Bermondsey in the south London borough of Southwark isn't high on the list of the must-see tourist destinations in the British capital. But Beermondsey? Beermondsey is a whole different kettle of hops.
Bermondsey district proper sits in a Bermuda Triangle of tourism south-east of the Thames; not really close enough to benefit from the flow-on effects of trendy Borough Market and just too far south of Tower Bridge to be worth the walk – it was the place you drove through to get to Greenwich.
But no longer. Now there is the Bermondsey Beer Mile (or Beermondsey as I like to call it), an ad hoc collection of craft breweries that have started up in the neglected brick railway arches that carry trains to and from London Bridge Station.
It all started with the opening of The Kernel Brewery in 2009 but that has since increased to more than half-a-dozen independent breweries and funky bottle shops.
The breweries along the Beer Mile (a mile-and-a-half these days but the name stuck) are only open as tap rooms on Saturday mornings from 11am and have become a popular weekend activity.
There are now a few "official" tours of the Beer Mile but it's just as easily done solo. Or at least with a couple of old mates.
Ron, Barry and I start our tour at Fourpure Brewing on the Bermondsey Trading Estate just off Rotherhithe New Road. This is the only brewery on the mile not located under a railway arch. It looks like an ordinary factory but inside it is all high ceilings and beer cans stacked on wooden pallets. There is a German frankfurter stall called Oh My Dog which we decide, stupidly in hindsight, to ignore. After all, it's 11am; far too early for food but, oddly, not too early for an oatmeal stout and a couple of excellent IPAs. The uninitiated might want to try the flight of six beers (a third of a pint* each) for £12 ($21).
Our next destination is the EeBria Taproom at 15 Almond Road. This section takes us past the "No Urinating in this Area" sign, out of the industrial estate, under several dripping railway arches and past a trio of sad-looking Portaloos to a curved sweep of Victorian railway arches. EeBria Taproom isn't a brewery – it simply buys the stuff in from more than 100 small breweries all over Britain – but there are always beers on tap, plus free air hockey and shuffleboard. An Anti-Venom IPA by Northumberland-based Anarchy Brew Company goes down rather well.
Partizan Brewing at 8 Almond Road is one of the smaller breweries, squeezed into a long narrow arch that is pretty busy. Partizan pushes the boat out with styles that have a touch of the Willy Wonka about them: raspberry and lemon saison, lemongrass saison and a brandy porter at a sturdy 8 per cent ABV. We never do find out why there's a life-size Mariah Carey cardboard cutout on the balcony over the tap floor.
Sadly The Kernel Brewery (Arch 11, Dockley Road Industrial Estate) no longer serves beer to drink at the brewery. It's still open (9am-2pm) but only for take-home sales, so we head on through more arches, past the site of Spa Terminus, London's first (1836) railway terminus and on to Brew By Numbers (79 Enid Street).
BBNo is a medium-sized space crammed with garden bench-style seating inside and pallets to sit on outside. Here since 2013, it's big on saisons and porters. We try the nut brown ale and something else which I think is a red ale by Equinox. They also sell biltong and scotch eggs but by this time food seems redundant.
The Bottle Shop at 128 Druid Street stocks hundreds of bottled beers from around the world but also has 10 or so beers on tap. We sit downstairs to admire the shelves of totally bizarre beers (whisky-barrel-aged Double Scotch Ale anyone?) Why the labels are all a little blurred is beyond me; it seems an egregious oversight. Upstairs there are more taps – including the delightfully named Pirate Noir, a stout aged in Jamaican rum barrels and which comes in at a hearty 12 per cent ABV. I have lost my drinking companions.
A few doors away, at Anspach & Hobday/Bullfinch Brewery (118 Druid Street) I find them again. At least I think it's them but we're all drinking beer so who cares? I choose three beers in a tasting paddle, two of which are excellent (the Double IPA and the Stout Porter) but, seriously, who thought a raspberry and basil wheat beer was a good idea? Lots of good takeaway boxes. And a bathroom, thank God.
Last but not least is the Southwark Brewing Company (46 Druid Street) which has benches, comfortably knackered sofas, a brewery in the back and great hand-pulled cask ales such as the traditional Bermondsey Best bitter. It's a great spot to finish though I find I'm alone on one of the aforesaid sofas, also comfortably knackered. Shoulda gone that scotch egg, I reckon. And, mon dieu, there is a Potters' Field Porter in front of me and it is, I ascertain after a shlurp or three, excellent. How it got there is anybody's guess.
*Be aware that many of the beers on offer are strong in alcohol and it's best to drink the smaller third pints. And eat something. And if you bump into Barry or Ron tell 'em their wives are looking for 'em.
If you're starting at the Fourpure Brewery end of the Beer Mile, the nearest station is Surrey Quays on the East London Line. From there it's a 10-minute walk alongside Southwark Park. The Southwark Brewing Company is a 12-minute walk from London Bridge Station.
If you can't make it on your own, London Brewery Tours run Saturday morning tours of the Beer Mile. The £40 cost includes all tastings, talks by the brewers, a certificate and take-home bottle at the end of the tour (see londonbrewerytour.com). If you're happy to tour on your own, search for the Bermondsey Beer Mile map at Google Maps.
Keith Austin paid his own way along the Bermondsey Beer Mile.