Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Here at the end of all things


The Bermondsey Beer Mile (BBM) means different things to different people. For serious beer geeks it was a precious little haven which some of them feel is now being ruined by what they refer to as 'hipsters' (in reality, if it is being ruined by anyone or anything (and I am not saying it is) it is its own popularity with more mainstream beer drinkers - far from the oft quoted definition of a 'hipster', in fact). 

For non-beer geeks, that is to say people who merely like beer rather than being obsessed by it, it is somewhere to go to try new beers and maybe visit the various foodie delights of the area. We could refer to this group as 'the Time Out crowd' although that might be a little unfair to some of them. but this group was certainly courted by those who looked to gain from promoting the BBM as "A Thing". 
The calm before the storm: 8.45am August 29th 2015

Following hot on the heels of the non-beer geeks was a third group of punters wanting to 'do the mile' as a kind of pub crawl, often in large groups (sometimes in costume for stag and hen parties), often seemingly drunk when they got there.  Breweries, beer styles even, didn't seem to mean anything to these people. It's not that they didn't know anything about the beers they were drinking: it's that they didn't care to learn.

And so the BBM quickly transitioned from a place where you could casually wander around and visit a few different breweries to try their beers in a relaxed environment into a destination for alcohol consumption, with 30 minute queues to buy a drink, venues so full they are forced to operate a one in/one out system, and 'bouncers' stood outside on crowd control duty trying to make sure the local residents don't get too upset with the breweries. 

When Kernel changed their opening hours - to close at 2pm instead of 4pm there were complaints about how this would make it more difficult for people to do the BBM. People said how annoying it was that Kernel were in the middle of the 'mile' so you shouldn’t really have to start there (because obviously you wanted to go from one end to the other) but you were being forced to if you wanted to fit everything in. This seemed to really bother some people (complaints are not hard to find - but there are some examples here). Personally I thought: good for Kernel, why shouldn't their staff be able to have a weekend too? I've seen complaints about the earlier closing time where it was cited as the reason that the BBM is so crowded and manic and if only Kernel would stay open until 5 or 6pm everything would be fine because then everyone could do 'the mile' exactly how they wanted to and nobody would need to rush anywhere.  

So of course when Kernel announced that they had decided to stop opening their tap room completely people got even more annoyed about it. Instead of being grateful that for a few years they had been able to drink fresh Kernel beers right where they were brewed, people immediately started complaining about how the tap room closing will affect their ability to complete a pub crawl. People had been moaning about the queues, the overcrowding, and the 'lack of ambiance' for ages. The customers weren't happy with what they were being offered by Kernel. And the brewery weren't happy with what they were able to offer their customers. It was a lose-lose situation. It makes logical sense to say enough is enough and call it a day.


But instead of people thinking, 'Let’s wait and see what Kernel are going offer us in the future', they criticise them for not expanding their business to 'meet the demand', i.e. the demand being people who want to drink at their tap room on a Saturday afternoon (even though they find the experience unsatisfactory and complain about it afterwards).

What I find especially unfair is the presumption that Kernel are doing something unsound from a business point of view. As if a brewery’s key measure of success is their brewery tap rather than the beers they brew. Some even fear the impact that the closure of the Kernel tap room could have on other breweries in the area and suggest it  "could spell the end of BBM".



At this point we don't even know what Kernel are planning to do next in terms of serving their beer directly to the public. So how can we know that it won’t be even better than what anyone else is offering from a brewery in Bermondsey right now? And it can only be better than what they were able to offer in their current circumstances. Personally I would love to see something along the lines of a Friends of Ham or Six Degrees North style establishment with lots of meat, cheese, and other foods that pair well with beer, where the vibe is closer to ‘eating food and tasting beer’ than ‘pub crawl’. 

If you look north to the Magic Rock Tap you can see the obvious advantages of having a dedicated taproom, which is situated in a facility specifically designed for that purpose. It's a brewery tap which is managed like a bar rather than just an afterthought which evolved as an extension of the brewery and was run by brewery staff. I've heard nothing but praise for it since it opened a couple of months ago. But this is the opposite scenario to what Kernel were dealing with. This makes me wonder how other breweries (especially outside of the UK) have handled being too popular or having a tap room which is 'too busy'?

The general response to the announcement that the Kernel tap room was closing is indicative of the current atmosphere of entitlement where beer drinkers, in the UK but most especially in London, are so spoiled for choice (of breweries, beer styles, pubs, bars, etc.,) that their first instinct is to complain. Even when offered an explanation that makes perfect logical sense... they still complain. There really is no pleasing some people.

The first Saturday after the taproom closed we dropped in to Kernel to buy a few bottles on our way to a tap takeover at The Bottle Shop. There was a prominently displayed notice which read: 'NO DRINKING ON THE ESTATE' and while we were paying for our bottles I spotted a board explaining why their bottle conditioned beers are best consumed from a glass not a bottle. So guess what we saw as soon as we walked out of the brewery? That's right, a woman swigging from an open bottle of Kernel beer a few feet from the entrance. For me this sums up the lack of respect that people wanting to 'do the mile' show for Kernel, their product and their ethos - treating the brewery as a destination for beer consumption even when explicitly asked not to drink that product on the estate. From their The Kernel website:

"The brewery springs from the need to have more good beer. Beer deserving of a certain attention. Beer that forces you to confront and consider what you are drinking."

I can't really blame them for closing their tap room when people behave like that. Can you?

[Post by Emma]

18 comments:

Peter McKerry said...

I agree with every fucking word.

Melissa Cole - sommALEier & beer writer said...

Spot on

tabamatu said...

I agree with a lot of this.

Beer is for everyone but not everyone can fit into a small railway arch and I don't think the breweries in Bermondsey really wanted to get into the business of having to employ bouncers for crowd 'control' and installing port-a-loos to discourage people from pissing in the street (something I've witnessed a few times, sadly). At that stage it's gone beyond being a relaxed atmosphere for those both sides of the bar.

I would imaging shifting half your stock around on a Friday night to make space for folk is a real pain but perhaps that's offset by the benefit of enabling people to visit and taste your beers at the source and to engage with drinkers directly. I asked one of the smaller breweries recently about income - i.e. what percentage of total revenue Saturday trade constituted. The number was surprisingly small to me. If I was in that position, the moment it started to require special measures to stay open and more importantly if I'd started to annoy neighbouring businesses and residents, I think I'd knock it on the head too and shift attentions towards things like tasting events and 'meet the brewer' type events in spaces that are set up for the volume of people attending.

Justin Mason said...

An excellent piece of writing that sums up the situation perfectly.
We are so spoilt for choice now that it's almost as if we demand that breweries are open to the public rather than being grateful for what we have. It doesn't take a huge mind-shift to remember how things were five or six years ago when the only way into a brewery was a brewery tour or via the gift shop.
We need to be thankful for what we have and what we have had and give breweries time to grow and breathe. If we do, then the future promises to be even more exciting.

Daniel Copeman said...

Yep, all correct.

A) It's their perogative they dont owe you a beer crawl

B) They take their beer seriously and their beer is better for it.

Fair play to them for trying to maintain the standards they have worked so hard to achieve rather than just seeing easy money without respect.

Pastey said...

The first thing people should understand is that breweries aren’t pubs. Setting up a brewery means you have to account for certain things with layout, facilities etc. And the room you have is arranged around that. When you set up a pub, you do it differently. You need more facilities like toilets and preferably tables and chairs. There’s also the huge difference in the mind set needed to work in both of these places. Working in a bar involves a lot more face-to-face work with the general public, not all of whom you’ll like.

So am I surprised that a brewery’s taproom, added as an after-thought, as a nicety for those that liked the brewery’s beers changed when it turned into something else? Not in the slightest. Do I agree with what they’ve done? Completely.

I don’t think that Kernel set out to run what it turned into, and when their attempts to change it back to what they wanted didn’t work as well as they hoped, I don’t blame them for restricting it even more.

I’m keen to see what they do in the future, I’m not a massive fan of their beers but I completely respect the people behind it, the passion and enthusiasm they have, and I respect their decision to do what they want with their taproom. People can vote with their feet and go elsewhere if they don’t like it. And if they’re really adamant that Kernel have done the wrong thing, well, they can open their own brewery and tap room, and see how it goes for them.

Bacchus said...

Well put. Opening the tap rooms on Saturdays pays these breweries rent so they wouldnt close if they didnt feel they had to. Im sure they'll open a tap room somewhere eventually & it'll be worth the wait.

reverendmedia said...

Wasn't there a video that did the rounds where Raymond Blanc swigs from a Kernel bottle at the end of some cooking demo?

Padraig Gibbons said...

Bang on. Great post guys.

Chris Emma said...

Blogger doesn't allow replied to individual comments (that I am aware of) so I'll just say: thank you all for your comments. :)

Emma

Tandleman said...

It kind of reminds me of the so called Real Ale Trail in Yorkshire/Saddleworth. Started out as simple recommendation to link up easy to reach by rail good beer spots. Gets slowly taken over by can carrying lager louts, stag and hen parties and lots of pissing in gardens etc. Now most pubs won't sell lager to so called ale trailers, but effectively, the thing has lost all cred. No real ale people would bother with it. (You may remember Oz Clarke and James May doing it before it all got out of hand. BBM was going the same way. Latterly I just went to Fourpure and Southwark. Rest just a disaster.

You resisted saying "Ruined by Oiks" but I for one wouldn't have blamed you if you had.

In short I agree with what you and most of your commenters say. It was a good idea overtaken by events.

Chris Emma said...

Tandleman: thanks for your comment. Someone else mentioned the Real Ale Trail to me on Twitter. I guess any potential drinking route which can be seen as a challenge in that way is destined to be derailed eventually.

I didn't say 'ruined by oiks' for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I wasn't really focusing on the BBM itself but on Kernel in particular so I didn't need to get into pulling the BBM to pieces comprehensively. I only wished to describe what I have seen myself there for the purposes of context. Secondly, I don't have anything against pub crawls per se. I've organised plenty myself and I don't look down on them at all. However, they just don't mesh well, as a concept, with the brewery taps in Bermondsey for many reasons. Pub crawls are generally better suited to pubs!

Emma

Matthew Curtis said...

I'm reminded of a situation from last year when I was on Craig Heap's Stag party in Cardiff. It was approaching midnight when 12 grown mean dressed as Hunter S. Thompson's character 'Raoul Duke' from Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas approached the recently opened BrewDog bar.

We were perfectly happy in the Urban Tap House where we had been for the last couple of hours but I fancied a change and led the charge to the Brewdog bar, which at this point had only been open for a few weeks. When the 12 of us, who had this point had been steadily drinking for almost 12 hours straight, arrived at the door we were met by a gruff doorman who turned us away and gestured down the street while uttering the words: "the walkabout might be more your style."

Among our group were four beer writers as well as others who worked in the drinks industry and the entire group were all huge fans of good beer. In fact we'd spent part of the day visiting Tiny Rebel and having a tour. The bouncer wasn't to know that, of course, and as I drunkenly waved my EFP card in front of his face he said that I could go in and the others would have to wait outside. I didn't of course, we went elsewhere but that didn't stop me from drunkenly tweeting at Brewdog Cardiff to register my disgust.

I felt like a bit of an arsehole in the morning for various reasons, not least the crushing tequila hangover. It was all solved amicably with the bars manager over email but in hindsight I realise that the bouncer was just doing his job. The bar was heaving and we were absolutely fucked - he made a call as it is his job to do so and the bar apologised for his Walkabout comment. No damage done.

I feel that the Kernel's decision to close their tap room is as selfish and irresponsible as it was to halve their opening hours. The Bermondsey Beer Mile exists because of their actions. They were the first in, the first to open their tap room and their incredible success has inspired several others to do the same.

As the mile transformed from a beer geek secret to something that graced the pages of Timeout and beyond the Kernel had the opportunity to step up and lead to way in how they would handle this new found success. Their answer was to close early, disrupting the entire mile. This put immense pressure on their nearest competitors/colleagues, especially Brew By Numbers, Bottle Shop and Anspach & Hobday - the latter who are struggling to retain their alcohol license due to complaints from locals. Instead of a steady flow of traffic there was now a sudden influx which the tap rooms could barely deal with and this is what caused the initial complaints from local residents.

Taking it a step further might actually have a positive effect, with 'beer geeks' just not bothering to make the effort now that the jewel of the mile is now closed. However that's not the case, they are still open selling bottles and they will inevitably head here first to grab the latest release. The Kernel have done a terrible job of promoting that they're closed - its only really thanks to twitter/bloggers that a lot of people know about it. No wonder people are turning up for a beer and opening them in the yard.

Matthew Curtis said...

With the rise in beers popularity this was always going to happen and if breweries are going to make a decision to open a tap room then they are going to have to adapt when people inevitably want to visit and drink their beer, as is the purpose of a tap room. Hiring security and portaloos shouldn't be part of the problem, its a solution. Perhaps the biggest problem is that many of these tap rooms only open for one day, causing all of their custom to bottle neck. It's great to finally see some of them opening on Friday nights/Sundays to help spread the crowds out - its an obvious solution.

There are other obvious solutions too - Cloudwater's ingenious policy of selling tickets to two sessions on a Saturday helps maintain the civilised, low key atmosphere they desire - something that would have been perfect for the Kernel's model. Just look at last years Zwanze day - the Kernel managed to create the perfect environment through a booking system, why couldn't they have applied that to every Saturday as Cloudwater have?

Instead, after creating one of the great things of the London Beer Scene, they have shied and hid from something they are almost wholly responsible for - which is irresponsible, both to their customers and their fellow breweries alike. Instead of looking for a real solution, they took the easy way out. Ok - so they're a working brewery and they need the space to brew - well if that's the case why clean up a part of it and call it a tap room in the first place? If you're not properly equipped to have the public on your premises then don't open to them.

Then there is your complaint which I perceive as your thinking that people are 'abusing the mile' by going just to get drunk rather than appreciate beer. For this I refer back to my Cardiff story. You don't know who these people are - they could be huge fans of beer with blogs of their own but you might not know that. Just because they've chosen to dress up and have a good time doesn't give one group of customers the right to say that they're not welcome. These tap rooms are essentially, bars and it's the bars responsibility to turn away customers that they think are being disruptive. This is London, we shouldn't be adverse to seeing security on the door. Brewdog Camden has had bouncers from day one because it knew its area and it took the responsibility to control the crowds that being in Camden brings with it.

Beer is for everyone - we have no right to say who can and can't drink on the Beer Mile - if people are genuinely being disruptive then it is up for the breweries to take action - positive action at that, not hide from the problem but solve it. As Londoners we are so, so spoiled for wonderful beer places now and if the beer mile is too busy then there are plenty of other places we can go and enjoy great beer. We have no right to these breweries, much in the way that regardless of my opinion, the Kernel have no right to their customers and closing their tap room is their decision - despite how irresponsible I think it is after making what the beer mile now is in the first place.

p.s. I think the comment about the person swigging from the bottle was a little uncalled for, considering we often take photos of ourselves swigging from bottles and post them on the internet. I usually do the same when walking from brewery to brewery when I visit Bermondsey.

p.p.s I know we're good pals and this is a little intense - its just my opinion, not an attack on yours!

tabamatu said...

I agree with most points, Matt and reiterate my earlier comment that beer is for everyone (not just those who know styles or this hop from that hop) and I feel Kernel closing was purely down to them struggling to satisfy the needs of everyone who wanted to visit. I don't know for sure, since I've not asked directly but that's what their closing message said to me.

When I found out I personally thought it was a shame, because I liked going along to both the old site and new and I'll miss doing so - but having visited a few times this year and seen a queue out of the door into the yard (a good 10m) I can totally appreciate why they felt it was unsustainable in its current guise. Let's hope a longer term solution is open to them. I'm pretty sure Kernel won't shy away from this demand, even if it takes a while to find something workable. A Kernel bar or dedicated tap room would be great, even if it's separate from their current location (and I'd assume it would have to be).

One point I'd like to counter, however:

"I feel that the Kernel's decision to close their tap room is as selfish and irresponsible as it was to halve their opening hours. The Bermondsey Beer Mile exists because of their actions."

This doesn't sit well with me for two reasons. 1) It was the sum of several parts that led to the BBM becoming 'a thing' and gaining coverage in Time Out and weekend listings in the press etc. as the place to be and 2) Kernel themselves did nothing to promote it as 'a thing' once it became one, as far as I'm aware. They were just going about their business as it grew up around them - much like at their original location at Druid St which was pretty sparse when the brewery first opened - just a few traders who had left Borough. I did hear that the closing early was a compromise with the estate they're on (which was getting overrun at peak) but again, never asked directly so can't state it as a fact.

Matthew Curtis said...

Fair enough regarding your counterpoint - and I wasn't aware that Terminus Spa might have had something to do with their reduced opening hours.

I do think they initiated the snowball effect that is the BBM though. They were the first to open and despite not promoting it or actively trying to grow it they were the first tiny tremor that triggered the eventual avalanche. I guess its an indirect responsibility but it was them that opened first.

Chris Emma said...

Matt, thanks for taking the time to write an extended reply.

I do appreciate your reasoned arguments about the closure of the tap room at Kernel even though I disagree with most of them. I don’t think we will convince each other by arguing this out but I am always interested in the opposing point of view (when it is more than negativity for the sake of being negative).

This post was intended to be solely about the responses I had witnessed to the closure of Kernel’s tap room. It wasn’t meant to be a critical analysis of the BBM. But it was difficult to write about Kernel without framing it within the context of the BBM and so I described what I had seen. This was just a description of what it was like though, not a judgement. So your words about people ‘abusing the mile’ are your words, not mine. Essentially I said it had rapidly gotten busier and more out of hand – because there were lots of people who were going there to get drunk, who didn’t really care what they were drinking (again, this is based on my personal experience of what I have seen and heard first-hand). I never said 'those people shouldn’t be allowed to drink there' or anything of the sort.

But I do agree that the same as it would be in a pub, those people responsible for serving the beer need to take responsibility for how their customers are managed.

Finally, I disagree that my observation about someone drinking from a bottle of Kernel beer right outside the brewery was uncalled for. That person bought that beer under the shadow of a notice asking them not to drink it on the estate. Context is everything.

If they were desperate for Kernel beer, specifically, they could buy some to take away and then drink it somewhere else later on. If they were just gagging for a beer in general, well, they’re in Bermondsey – I daresay they could find another place to buy a beer to drink there and then. Or, they could have just walked a little bit further away from the brewery instead of just standing right outside drinking it. Kernel simply asked people not to drink on the estate.

And what you or I might do in our home/our friend’s home/in any bar or beer outlet which doesn’t specifically say ‘NO DRINKING ON SITE’ is irrelevant to this scenario.

Chris Emma said...

I hit 'publish' on this comment and it just disappeared - another Blogger mystery!

Pastey has left a new comment on your post "Here at the end of all things":

The first thing people should understand is that breweries aren’t pubs. Setting up a brewery means you have to account for certain things with layout, facilities etc. And the room you have is arranged around that. When you set up a pub, you do it differently. You need more facilities like toilets and preferably tables and chairs. There’s also the huge difference in the mind set needed to work in both of these places. Working in a bar involves a lot more face-to-face work with the general public, not all of whom you’ll like.

So am I surprised that a brewery’s taproom, added as an after-thought, as a nicety for those that liked the brewery’s beers changed when it turned into something else? Not in the slightest. Do I agree with what they’ve done? Completely.

I don’t think that Kernel set out to run what it turned into, and when their attempts to change it back to what they wanted didn’t work as well as they hoped, I don’t blame them for restricting it even more.

I’m keen to see what they do in the future, I’m not a massive fan of their beers but I completely respect the people behind it, the passion and enthusiasm they have, and I respect their decision to do what they want with their taproom. People can vote with their feet and go elsewhere if they don’t like it. And if they’re really adamant that Kernel have done the wrong thing, well, they can open their own brewery and tap room, and see how it goes for them.