Monday, December 15, 2014

An Arched London Beer Quest

One of my goals on a trip to London last summer was to visit a craft brewery - in an arch.  I wanted to either hit Partizan Brewing or The Kernel Brewery, which are located close to each other in Victorian-era railroad archs in the Bermondsey area of London  Breweries in London are typically only open for select hours on Saturday, which limits visiting options.   I left my family along the Thames and pledged to be back from my brewery tour in an hour.  By the time I started walking southeast from London's Tate Modern, Kernel had closed so I knew my destination was Partizan.  I soon realized it was a much longer walk to Partizan than it looked like on Apple and Google maps, and that to maximize my short hour I had to catch a cab.  I was already in a non-touristy section of London, so it took me a few minutes before I was able to find a cab.

I gave the cabby Partizan's address, 8 Almond Road.  He did not know it and he proceeded to drive off in the opposite direction from which I was walking.  I was aware of the "Knowledge," the four-year, on average, test process to become a London cabby, which requires memorization of nearly all London streets, alleys, parks, theaters, clubs, hotels, restaurants, basically any where someone would want to go - but I had studied Partizan's location and knew he going the wrong way.  I waited a few blocks before speaking up in the hope he was going to make a quick turn or knew some secret cabby short cut, but that was not happening.  He was incredulous, but agreed to reverse course.  I told him 8 Almond Road housed a new craft brewery, and it was located in a railway arch.  This news perked him up and he started the quest for Partizan in earnest.  He said he liked the "new" beers, they were what he drank, so it gave him a new sense of determination to find Almond Road.  I told him I was not going to be the only American seeking these "new" breweries squeezed into railway arches.

We saw a group of men walking and the cabby pulled over and asked them if they knew of Partizan.  They said they were looking for it, too, but were not sure of its location.  A solidarity in purpose but not much help with directions, so we drove on.   At the next stop sign I recognized a downtrodden pub I had seen on Google Street View that was near the entrance to Almond Road.  Eureka!  Like solving a puzzle, all the pieces fell into place:  the high street, the pub, the elevated brick railroad with its arches, and finally the road that ran parallel to the tracks - Almond Road (picture above).

That part of London did not look like it saw too much cab traffic, so I asked the cabby as he was dropping my off if he could come back in about thirty minutes.  He scoffed, telling me he could be anywhere in the city in thirty minutes.  He said I should not have any problem getting a cab, of which I was doubtful, and was on his way.   

Almond Road is about one hundred yards long- really just a driveway or service road - not a proper road - which parallels the elevated train tracks.   At the end of truncated Almond Road I saw a familiar crowd - mainly young men, many with beards, a disproportionate number of flannel shirts for an August afternoon, along with a few old guys and several women - the unmistakable, international signs of a craft brewery.  It was a quiet, eclectic crowd, nearly all standing as the few tables and benches were full.  The line for beer was consistently long, and the Partizan employees were doing their best to keep the line moving.

The guys the cabby asked for directions showed up shortly after I arrived and joined the queue for beer behind me.    I ordered a black saison with Saaz hops, and bought two bottles, an IPA and another saison, this one more traditional, both of which I've yet to drink.  The black saison was fine, a welcome reward after the stress of finding Partizan, but I don't know why I ordered a black saison.  In a rush, any "black" beer to me tastes of nothing but the dark roasted malt.  My allotted beer time was running short, and finding the brewery and the slow beer line had eliminated any time to enjoy the nuances the English craft saison.  

I was nearly done with beer and trying to decide whether it made more sense to try and hail a cab or find a Tube station, when I looked back down Almond Road and saw the cabby coming to the see brewery.  I was confused, and went up to him and asked if he was off work and coming to try the "new" beer.  He said he didn't drink while working, and had come to get me and see what the crowd was about.  That was good news for me, but I think he really wanted to investigate Partizan and I gave him that excuse.  I finished the last of my beer and we were off.

The cabby had parked off the high street, a few blocks from Almond Road, and as we left the confines of Almond Road, the cabby gave a nervous look around.   He said in a low voice that we were in Millwall Football Club area, and asked if I knew of Millwall.  I said I thought I had heard they were football hooligans (remembering reading this story from 2013).  He said "Yeah, their motto is 'No one likes us, we don't care.'"  He seemed relieved when we finished the hooligan-free walk to his cab.  As a recent convert to the English Premier League, I asked him his club and he replied West Ham, which I've since discovered is Millwall's traditional rival and probably the source of his trepidation.  He must be enjoying West Ham's performance this year.

It was a more relaxed cab ride back to the Tate Modern.  I, an American, had shown him, a London cabby, a sliver of his city he did not know existed.  Now it was his turn to return the favor and he became a super tour guide.  He told me that the Bermondsey part of London was historically industrial, known for big breweries and tanneries and their stench, and he drove me past an old pub called Simon the Tanner, which still celebrated the once-local trade, and verified Bermondsey's industrial past. (If you check it's website, Simon the Tanner has a solid beer list including a standing tap devoted to Kernel).  He pointed out a nondescript grassy area near an ugly low rise housing complex that he said was the former site of an inn that served as the starting point for the pilgrimage that inspired Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales.  His final bit of trivia as we drove up to the Tate Modern was that Londoners call the Millennium Bridge the Wibbley-Wobbly Bridge.  The beer karma shown by the cab driver was just one of several I experienced last summer in London, and I appreciated it.

My accelerated trip to locate a craft brewery in an arch had been a success.  I had found Partizan Brewery, tried a beer and bought some beer to go.  But like what happens frequently in a beer quest, whether I'm looking for a brewery or particular beer, the quest exceeded the beer.  Partizan's black saison was fine, but I would have liked to have lingered at Partizan and enjoyed the beer, rather than to have powered through it just to say I drank a craft beer brewed in a railroad arch.  I still have the two beers I bought at Partizan that I plan to enjoy at relaxed pace. 

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