One of the many things on my beer-drinking to-do list is to sample everything that London brewers have to offer, so when I find myself in Borough Market one Saturday I take the opportunity to head down the road to The Kernel Brewery. Tucked away under the railway arches not far from London Bridge station, this tiny brewery produces an astoundingly wide range of exciting brews (as you can see from the struggle I had fitting them all into the picture).
The beers on offer are constantly changing; I buy one of everything they had and stagger back to the tube with a large box of beer. When I get home, I have to concede that even though most of the bottles are small 330ml ones, there's no way I can try everything in a single session, which is why this particular Tour-At-Home is split across two evenings.
Starting at the lighter end of the range, we have Pale Ale Centennial, at 5.1%. Given the label of a pale ale, a surprisingly rich amber colour; little or no head but with some fine rising bubbles in the glass. Orange blossom nose. Flat but not watery in the mouth; big strong hops floral and green - it’s rather like eating the raw hops, with a strong bitter tail. No real malt hints; very very drinkable though.
Next up, the wonderfully labelled White Ale ?, 4.7%. At first I assume the question mark in the name suggests that Kernel found a box of unlabelled bottles and guessed it was a white ale but a quick question via twitter results in their first response that it's a question to the drinker and their second one, that it tries to express how the beer escaped their control! It’s a pale gold in colour, and was very clear until I managed to catch a small amount of sediment in it. It’s a wheat beer, so a little murkiness is no bad thing! Another beer with little or no head, but filled with very fine rising bubbles. Another green fruity smell, sweeter than the Pale Ale Centennial. Tastes lighter, with much less in the way of green hops although still good lingering bitterness. The sweetness is still there, although subtle, and there’s an almost lemony undertone. Tasty, although slightly confusing; it’s half way between a traditional wheat beer and a pale ale. I have to admit that, having drunk it, the question mark sort of makes sense!
Moving to the darker side of life, A London Porter is next, at 5.5% (although I have another bottle in the cupboard labelled at 5.2%). Black, with the slim head and fine bubbles that seem to be characteristic of Kernel. Burnt sugar and treacle nose, but the flavour doesn’t have the sweetness you might expect. The treacle taste is there, but it’s the sharp bitterness of burnt sugar rather than the sweetness. A little watery, considering, and there’s an almost chemical smell to it.
On, then, to the Export Stout London 1890, a much stronger beer at 7.8%. It pours thickly, with a deep dark brown colour and even a dark but slender head. A smell almost of molasses and dark fruits. A wonderfully thick and syrupy feel in the mouth, sweet and fruity and bitter with a liquorice tang, and you can really taste the strength of the beer. A real heavy hitting beer this, comfortably my favourite so far - but after such a big beer, I need to resume this test tomorrow!
The following day starts on the IPA mountain. Firstly, India Pale Ale Citra, at 6.2%. Golden syrup colour with another slim but lingering head and fine bubbles; the smell is overpoweringly floral, of hops and sweetness and honeysuckle. In the mouth a wonderful frothiness from the bubbles, not at all watery; sweet with a distinct malt edge to it and a green, leafy hoppiness without being heavily bitter - and it certainly doesn’t taste anything close to 6.2%. There’s some soft of light fruity edge to it and every mouthful you get that powerful wave of fresh, floral aroma hitting you. It’s light and fresh and frankly delicious.
I’m almost nervous to move on, as the Citra will be hard to measure up to; still, next is the India Pale Ale SCANS, stronger at 7.7% and one of the more widely raved-about Kernel offerings. It looks very similar to the Citra in the glass, and that similarity is there on the nose too; however, there’s a darker edge to the smell, and the sweetness isn’t as pronounced - if Citra is springtime, SCANS is summer. It’s a different beer to taste too; the frothiness is there, the malt is deeper, darker and while the hops are still there by the bucket it’s less green and leafy, and more berries and honey while retaining that hefty but not overpowering bitter kick at the end. The strength is much more obvious but it’s still way more drinkable by the pint than a 7.7% beer should be. Easily the equal of the Citra; possibly more so.
Pale Ale South is next, at 5.6%. This is the first of two 500ml bottles, which can only be a good thing! Another golden ale with a fine but lingering head; on the nose again there’s buckets of fresh, sweet, honey hops. It’s not quite as “in your face” as the last two, but it’s still green and floral and tempting in the extreme. In the mouth it has that fantastic body, but the hop bitterness seems more pronounced. It’s nice, but it’s not quite as drinkable as the previous two.
The second 500ml bottle is the Baltic Porter at 7.3%. Dark and rich looking, with a more substantial head on it, it certainly looks the part. It smells it too, with lots of coffee and an undercurrent of treacle. Those coffee notes carry over into the taste, and manages to be sweet without getting syrupy. Once again it hides its strength well; Kernel beers are turning out to be dangerous things! It’s a delicious porter, which is just on the right side of being too dark for me, and it grows on you mouth after mouth. Great stuff.
The last bottle I have is back to the 330ml format, and is the powerful sounding Imperial Stout at an alarming 12.5%. It’s even blacker than the Porter, with a fleeting brown head; on the nose we have treacle, molasses and burnt black sugar aplenty. In the mouth - oh my goodness, it’s like they’ve taken some black treacle and blended it roughly 50/50 with vodka. It is strong enough to be almost entirely unbeer-like, and for the first time it’s a Kernel beer that wears it’s strength proudly on it’s sleeve. It’s big, scary and frankly amazing; I’m deeply grateful that there’s only 330ml of it because I’m currently downstairs and if I had a full half litre, I’m not sure I’d make it upstairs to bed tonight. It’s delicious and fantastic and a perfect special occasion beer; I need to get some more ordered!
After all that positive feedback, I have to say something about sediment. I'm a big believer in the importance of bottle conditioning beer, and I cheerfully accept some sludge in the bottom of the bottle. However, I've found more sediment in these bottles than I have encountered from any other brewery; as they're relatively small (for real ale) 330ml bottles, I've been losing an appreciable proportion of each beer - often as much as a full centimetre of beer has to stay in the bottle in order to avoid pouring lots of sediment into the glass.
Overall, this is a spectacular range with some genuinely great beers. Kernel's IPAs are outstanding, and the Imperial Stout is something truly special. Although there were a couple of bottles which didn't thrill me, I have to say that there are two or three in this batch which have jumped right to the top of my "favourite beers" list. Of course, the downside to Kernel's experimental nature is that not all of those favourites will necessarily appear again, but the Citra, at least, still seems widely available.
Buying direct from the brewery, I paid £26 for a dozen bottles (the Imperial Stout, entirely reasonably, was extra!).
Their website lists a number of suppliers, both in London and outside, as well as online outlets.