Around the World in Bermondsey

It’s a bizarre phenomenon. Bermondsey and its infamous mile is now a part of the everyday in the tight Neighbourhood Watch close that is the beer community. Although it’s now familiar as are many of the fellow pilgrims I see on it, it hasn’t habitualised itself to me yet. When I tread it – especially the Eastern reaches – it’s still surreal and magical. You cast out away from the pubs & bright lights into the industrial veins of the capital and around the back of a branch of Screwfix in a business park. 

I think the reason there is optimism and wonder is because it smacks of new vitality where there was previously decline and neglect. Also, the breweries/tap rooms are flourishing in crevices that would’ve seemed inhospitable before – a case of life overcoming the odds.

Much has been written about the breweries and the event itself. In this post, I want each beer to act as a shortcut into the land or style that inspired it or else to throw light on something connected. I want to show Bermondsey as a microcosm of the brewing world.

Last Saturday, for the first time this year, I decided to strike out to Fourpure at the easternmost end. The sun came out and we were caressed with the first real warmth of the year – something that definitely influenced my decision to hike the full distance. This weather called for something continental, cool and golden – a 2/3 pint glass of photogenic Pilsner. Fourpure’s pilsner (4.7 %) is a clear glowing vanilla with a delicate body. It’s well carbonated, lemony and dry – the dryness increases down the glass. 

The word Pilsner is derived from the German spelling of the town of Plzeň in the Czech Republic. The town is also famous for the original manufacture of Škoda automobiles founded by Emil Škoda. Coincidentally, that name is both a surname and the Czech word for “shame”. 

There has been much myth-making about the traditions associated with the most famous Pilsner – Pilsner Urquell. Ur-quelle means original source. It’s often cited as the first golden lager but how accurate is that claim? Here Des De Moor shows why he’s one of the U.K’s most celebrated beer writers.
I leave Fourpure and head back towards the sounds of Mill Wall fans arming for war along Bermondsey’s high streets. The next stop is the Eebria Tap Room tucked down Almond Road and I find that all the taps are by another South London brewery – Orbit Beers. The outfit from Kennington – just three minutes away as the pigeon flies – has currently taken over this arch. 

Orbit Beers started out by concentrating on mainly European beer styles and I opt for a third of their Rauch Alt Nico – a 6.2% dark smoked Alt Bier. It’s dark amber with charred red meat on the palate. The body’s of a liquid malt consistency. The beer’s sticky on the lips.

There is a lot of debate over Germany’s purity laws – the Reinheitsgebot. Does it represent an institution that guarantees consistency and quality or is it a dogma that restricts innovation and experimentation. It’s both, but what I wasn’t aware of is that it never covered all of Germany. Here’s a fantastic blog piece by Daft Eejit Brewing:

I’ve so far had three thirds – that’s a full British pint of European beer brewed in Bermondsey and am now walking the two hundred feet that will take me to Belgium. This is the everyday oddness I love.

In the cupboard-like arch of Partizan Brewing, I opt for half a pint of a raspberry and lemon Saison. This 3.8 % Saison is blushing pink with a fluffy candy floss head. It’s both sweet and tart – the lemon gives its wince, the raspberries their juices. It’s completely opaque and has a mineral water carbonation. The taste reminds me a bit of rolls of love hearts sweets.

The beer style (usually unfruited) isn’t just a native of Belgium but hails from across its French border too in places like Nord Pas de Calais. Beer styles aren’t the only things France and Belgium have in common, and seeing as the beer is bright pink, I’ve chosen to shine a light on the surrealist movement.

I leave both Almond Road and continental Europe to make my way straight past Britain to our ancient cousin Eire. I want a beer that contrasts completely to the pink Saison. I want something black, full roasted and dry so a dry Irish stout fits the bill at Brew By Numbers on Enid Street.

The sun’s still out as I sit on a pallet and my mind wonders about the style. The things I can’t get out of my head are recollections of Dave Allen talking about how the Irish treat death. My mind then moves onto Guinness and how it used to be the default beer for many drinkers who would otherwise have gone for cask. I was definitely one of them but aren’t now.

A post by beer blogger Stonch last year demonstrated how much of a raw nerve Guinness still is – I’ve linked to this post for Stonch’s original text but also for the floodgates bursting open in the comments section.

And so to Anspach & Hobday – an innovative brewery even in the context of the Bermondsey Mile. I scan the beers on and choose firstly to be transported to the American/Canadian border with a cream ale and then return home to London and the Thames with their porter.

Cream ale is brewed with both a lager yeast and an ale yeast (though not simultaneously). It often includes sweetcorn in the mash as well as rice – this one just sticks with sweetcorn. You can taste the juices of the sumptuous yellow grain/vegetable/fruit like you were eating it off a cob. It’s another beer that should become more appealing as the summer heats up. 

Prohibition forced brewing out of America last century so beer was smuggled across the Canadian border. How do you suppose two countries with such a shared history and culture decided where the border went? Rivers? Mountain ranges? Other obvious geographical features? Instead it looks like it was a case of British colonial straight line syndrome. Enjoy.

It’s fitting I end on a beer that for me symbolises London. Some of the best examples of the style are brewed right here in Bermondsey. Porter, the ancestor of the dry Irish stout and many others has come back to claim the capital and here, close to Rotherhithe docks, it really feels like it’s come back home. It’s fully roasted, full-bodied, rich and all the other adjectives that mandatorily go with porter. Ansbach & Hobday’s just happens to be better than most. 

One widely believed derivation of the name of this style is that it was the labourers’ – the porters’ staple drink. As a way of celebrating them and to for a link to maritime London and the past coming back to life, I present to you Jack Dash. He was an unofficial union leader and ex-porter and docker who rocked the political world 45 years ago. This footage is totally biased in his favour but regardless of the stripe of your politics, this man (whose name sounds like a super hero’s too) will make you want to jump up out of your seat and salute. Jack Dash – a true demigod and demagogue.
Look out for a couple of the songs sung by the elderly with a glint in their eye – “there ain’t no beer in ‘eaven – I ain’t goin’ up there” and “show me your yoyo tonight” proving London’s old age pensioners have always been partial to a bit of smut.

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