An Interview with London Beer Pioneer The Kernel

LONDON, UK

Grounded in Tradition: The Story of Evin O'Riordan & London's The Kernel Brewery

INTERVIEWED SEPTEMBER 15, 2016
AT The Kernel Brewery - Southwark, London, England

It's a typically overcast day in London's Southwark borough, and a hum of activity rustles in an unmarked railway arch-turned-brewery. Here, sits The Kernel Brewery, London's proverbial pride and joy of craft brewing. Existing along and under this stretch of archway since 2009 (where the Bermondsey Beer Mile has come to exist), 'Kernel' has become synonymous with the UK's beer regeneration. So much so, that it sometimes forgoes mention in London beer conversation, because it's place in the local scene's history is just assumed. To understand The Kernel Brewery is to understand London craft beer.

And founder Evin O'Riordan has meticulously and carefully been crafting a mix of American-inspired and Old World recipes, fit for fans of nearly any style. And while Evin found his passion for beer while on a trip to New York–inspiring many of his American styles–all of his beers are grounded in tradition. No unnecessary experimentation, or guesswork. Each brew is an intentional evolving of the previous batch. Citra hops one week, Nugget the next. And all presented to educate the drinker to what ingredients or styles pique their interest.

During our visit to The Kernel, we were treated to pours of London Sour Damson, Citra Saison and Export India Porter, all so seemingly simple, but as impressive as anything. We toured the brew space (producing about 145 barrels a week), discussed his Irish roots, his American inspiration, his pioneering the London craft beer industry and what led him to limit public access to his brewery that sometimes prefers to remain insular.

I don't suppose you're making a fruit beer today? There's a smell in the air of strawberries or jam. Unless that's just emanating from your neighbors here (jam makers, England Preserves)...

We are making a fruit beer, yea. It exploded out of a tank earlier today actually. 

[Noticing large bins of a jam-like mixture] Should we guess what it is, here? Is that raspberry?

Damsons. That's the pulp there. Damsons are quite an English thing. You don't really eat them straight, but they make great jam.

A new beer for The Kernel?

No, we sold it last year as well. But it's tiny production. We just do it once a year, when the fruit is ready.

You're originally from Ireland. Where about?

Waterford.

So an Irishman in England. Do you stay atop the beer scene there at all?

Nah nah, I don't get home that often actually. I've been here for maybe 17 years now.

And what brought you to London?

Nothing in particular. Ireland is lovely, but very small. But, you live in London long enough you start to appreciate the small things–the small towns. I think a lot of people in Ireland that leave, leave because it's so small, that everyone knows everyone's business. And any scene that exists is tiny. It can be a little bit...insular.

Well we've now been here to the brewery a few times, and last time we were here was on a Saturday when the 'Beer Mile' is moving along. But when we rolled up to The Kernel for some of your famed pale ales, we noticed you're no longer serving–only bottles to take-away. What was the decision to close the taproom?

Well, I don't know how it was when you came before–how was it here?

It was definitely crowded. Lines.

And it just got more, and more, and more crowded. And there were about as many people waiting outside to get in. It just wasn't what we wanted it to be. It wasn't practical anymore.

The Kernel was really the first brewery along this stretch here, in Bermondsey. It's grown incredibly in the last few years even.

And you know, we deal with it still. We're conscious of our neighbors here, too. We've got the jam guys on this side, and we've got a butcher, ham and cheese guys–that's our family here as well. And we all open up on Saturday mornings as kind of our own market down here, which is also something that is quite important to us. So, selling bottles as take-away fits into that much better.

And the crowds pouring in probably disrupted that a bit.

There are quite a few American breweries for example who make amazing beer. And they'll say, "Ok our next batch of IPA will be ready next Tuesday." And they come to work Tuesday morning and there's a queue of 200 people... You have your Heady Toppers, and beers like that. But you know, the thing is, a lot of these guys just want to make beer. But, they get a lot of attention–and deservedly so, because the beer can be amazing–but then they get swamped. And there's 200 people at eight in the morning waiting to buy a case of IPA. So what happens if you only have 199? Then there's some guy who's traveled from Boston or whatever, to pick up a case of beer that isn't there. You know, then you find you have to deal with those people's expectations.

And we found that we sometimes couldn't fulfill those expectations.

What did you think when you noticed that other breweries were popping up over here, and the 'Beer Mile' was becoming a Saturday event?

You know, fundamentally I don't think it's very good for our neighbors, for the people living here. Like you mentioned, it got crowded, and there might be a queue for the toilet...so yea. But, now there are a lot of breweries down here, so that's great. You've got Partizan who's next down that way, and Brew By Numbers. They're both really close friends, and the people we see the most. We get together and we share beers, we share ingredients, we share deliveries. They were both breweries looking for places elsewhere, but both ended up here.

So you're brewing in this space, five days a week, at capacity. That doesn't leave much wiggle room for error. What happens if you run into something unexpected, while knowing you need to hit a certain number?

Shit happens. It will happen, it has happened, and it will happen again. Something will go wrong. But, umm, we just try to be good at what we do. We haven't had any fuck-ups where we've had to throw beer away. We're fucking fastidious about making sure the beer is perfect. Because, if it's not, what's the point? We take a lot of pride in what we do. But, we also give ourselves a little leeway. Like that we don't make the same pale ale every week, so if something goes slightly wrong–half a percent too strong or too weak–that's fine. This week's pale ale will be 4.8% instead of 5.0.

When does your brew day start?

Eh, 8:30. I would've been finished by now, but we just received the first of this season's Galaxy hops, from Australia. They were...there was just so much sticky stuff. Usually when you get to cleaning something out, you just give it a rinse and scrub to get it clean. These took me an extra half hour at least just, just to scrub all the crud off. It was so sticky–which I'm hoping is good for this beer. It's just that now my day is kinda long, But, ya know how it goes.

And I had been drinking beer all my life, and it suddenly all made perfect sense. But it also made no sense to me.
— Evin O'Riordan, Founder, The Kernel

Can you talk a little bit about the original inspiration that led you to opening The Kernel Brewery. This was back in 2009–you were a little ahead of the times for the craft beer boom then, especially in London.

That's why. There you go. In a nutshell: there wasn't anything else. That's not entirely true. The 10 years before I started this, I worked selling cheese. I worked for a company called Neil's Yard Dairy–they have a shop just up the road here in Borough Market. And in 2007, they sent me over to New York for a couple months, to help one of their customers over there open a cheese shop–a Whole Foods. They were opening a shop in Houston-Bowery, in Lower Manhattan. They had a big cheese room there that they didn't really know how to use. So, I went over to help. I would be working there with all the staff they'd hired to open this store, and I was able to tell them about all these different cheeses, "Ok this is the name of the farmer, the name of the cheesemaker, this is the number of cows or goats or sheep they have, this is the type of pasture–and what the recipe was they were using and why...if it was for an English tradition or for a more modern cheese..."

Wow, so you were really educating them.

Yea, yea, yea. And then the guys would take me out for a beer after. There was this beer bar like two blocks away. 

Do you remember what it was called?

d.b.a.? It was on 1st Avenue. A gentleman that worked there was one of the guys that was also working in this cheese shop. After working at the cheese shop, he then worked at a few bottle shops in New York. And now he's since moved over here. He's an American who moved here a little after we opened. And I remember vividly, he would tell the story behind each beer in the same way that I would describe the cheeses. He would relate to it in the same way. And I had been drinking beer all my life, and it suddenly all made perfect sense. But it also made no sense to me.

There's a tradition here in Ireland and England where people drink a lot of beer. But they don't ask many questions about it. You know, if you grow up in Ireland: you drink Guinness. 

It's interesting, because I think in the US, we definitely understand that there is a beer culture in the UK, but maybe we're a little blind to the thought that it was less exploratory. 

Well, when you grow up in that single tradition, sometimes it's just all you know. And that's changed a lot now, recently. You still see it a lot these days in places like Germany, because their tradition is so strong. There's a certain amount of resistance. And, Reinheitsgebot–it's 500 years old. There's quite a lot of people talking about how important that is to German tradition. And then you have other people saying, "That's a load of shit. I wanna throw some fucking damsons in my beer." Like me.

And that's why the American scene is quite different, it's been sort of an empty slate. There's German and Belgian and English influences all being thrown together without the constraints of tradition.

Was there a beer from this bar, d.b.a., that you recall really piquing your interest?

I don't remember if it was a particular beer. I think it took me a while to just get my head around it. I was fed a lot of information and I was tasting things I'd never tasted before. Well, there was this one beer. It was made for a restaurant there, a BBQ joint, Fette Sau–across the street from the beer bar, Spuyten Duyvil, in Williamsburg. They had one house beer made for them, and it was just a pale ale. Just a pale ale–it was sublime.

So you're in New York, and you were there for cheese. Your passion for fermentation was starting to shift gears then.

Yea. You know, first of all you look around and you compare. Everything else is happening. Take coffee for example. When I moved to London in '99, there was like one coffee roaster making really great coffee. And they still do. But coffee roasting was doing the same thing beer is now, just a bit ahead of it. It used to be very hard to find good coffee, and now you can be as fussy as you'd like and still find what you want very close by.

Did something click around that, a shift in curiosity?

So, I'd seen in New York a lot of similarities. There were a lot of people paying attention to what they ate, and what they drank–with wine, cocktails, and with beer. So I noticed a lot that was happening with beer over there. But not happening at all over here, in London.

I mean, it probably was happening, just not in my world. So then I went out looking for that world, and still couldn't quite find it. There's a very strong English tradition in certain places. 

A lot of traditional drinkers.

There's a lot of lagering tradition, which is controlled by a few big companies. Or you have a Real Ale tradition, which is...

'Interesting.'

Haha, no no. Well, what infuriated me really was, there were a couple of good pubs around that might have like 10 different handles on. And some of them will look after the beer well. Cask beer when it's wrong, is just...awful. So a pub might have 10 or 12 pulls on, and on the surface that might look really good. And then you realize it's 10 versions of the same beer. They're all 3.8%, brown...

...You have other people saying, “That’s a load of shit. I wanna throw some fucking damsons in my beer.” Like me.

Same beer, made by a bunch of different brewers.

Yea, and every once in a while you might get something else on. There might be something hoppy or pale, or a porter. The problem is, you'd find that interesting beer, and go back for another one only to have them tell you that beer'd finished. Then they put something else on, and it's back to another 4.2% ale. So if you came in and you like that sort of beer–doesn't matter! It's all fine. But there was nobody selecting the good over the different.

And there now are also those types of pubs that focus on variety, over quality.

We have plenty of those places in the States, and in Chicago. You can go into some smaller breweries, and each visit it's a whole new menu. 

Every time we brew a pale ale here, we change the hops. So, if you liked that Mosaic El Dorado Pale Ale... Well, we'll brew another pale ale next week.

And your beers are quickly recognizable, by their labels. They're all just simple, highlighting the hop or the style. No names, really. That's become a sort of iconic look, in London craft beer. Who came up with that system?

That was my partner who'd done that originally. She came up with the design. It was all part of our collective ethos. I can show you one of the very first bottles, a homebrew actually, hah, from a very long time ago. It's gone past the point where it should even be opened.

Wow, it's got Cantillon-level dust on it.

Haha, yea. We've got some Cantillon here on the shelf, so maybe it came from there. No, I had a buddy who told me he found one of my original beer sin his cupboard. I'm thinking, "That's the last time I give you any beer. You sat on it for 8 years..."

Wow, so yea you can see that it hasn't changed much, visually, since the beginning. Just brown Kraft paper and simple type.

And as you know, sometimes it takes quite a lot of work, actually, to make something that looks so simple. 

You've built out a really flexible labeling system, for all the beers.

Originally we would stamp all of them, too, for each different beer. It was flexible, and it was cheap. But when they used to be all lined up here in the shop front [for the Bermondsey Beer Mile Saturdays], it was really quite hypnotic. You'd find people would have to get down in there and differentiate from bottle to bottle what was what.

So, after you came back from New York in 2009, you thought, "Alright, I need a brewery." Did you know much about beer, as far as brewing technique? Did you have someone to consult?

I homebrewed. And maybe a year later, the first London homebrew club started, so I was one of the first members there. And it's still going really strong. I was brewing in my garden, and I just kept upgrading my kit. Some of those pieces of equipment are still in use in various places around here even. 

How about finding hops back then?

At the time you could get...Citra, Centennial... That was while I was homebrewing. As soon as I started the brewery there were suddenly all these different hops. That's partly why we change hops all the time. Because when I started there were like 25 hops I'd never heard of before. So, what do you do? You make a beer with them. "Pale ale–first one this hop. Oh, Simcoe? Never tried that, let's try that. Ok, that was good, we'll keep that... And so on."

And each year, the varieties are slightly different. The last year we might've loved Centennial, and this year it's slightly different. That's what I was saying with how sticky the Galaxy was this year. I'd never seen it like that.

I'd read somewhere that you're often inspired by old world brewing recipes. That of course isn't true for many of your beers–considering all of the pale ales with Mosaic, El Dorado hops... 

Right, not all of these beers. That's mostly for the porters and stouts. The recipes are inspirational. First of all, you can't be accurate, because you don;t know what they tasted like hundreds of years ago. Their malt would've tasted very different. Their equipment would've been different, their yeast would've been different... Nobody knows what it would've tasted like for sure. I know there are a few historical recreations of beers, which are always fascinating. But unless they're really delicious, there's no point. There's an academic point, but we don't make beer for academic reasons. We make beer because it's delicious.

Where do you come across some of these historic beer recipes?

There's two members of a homebrew club I was a part of, that started in the mid-1980s. And they spent a lot of time in old archives, and they had a pamphlet called "Old British Beer and How to Make Them." At this point in time in England, they were still mostly drinking just that 4.2% brown ale. So these two wanted to find other, older stuff. We have a stout, 1864. But we've used other recipes, too, from other beer historians. And a lot of these old recipes are quite difficult to understand–with all the notes, and shorthand. YOu look at them and think, "But what do they mean?"

With a lot of American styles being popular in the UK, is that something that you keep a close eye on? Do you pay attention to trends?

A lot of that, comes along I think, from just talking to people. And actually, most of us here are fairly insular so we're mostly just paying attention to what we're doing here. But, any time we go out, or we're talking to friends, or at a festival–there are lots of enthusiastic people who come up to you and say, "You'll like this, try it!" Or a brewer will come along and say, "I made this, what do you think?" But there's just so much going on now, you can't keep abreast of everything.

Any interesting collaborations?

We brewed with a Chicago brewery actually, Off Color. They sent over some of their house yeast cultures to use. Yea, John Laffler.

Oh wow, small world.

Yea, they are making some brilliant beers. And he is just...he's just himself. He doesn't seem to give a fuck about anybody else, but he's very nice. 

Was this your first collaboration with a US brewery?

No, we'd also done a collaboration with Jester King a few years ago. They're lovely.

If you don't have time to head to the pub, what are you drinking at home?

Cantillon. La Fontaine.

I see you've got quite the collection of their stuff on the shelf here. Do you get down to Brussels a lot?

Not that often actually. It'll be that someone from the brewery comes by with some and it adds up. There's quite a few American beers in there–Jester King, Crooked Stave... This is old stuff that we'll keep. We probably drink more pale and hoppy beers around here, but those tend to go in the fridge and get drunk immediately. You don't keep beers like that for very long.

What does the London craft beer scene look like going forward?

Oh, I don't know. I can barely see it now. It's just, I don't have the time–or I should say I don't have the drinking time. We enjoy our own beers, that's why we're making them. And I've got a young child. So, after this, I go home. I don't get out to the pub very much. I don't even have time to taste what other breweries are brewing, enough.

 

–THR–

 

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Photography by Jack Muldowney.

Interview by Jack Muldowney & Paul King, collaborator for The Hop Review. Paul is a beer fanatic born and raised in London, England. This is his third contribution for THR–he had also provided insight for the previous piece, "London's Craft Boom Apparent on the Bermondsey Beer Mile" & "Detour: London – Howling Hops."