The Bermondsey Beer Mile (BBM) is a stretch of brewery tap rooms between Maltby Street, SE1 and South Bermondsey, the visiting of which has become something of a badge of honour amongst beer aficionados. I have a confession: I’ve never done it.
I know. Shoot me.
Last year I visited a couple of the breweries en route to a Dulwich Hamlet FC away game. With the excellent beer and the wonderfully convivial atmosphere, I was reminded fondly of Czech pivovar halls. The other similarity was the amount of tourists. I don’t mind queuing for beer, but queueing for the toilets was an unexpected chore. As larger and larger groups turned up it occurred to me that perhaps I was too late to the party, that the BBM was getting too popular.
At Deserter we’re contrary buggers, prone to giving the herd the finger, so as a nod to the upcoming London Beer City festival, to celebrate some of the new breweries that are opening and, well, just because we love beer, we took it upon ourselves to devise an alternative beery walk, to dig a little deeper into South London, where you will be drinking with locals and unlikely to be jostled by stag dos and rugby clubs. For now.
And so we present… the all new… South London Taproom Trail, running from Gipsy Hill to Loughborough Junction, via Herne Hill and Brixton.
Gipsy Hill / West Norwood
Once, there were few reasons to head to Gipsy Hill. Now there are at least three, and they all involve beer.
Our journey begins some time after noon at Beer Rebellion, the kooky hideout opposite Gipsy Hill station. Although not strictly a tap room, it is one of Late Knights Brewery’s growing network of bars and offers a fine range of cask, keg and bottled beers from their own brewery and beyond. Crucially for our preparation, it also offers food and I dined on one of their exquisite burgers and hand-cut chips while I waited (in vain) for my oddball acquaintance, Half-life. To accompany my meal it seemed rude not to have a bottle of our own Deserter IPA, so I did.
Pushing on alone I walked down the hill past Paxton Green where I spotted Half-life asleep in the long grass, dressed in some sort of admiral uniform.
‘All-nighter at Mong Martin’s,’ he said, by way of explanation after I had roused him.
‘Fancy dress party?’ I asked.
‘No,’ he said, confused, and straightened his cap.
‘You alright? You look a bit rough around the edges.’
‘Fine,’ he said. ‘That last E was probably a mistake, mind.’
‘Right. When was that?’
‘About an hour ago,’ he said. ‘I need a drink. I’m parched.’
Half-life mournfully eyed The Paxton pub as we passed it and headed onto Gipsy Road and right into Hamilton Road. But he cheered up immensely when he spotted an enormous sign reading ‘London Beer Factory’ and even more when we sauntered into a small industrial complex where makeshift tables and seating were being prepared on two sides of the forecourt.
‘Beer,’ he breathed.
Hamilton Road Industrial Estate is home to two fine breweries, Gipsy Hill Brewery and the aforementioned London Beer Factory. Half-life slaked his considerable thirst with a cold pint of Beatnik at the GHB and then we crossed the yard for a more relaxed sup of the LBF’s Chelsea Blonde.
As we sat, it began to fill up with local beer-lovers and Half-life, now a little perkier, fell in love with a pretty girl with a limp.
‘I’d stay with her for the rest of my days,’ he declared.
‘Is that because she wouldn’t be able to run away?’ I asked.
I bought a couple of tins from the LBF bottle shop and we headed on up Hamilton Road. At the top – for information purposes only – lies the Bricklayers Arms. It’s not a stop for a real ale tour, but it’s a friendly local’s pub which still shows sport, so worth noting. We might have been tempted to look in had anything been on, but we were in that terrible lull a week or so before the start of the football season (and, brilliantly, we’d already won the Test match by eight wickets).
‘Why are new beers in these tiny tins?’ moaned Half-life, opening one of the beers I’d bought and waving it around. ‘What the fuck is that all about? Have we got less thirsty? Am I a dwarf? Look at me. Am I a dwarf?’
‘You are not a dwarf,’ I confirmed, looking him up and down. ‘You are the captain of the Costa Concordia.’
On Martell Road we passed the mightily impressive Parkhall, the old Pye Electronics building, now transformed into a ‘creative industries hub’, home of IWOOT and the excellent Volcano Coffee Works, who also run an on-site café. On another day, we might have paid them a visit, but today was about beer. Beer and quality conversation.
‘Thing about dwarves is, they’re obsessed with fucking,’ said Half-life, continuing a discussion I hadn’t realised we were having.
‘Yeah, when they get together they only have one thing on their mind, apparently. Mong Martin had to photograph a load of ’em. Said it was a nightmare. Every time they wanted to start the session they had to stop them fucking in the kitchen or the toilets. Even in cupboards.’
‘For real. Everyone knows it. That Peter What’s-his-name, did Lord of the Rings, he said it was mental, they were out of control on set. Terry Gilliam? He reckoned they lost a week’s shooting trying to stop all the shagging on Time Bandits.
‘They were all men, weren’t they?’
‘They don’t care. They just want to fuck. They bloody love it.’
I occasionally get asked what we talk about when we get together. For obvious reasons, I usually keep quiet about it.
At this point, we were passing the handsome old Victorian coaching inn, The Rosendale, where Mrs Raider goes for ‘bridge nights’ (which I’m pretty sure is a poker school). Again, we didn’t pop in as we had a lot to get through, but this would be a useful stopping off point for those who didn’t have the foresight to stock up on supplies. James, the manager, is a beer-lover and he makes sure there are interesting ales on (currently, appropriately enough, London Beer Factory’s cracking Summer Pale Ale is available).
We headed down the delightful Rosendale Road, the width and grandeur of which is purportedly due to its original conception as a grand processional route to the Crystal Palace in Upper Norwood. We paused for a swig outside No. 164, once the home of great British eccentric, Vivian Stanshall (and where his band, the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, were formed in 1962).
If Rosendale Road is grand, then the colossal All Saints Church that stands on it is spectacular, and unsurprisingly Grade 1 listed. I suggested a look round it but Half-life thought otherwise.
‘Is it a brewery?’ he asked, not unreasonably.
This stretch would until recently have been a little on the dry side but that has all changed with the opening this month of Bullfinch Brewery’s new site, in a couple of arches at the northern end of Rosendale Road. Bullfinch once shared a site with Ansbach and Hobday (on the Bermondsey Beer Mile) but have flown the coop to set up in Herne Hill. As Ratebeer’s Best New Brewer of 2014, we welcome them with open mouths.
Rosendale Road opens out onto the glorious Brockwell Park and we took the opportunity to familiarise ourselves with some trees before pushing on to another Herne Hill newcomer, Canopy Beer Co, which operates in an arch on the Bath Factory Estate, behind the shops on Norwood Road.
We drank pints of Sunray Pale Ale in the little courtyard until Half-life paid an emergency visit to one of the Portaloos and I was forced to move inside so as not to listen any longer to his blood-curdling noises, carried toward me on a heavy wind.
While Herne Hill’s The Florence is quite clearly a pub, it is also home to The Florence Brewery and so deserves a mention in our taproom trail. As well as brewing beers for The Florence pub (and other Capital Pub Company pubs), brewmaster Peter Haydon also brews beers for his Head in a Hat label, specialising in recreating old London beers, including his best selling beer, Tommy, an IPA based on a 1914 recipe.
Heading now up Railton Road towards Brixton, Half-life paused for a moment outside the little shop on Shakespeare Road which was once his local.
‘It was so civilized,’ he wittered, all misty-eyed. ‘You’d pop in on a Saturday morning for a paper, a pint of milk and a £10 bag of weed.’
‘What happened to it?’ I asked. Half-life shrugged.
‘Society,’ he said, obliquely.
From here it’s not far to Coldharbour Lane and a right-turn followed by a left down Valentia Place brought us on to Brixton Station Road, home of Brixton Brewery. It’s not even been open two years, but is the oldest tap room on our trail (to the best of our knowledge), which just goes to show we are truly in the midst of a revolution.
There is little or no outside seating available in this tap, but it’s a compact and cosy experience and in their American Pale Ale and Electric IPA they have two of the best beers it was our privilege to experience.
Round the corner was our final stop for the day, the Beer Hive on Belinda Road (main picture) in Loughborough Junction, joint premises for Clarkshaw’s and London Beer Lab. And what premises. The enormous arch is at the end of a seriously industrial cul de sac down which it is hard to believe you will be served anything other than a notice of eviction. But it’s the outside seating that makes the experience special, with car and light aircraft seats next to shared trestle tables and benches in a light industrial suntrap.
Here it was that Half-life was holding court at a table of nurses when I returned with two pints of Clarkshaw’s Cowgirl APA:
‘I think it’s because they don’t get to see each other that often,’ he was saying. ‘So when they do they just want to make the most of it. It’s beautiful, really.’
‘Yes, it’s sweet,’ said one of the girls.
‘What are you talking about?’ I asked her.
‘Dwarves fucking,’ she said.
‘Right,’ I heard myself saying. ‘I understand Peter Jackson said it was quite an ordeal on Lord of the Rings.’
‘Apparently they shag in wheelie bins,’ she added, with a lovely smile.
The only slight disappointment with our trail is that, like the BBM, the only time all of the tap rooms are open at the same time is, currently, on a Saturday (though Canopy is open Weds-Sun). Obviously, these places have to find time to actually make some beer, we accept that, but through our combined patronage, maybe we can encourage the tap room doors to open for more of the week.
After all, let us remember that Hop Stuff Brewery in Woolwich until recently only had the occasional open day. Now, splendidly, they have opened a full-time tap room in the vicinity, to the delight of their many local fans.
When The Beer Hive closed, as it does, at dusk, Half-life told me off for not doing the walk the other way around so we could end up at Beer Rebellion till closing time, but I was shot. If you’ve more stamina than me that might be an idea, but if I’m honest I was happy to slip away and get outside a baked potato. I still awoke on the sofa at 2am, but at least I wasn’t in a field.
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