Evin O’Riordain, founder of South London’s Kernel Brewery, spills all about the brewer’s daily grind
Evin O’Riordain drinks more beer than water. “I never get sick of it,” he says glass in hand, “I drink a lot, too much.”
When you have your own award-winning beer on tap it would be hard not too, especially when every sip is an experiment. O’Riordain, 38, has been brewing for four years and rarely ever makes the same beer twice.
“It forces people to think about what they’re drinking. If you have a really strong brand then the image of that brand tends to dominate what they actually taste. So people drink what they remember drinking last time rather than addressing what’s in front of them.”
This is the philosophy that infuses all of the boiling, fermenting and bottling that goes on at the Kernel Brewery that, inspired by a trip to the States, O’Riordain set up in 2009.
Sent over to New York on a work trip for his then-employer the Covent Garden dairy and cheesemonger Neal’s Yard, O’Riordain found that the Americans had a very different standard of beer. “I was living in Williamsburg in Brooklyn and even if you went into the place with the worst beer list in that whole borough they would still have local Brooklyn lager on tap. Everywhere did.”
While he describes Brooklyn lager as an “average beer in American terms”, it was decidedly better than the average pint this side of the pond: “It’s delicious. The amount of places you go here and there isn’t a single beer that’s that standard.”
After a string of homebrewing experiments (“lots of good batches, lots of bad batches”), O’Riordain set up the Kernel Brewery next to Neal’s Yard in Maltby Street, Southwark, not far from London foodie Mecca Borough Market. In March this year however, sick of tourists diluting the crowd of real enthusiasts, the Kernel, along with a small collective of other artisan food producers including The Ham & Cheese Company and the London Honey Company, moved to bigger premises tucked beneath railway arches in Bermondsey.
On a dank Thursday lunchtime, while the trains grind past overhead, it’s time to empty the barley husks out of the mash tun and put the sugary liquid residue (in brewer’s terms, the “wort”) into the copper to be boiled with the hops. The husks, now smelling like a warm basket, are heaved out under close supervision from O’Riordain’s two year old son, Kai, and left in a bin until they can be picked up for compost.
Once boiled and cooled, more hops are added because, O’Riordain explains, “boiling kills off any of those lovely volatile delicate flavours”. Then it’s into the fermenting tank with the yeast for about a week. Brewing today is a pale ale, “but we don’t quite know which one yet”.
And that’s it. Brewing happens on Thursdays and Fridays and bottling on Tuesdays and Wednesdays although a recent experiment involved barrelling a stout in old whisky barrels. The result is thick and delicious.
The whole Kernel operation is very simple and very much a family affair. O’Riordain’s partner Tanya, a graphic designer, did the bottle labels, his friend Jonah is the right hand man and of course, really, Kai is the boss. “Jonah’s in charge of brewing today. Well, actually no, Kai’s in charge. Jonah’s second in command. Hey Jonah! Jonah! Brew harder!” O’Riordain laughs.
O’Riordain’s own background is not in beer but in cheese, hence the job at Neal’s Yard. “I finished college in Ireland and moved over to London and had to find a job and that was there.
“My father teaches dairy science and biology back home and I grew up around cheese. For some reason, strangely, Neal’s Yard sell about 12 Irish cheeses and ten of those cheesemongers had children at my school either in the year above or the year below me so I knew them all personally, not just their cheese.”
But cheesemaking was never a career path O’Riordain was tempted to follow. “It’s hard,” he says. Harder than beer? “Physically, yes. You have to wake up at five in the morning to milk the cows; they have to be milked twice a day. It’s more farming than actually cheesemaking in the same way that making wine is more about growing the grapes than making it. Your raw product comes through really strongly.”
Hard work aside, O’Riordain prefers it in the city, particularly in London with its strong brewing traditions. Pulling a bottle from the fridge, he pours two glasses of an Imperial Brown Stout whose recipe dates back to 1856. It comes from another Southwark brewery, Barclay Perkins, at its peak the largest in the world but sucked into the corporate machine when it merged with Courage in the mid-1950s.
The recipe was dug up in an old pamphlet and interpreting it for today is a job in itself. “Obviously your goal is to make good beer. If you made a faithful representation of a crap beer, we’d be faithful but we’d be crap and we can’t replicate the ingredients or the processes that they had. There’s nobody alive who could even tell us what it tasted like.”
“Crap beer” is to be avoided at all costs. It’s all about taste, and trust. “Customer’s may get our pale ale and find it’s different every time but as long as they have enough trust in what we do and our quality then that’s enough.
Even the bottles display an almost Prohibition-era plainness. The brown labels give away nothing save the name of the brewery and the name of the hops. “Our intention is you drink and you find out. We’re not going to tell you what it tastes like and anyway, it wouldn’t work. I can’t communicate that, I can only communicate the fact that I think you should try it.”
And what is his favourite beer? “I can’t say,” he smiles, “It would be like having a favourite child.”