The Kernel Brewery has frequently been lauded for its championing of old British brewing styles, new twists on those themes and often innovative collaborations with other brewers and, on occasion, other craft produce makers. It’s label design and presentation has also helped draw attention to what is primarily a bottled beer producer.
These characteristics somehow manage both to attract and to repel old school beer aficionados at the same time. For those of us more interested in the quality of the end product rather than the adherence to arcane standards there’s a lot to admire about Kernel, not least its commitment to old methods such as proper bottle conditioning with a huge slug of very loose yeast sediment, its lack of fear in cloudiness (Kernel beers can be very hard to pour clear), and in its belief that its beers can improve steadily with age, with Belgian-style 10 year-plus best before dates typically the order of the day.
But it’s Kernel’s ongoing exploration of old recipes and new variations for 19th century British beer styles – especially IPAs, strong porters and imperial stouts – that perhaps fosters the greatest interest.
Occasional pilgrimages to this shrine of beer on its “open Saturdays” are the best way to gain a sense of the breadth Kernel’s vision. Each week, the brewery offers a changing array of its brews to the public directly from the back of the brewery, under the two mile-long viaduct of the former London and Greenwich Railway on the way to London Bridge station.
Compared with many other new wave expressions of classic British beer styles, especially American ones, Kernel’s interpretations typically remain true to the British origins of the styles in question. The beers benefit hugely from their heavy yeast sediment to remove any cloying tendencies, create huge rocky heads and to provide the integration and mouthfeel that strong brews require. This yeastiness seems to result in some reviewers marking down Kernel’s products – no doubt out of blank-faced incomprehension – but to my mind they serve to lift the brewery’s products to the next level.
Certainly some of Kernel’s brews are among the best new interpretations of these old styles I’ve come across for some time. The many variants produced by the brewery also make for interesting comparative tasting sessions. That was definitely the case for the five strong stouts and porters I’d gathered across two or three Saturday visits last year to pick up bottles, most of which had enjoyed the best part of a year conditioning in the bottle before being uncapped.
In ascending order of alcoholic strength, the beers sampled were as follows:
1) Export India Porter (5.7%) – Black, with a creamy, cookie-dough head, the beer stands out for its very heavy hopping for its strength (hence the India in the name, perhaps?) along with good coffee and dark chocolate flavours. Fairly light body and flinty edge make for an excellent porter. Very good.
2) Export Stout London 1890 (7.7%) – Dense and powerful flavour for its strength, with coffee, dark chocolate and burnt rubber supported by good hopping. There’s also something slightly acid in there, deriving either from the malt or, perhaps, yeast, that serves to keep the body on the light side of medium. A nod to real old Victorian porters perhaps?
3) Small Imperial Stout (9%) – Powerful, roasted, burnt, tarry-yet-creamy palate under a huge dark brown head, but perhaps a tad too familiar a flavour profile to excite me. That’s not a criticism, only an admission that I’ll almost inevitably be drawn to something a little different in comparative tastings.
4) Imperial Brown Stout London 1856 (10.1%) – Big brown head and leathery, slightly smoky aroma provides the way in to a fascinating brew that offers sweet notes of Pontefract cake and caramel alongside a deep but subtle roastiness. Neither burnt nor especially bitter, this beer offers a much older interpretation of stout before dryness and burnt flavours dominated.
5) Imperial Stout (12.5%) – Essentially a bigger version of the Small Imperial Stout with much the same flavour profile only bigger, oilier and with a greater perception and whiff of alcohol, unsurprisingly.
Next time, if I get around to it, Kernel’s IPA variations will go under the tongue test…