway arches that support the London Overground (five of the six are housed beneath an arch). This serendipitous gathering, though, has become an epicentre for London's beer revival.

When I caught up with Andy Smith, the founder of archway-located brewery, Partizan Brewing, he and his small staff of part-timers were busy packaging their latest creation, an easy-drinking saison brewed with mangoes and peppercorns. Reflecting Smith’s former career as a chef, many of Partizan’s beers are designed with food pairings and distribution to restaurants in mind. Five to six cases of pale ale per week, for example, are reserved for Soho steakhouse Flat Iron, while Indian restaurant Gujarati Rasoi in Dalston favours the lemongrass saison. “Loads of people always say ‘IPA and spicy foods,’ but there’s nothing worse than heat and bitterness,” Smith said. “Heat with acidity or sweetness works very well, but suggesting curries with IPAs purely because the beer has ‘India’ in the title is a little silly.”

Half a mile down the road at the Bermondsey Trading Estate, an industrial park where neighbours include tool suppliers and an ambulance service provider, Fourpure Brewing Co is the area’s only brewery not housed within a railway arch – a decision made for reasons of having more space and accessibility for receiving and shipping goods, said Daniel Lowe, who co-founded Fourpure with his brother Tom in 2012. The capacity of Fourpure’s warehouse, which is roughly twice the size of the other breweries, means that on Saturdays, the only day of the week when all six of the Bermondsey breweries are open to the public, Fourpure can more comfortably accommodate visitors; there’s even room for a ping-pong table. They also have more space for stock, and Lowe is happy to share in times of need. “We intentionally have a completely open-door approach with other breweries,” he said.

That sense of mutual respect is palpable among the Bermondsey brewers. Evin O'Riordain, founder of The Kernel Brewery, even donated his old brewing kit to Partizan to help the company get started in 2012. And all of the brewers are complimentary of one another’s work. Hobday called The Kernel “the number-one craft brewery in London”; Lowe praised the saisons from2012 Bermondsey arrival Brew By Numbers. “Each of the breweries is now sort of finding themselves something special,” Lowe said.

Still, in such a small, nascent community, it can be easy to misstep – as Hobday learned. Running the newest brewery on the Bermondsey block, Hobday was understandably eager to promote his brand, so when London food-and-booze blogger Matt Hickman coined the term “Bermondsey Beer Mile” at an Anspach & Hobday pre-launch party, Hobday seized upon the idea. “I recognized how powerful it could be,” he said.

He was right: within weeks of his launch of the “Bermondsey Beer Mile” website – which had little more than a map of the area’s breweries – crowds suddenly boomed. And clientele changed. “After the Beer Mile launched, about a week later we saw stag parties,” Smith said. “There were two or three distinctive weekends where we had 40- to 50-minute queues. Some of my regular customers turned up, saw what was going on and left without having a drink.”

In response, the brewery principals called a meeting and decided to pull the website down a few weeks after its launch. “As a beer lover myself, if I had a weekend off I’d want to go to Bermondsey and drink at several of the breweries, but not necessarily at all of them the same day,” says Hobday. “I don’t think it should be a ‘beer challenge’, which is maybe the connotation a ‘beer mile’ could take on.”

Indeed. On Saturday afternoons, when each brewery is open until 5pm (The Kernel until 2pm), don’t think of it as a race. Consider it a weekly opening reception for six artists’ latest exhibitions – and an opportunity to discuss, and savour, the materials with the people who created them.

Such an approach also allows visitors to enjoy more than just beer in Bermondsey. At Spa Terminus, butchers, bakers and cheesemakers are among the local food producers with Saturday open houses. The Maltby Street Market: Ropewalk offers some of the tastiest street food in London, not to mention pop-up stands for London meadery Gosnells, honey-beer brewers Hiver and local craft beer purveyors The Bottle Shop.

Without the publicity of the Beer Mile website, Bermondsey’s weekend crowds are growing more organically. “The crowds seem to be swinging back towards people that want to engage with the area and the food,” said Smith. That’s the essence of this burgeoning scene: even as these entrepreneurs hope for commercial success, it’s that kind of engaged clientele – and authentic experience – that truly makes buzzy Bermondsey thrive.