05 August 2013

Arch rivals

You're not a proper London brewery if you don't have a railway arch, though what you do with it apart from brew beer is entirely up to you. I was in town for a weekend last month and visited three of the several dozen breweries now operating there.

Saturdays at the Kernel has been a regular fixture on the London beer calendar for a couple of years now and this was my first visit. Evin and his crew roll up the shutters, set out the tables and hook up the beer lines before inviting the punters in. You can buy bottles to take away at the entrance or go round the corner to sample from the selection on site.

My attention was first drawn to Kernel's Table Beer as I've heard much about it, all good. "Is this the same version that's listed on RateBeer?" asked the chap in front of me. I winced slightly. The cheery Kernelite at the taps informed him that this was version 14, and that he wasn't in a position to comment on what was listed on RateBeer. It's 2.9% ABV and is a dark and hazy orange amber. I confess I wasn't a fan: there's a dank hit at the top of the flavour, turning suddenly bitter for a quick finish. The low alcohol hasn't been compensated for very well and the texture was quite watery as a result. Maybe versions 1 through 13 had more going for them, but this didn't do it for me at all.

With the little hand only just hitting 10am, low alcohol was definitely the way to keep going, and so to London Sour, a 3% ABV Berliner weisse. This is much more my cup of whatever: a sweet-sour malt vinegar tang kicks it off with a bang and the aftermath is a smooth graininess without any of the musty wheat flavours I associate with Berliner Kindl's archetype of the style. Perfect refreshment and I'd love to have been quaffing buckets of it.

Wary of the weird stuff, Madame sent me to the bar to get her "something hoppy", adding "hops I like!" as I walked off. Obviously I ignored that and got her hops I like instead: Citra Galaxy Pale Ale. I've been a little let down by Kernel's pale ales in the past, I guess because I'm not much of a hop head as these things go, but this 5.1% ABV beer is a stunner. Bitter, yes, but tempered by that utterly fresh orange juice effect you get from Galaxy. There's a gorgeous sherbet sparkle to it as well, as if it wasn't charming enough already.

The follow-up was the Export Stout, and I never have any qualms about dark beer from Kernel. 6.1% ABV and I can say little more than it's the Platonic ideal of stout: a silky texture, dark chocolate balanced with fresh roasted coffee and a slight hint of metallic molasses to lend it an edge. A magnificent send-off as we headed, David-Banner-like, along the railway tracks of Bermondsey to the next archéd brewery.

Not too far, thankfully: Partizan is only a few minutes away and a rather more modest set-up, occupying a single arch and utilising Kernel's cast-off brewkit. It's all bottles here, and the hospitality does not yet run to things to sit on, or places to set your beer, but the welcome was warm and the beer wasn't.

Partizan Pale Ale is (was? they seem like the kind of people to change these things often) 5.5% ABV and single hopped with Dr. Rudi. There's an appropriately antipodean eucalyptus aroma though the flavour has more of a boiled sweets and and orange cordial thing going on. It's remarkably weighty for its strength too. Their IPA is a darker orange colour and at 6.8% ABV rather hotter. There's still a pleasant zest to it, however, keeping it perfectly refreshing on a warm summer's morning. Partizan Stout is thick and very roasty with lots of caramel and a healthy portion of bitter veg from the hops. I nearly missed this one but was glad I tried it.

What Partizan seem to be building a reputation for, however, is saisons and they had a few of these on offer. The Sage Grisette took my fancy in particular. It's not fully hopless, though there's not much sign of them in the taste of the 3.8%-er. Not a whole lot of sage either, if I'm honest, the flavour being quite simple and grainy. The sour lambicky aroma is another promise on which the beer doesn't quite deliver. There's much better fun to be had with the Citrus (not Citra!) Grisette, taking its name from the inclusion of oranges and lemons in the recipe. The aroma is a weird mix of barnyard funk and ripe fruit. Lots of fizz gave my palate a much-needed scrub before introducing a flavour which mixes the lurid orangeades of my childhood with the exotic yet mundane smells from the medicine cabinet. A fascinating combination.

Ramping the ABV up to 7.4% we have Mosaic, a saison which hides its strength expertly. It's much sweeter than I'd expect, knowing the voraciousness of saison yeast, with even more herbs-and-orange than the foregoing and a very powerful hop burn sitting right in the middle.

I was sad when I realised we'd got to the end of the menu. Partizan are definitely a brewery to watch out for, especially when you're close to the source.

The other arch we visited was quite a different experience. Camden Town Brewery is actually much closer to Kentish Town, and more or less physically attached to Kentish Town West Overground station. We called up on a balmy Friday evening, expecting the place to be jammed but there was plenty of space, inside at least. The set-up is pretty plush for an arch, especially compared to the other two: a glass entranceway rather than a roller shutter, white ceramic tiles instead of bare brick and a big-screen TV instead of malt sacks. The brewing equipment is presumably somewhere out the back but it wasn't on show: the place could have been just another trendy urban hangout.

The beer selection ran heavily to lager but I had no objections, given the weather. Unfiltered Camden Hells is remarkably clear, all things considered. As a helles it's absolutely bang-on: smooth and quaffable with just a mild hint of green apple in the finish which I'm content to regard as a fun quirk rather than a flaw. Its American-hopped sibling is USA Hells which achieves pretty much the same effect but with an added dusting of delicious grape and peach flavours. Perfect quenchers the both of them.

Our one for the road was Versus, a 7% ABV Baltic porter. Lots of roast in the aroma here and a true-to-style weighty texture, hiding its alcohol behind pipe smoke and liquorice. Deliciously old-fashioned, which I'm sure is not something the brewery was aiming for. From the fridge I took a bottle of Byron home with me, a session pale ale produced by Camden for the hamburger chain of the same name. It's not terribly interesting: medium gold with a mild hop aroma, sharply bitter and rather metallic with just some half-hearted toffee for balance. A long way from the quality of the other offerings.

London: go for the breweries and don't bother with the burgers.


  1. Just tried the Nelson Sauvin version of the Table Beer and was extremely impressed: the lack of anything much malty/alcoholy going on let the hop do its mango/elderflower performance pretty much to perfection.

    1. I don't think it was given to me to know what went in to the version I was served, but I'm glad you enjoyed. Flavoursome low ABV beers are a delight.