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]