The world of brewing is in something of a renaissance period. ‘Craft brewing’ is an apt description as the rise of skilled beer-makers continues. Marc Sobbohi visits Kernel Brewery in Bermondsey where the ethos strongly favours quality, not quantity.
Consumers are more cautious in tough economic times. Subsequently the care they take in purchasing a product requires a similarly caring process in its creation.
This is much to the advantage of brewers like Evin O’Riordain, founder of Kernel. Careful, considerate and a preference for substance. He can be considered a man of the craft brewing renaissance and the results speak for the process, if demand for Kernel beers is the measure.
O’Riordain started with hardly any knowledge of brewing, or even beers. His eyes were opened to the world of craft brewing when helping set up a British cheese shop in New York on behalf of former employer Neal’s Yard Dairy.
The Irishman in New York shared his extensive knowledge of cheese and in return was shown the Big Apple’s craft brewing scene. Inspired, he started home brewing and founded Kernel in 2009. And the name… it’s as uncomplicated as a barley kernel.
British Guild of Beer Writers ‘Brewer of the Year’ 2011, vaunted across social media, wanted across both the continent and the Pacific, Kernel could easily export far greater volumes than they currently do.
However this would remove the quality control at the heart of the Bermondsey microbrewery.
O’Riordain isn’t necessarily concerned with reputation, his primary worry is how the product tastes when it reaches the lips of the consumer.
This approach may seem baffling to companies constantly seeking demand and looking for the next market to expand into, but the aim at Kernel is as simple as the label that adorns the bottle.
“We want people to drink better beer than they are,” says O’Riordain.
The problem with mass produced beer is that the taste becomes indifferent in order to sell to a wider market, claims the Irish-born brewer.
He also highlights the difference in quality when a beer has to travel across continents, believing most beer needs to be drunk “young and fresh” to realise its full potential.
As for coping with the demand, the Kernel man says the level of interest is beyond their capacity.
“We’ve been very lucky I suppose, though I like to think it’s more than luck sometimes, as our beers have always been well received.
“The demand for them is way higher than anything we can produce, it’s far beyond our capacity.”
O’Riordain believes the consumer experience should be enjoyable right through the supply chain. He looks to work with purchasers who appreciate the product.
“A lot of what I do is actually trying to control the demand, to make sure we pick the right people to work with, the right bars where I would want to go drink and that hopefully charge the right prices.”
I’m taken through the brewing process by Kernel employee, Chun Lee.
The first step is putting barley grains through a hopper into the mash tun where the grain is mixed with hot water to extract sugar. Different malts are added depending on the type of beer.
This leaves a hot sugary liquid which is sent to a tank called the kettle, where the liquid is left to boil at 100°C for an hour, during which hops are added to flavor the beer.
The mixture is then cooled down to around 19°C and transferred through a pipe to the fermentation tank. Yeast is added and feeds off the extracted sugar to create alcohol. Around a week later beer is formed.
The liquid is then cooled to 7°C allowing sediment to settle at the bottom of the tank which is then released out the bottom.
Pressure is added to beer via ‘bottle conditioning’ where more sugar is added to feed the yeast, leaving pressure to build in the tank and carbonise the liquid.
This process involves no filtration or pasteurisation as Kernel prefer the process to be as natural as possible.
One brew takes a day to make, with an average of 4 per week. Each batch produces approximately 3,400 litres of beer, meaning Kernel produce approximately 55,000 litres a month.
A local pint
Around 90% of what Kernel sell is in London and the decision to keep matters close to home is a conscious one.
The founder believes having a larger number of smaller breweries is better than having a couple of big ones. An abundance of local suppliers offers variety
The reality matches O’Riordain’s ideal with around 50 breweries in London and over 1,000 across the country.
Similar to local organic produce, consumers are catching up with local beers and the value of community support, alongside quality of produce.
“You see quite directly the interest people start to take in where their food comes from. The growth of farmer’s markets, people being able to buy really good quality food that’s often local, that they can buy directly from the person who grows it,” says O’Riordain.
“In London you see how much more important it is for people, because in a city you lose that.
“If we want to be the local brewery to anyone who lives in London then that’s quite a lot of people, even if only a handful buy your beer.”
O’Riordain says he’s can’t be sure of the effect the economic downturn has had on the industry as he started in 2009, however he noted alcoholic products tend not to do so badly in tough times.
Buying locally means the money spent goes back into the area, helping local products survive.
“If you buy from local suppliers it helps the local economy, unlike giving money to somebody who has to supply shareholders. That’s why local products survive a lot better.”
Sense of ownership
Initially I ask Lee what his role at Kernel is, he looks at me and considers before answering, “I work here”.
The hierarchy at Kernel is akin to flat management with staff involved in all areas of production and very little distance from top to bottom.
It’s difficult to define the role of Waterford man O’Riordain, as even he struggles to put a label on his role in the company.
What he is sure of are the benefits from having a flat organisation, though he does doubt its effectiveness on a larger scale.
“It means everyone has a greater sense of ownership. They have enough freedom to be able to make certain decisions themselves. They’ll be much more invested, care much more and make better beer.
“It works on our scale but I don’t think it will work if we were too much bigger, it’s one of the main reasons I don’t think we’ll get too much bigger.”
Kernel has the luxury of expansion, if they see fit, but the point of the renaissance isn’t maximising profit, for craft brewers it’s all about the quality of the product.
There’s something refreshingly artistic about that.