Steam has come home to the railways of south London. Except this time, it's not on the railways, but beneath them.
It's a Saturday morning and the cavernous arched space close to Bermondsey station is already a miasma of hoppy clouds, rising and swirling from row upon row of mash tuns. We're at UBREW — a 'guerilla' brewery along the Bermondsey Beer Mile, where members can craft their own beers using onsite equipment and a cache of ingredients.
In an effort to show we can do more than just drink beer, we're about to roll up our sleeves and make some.
Ensuring we don't recreate the Great Beer Flood of 1814, we have one of UBREW's founders, Matt Denham, to steer us in the right direction. As we grind up our caramalt, and heat the mash tun, Matt explains the set-up: "We're here to support our brewers all the way, from our beginner courses, to help with recipe development, brewing techniques and branding," he says, "What makes UBREW unique is quite simply our community of members. We started out with a concept of providing the space and the equipment for people to brew their own beer."
Some homebrewers might turn up their noses at the concept of 'homebrewing' in an actual brewery; surely that defeats the object? There are two answers to this: one is that there is a genuine community spirit at UBREW — ideas, wisdom and repartee practically pings off the corrugated walls. Second, not many Londoners have the room/willing flatmates to allow 50 litres of beer to bubble away in a corner for weeks at a time.
Already, 300 people have been on brewing courses since UBREW opened earlier this year. This place isn't just one brewery like most; it isn't even two-in-one like Solvay Society/Hops & Glory in Islington. It's essentially a hundred breweries rolled into one. But in fact it's more — because with growing membership — there's now a waiting list of 100 — the variety of beers and being concocted is potentially infinite. Such diversity and experimentation would make anyone working at Heineken have a small stroke.
As we keep a careful eye on our mash, we see the guys next to us are brewing a red German beer we've never heard of before. Another brewer, Dylan, introduces us to his Javelina IPA — a sweet, chewy brew whose name is inspired by wild, desert-roaming pigs. The Saturday we're here, it's on at the tap room (open 11am-7pm every Saturday). This is another of UBREW's personal touches; you can slurp on a beer your neighbour made a few weeks back.
If you're concerned that brewing on a bi-monthly might quickly lead to beer gut, brewer's droop, and all other manner of undesirable brew-induced characteristics, the UBREW model allows you to sell your produce, either at the tap room, like Dylan, or in bottles. It works out we're told, around 70p-80p to make one bottle, including all ingredients, membership and the bottle itself. Exceptional value, seeing as your average craft beer from the pub fridge usually sets you back four or five quid.
We can't bottle our brew today, because it's got to ferment for a couple of weeks in a cold storage unit, alongside others.
Many of our questions have been answered throughout the session, with only one now remaining: what kind of beer are we making next?
To find out more about becoming a UBREW member, or to learn more about their tap room, visit their website.