"They were swinging round a pole sticking out of a skip, and smashed five pint glasses in the middle of the road!" My friend Ben is telling me about his night, but this wasn't a brawl outside a Blackpool Wetherspoon — the action took place on a genteel microbrewery trail, beloved by mild mannered craft beer fans. Best known as the Bermondsey Beer Mile, it's made up of a handful of small breweries that open up their tap rooms to the public on the weekends. Scattered over a mile and a half, it's more of a stroll with rest stops built in.
But while for craft beer fans it's all about hop varieties and appreciation of yeast strains, for those of us less educated about brewing, the Bermondsey Beer Mile is basically a pub crawl. It might as well be advertised in Union Jack bunting on a LADbible listicle of What To Do In London. So it's perhaps unsurprising that Ben's afternoon of sipping murky beer in sampling glasses was hijacked by a stag do wearing ripped dresses.
According to Ben, the staff at microbrewery Fourpure did very little as the stags spun around the pole, launching pint glasses into the street. He suggests a lack of door staff may have made them wary of intervening; and as a craft beer connoisseur, he tells me he's concerned that the leniency of the breweries could lead to stag dos destroying the south London sampling sanctuary.
Given the nerdy reputation of real ale super-fans, it would be easy to dismiss Ben's fears. Stereotypes include The Condescender who, "Treats anyone drinking a light beer like a toddler who just pooped himself," and The Master Debater who'll warn you to, "Get ready to spend the next five minutes finding a polite exit while I harangue you about your beer preferences." Telly chef and author Anthony Bourdain, who's been on the receiving end of beer obsessives' scorn for his pedestrian lager choices, describes an occasion when he found himself in a bar frequented by craft beer fans: "the entire place was filled with people sitting there with five small glasses in front of them, filled with different beers, taking notes. This is not a bar," he thought, "This is fucking Invasion of the Body Snatchers."
I have my doubts then, about Ben's prediction of stag do induced doom for the Bermondsey Beer Mile — especially as none of my laddier male friends have even heard of it. Could Ben be blowing this out of proportion? But actually, one microbrewery on the mile-ish stretch has already closed its tap room — and rumour has it they were sick of stag parties. Kernel, which opened in 2009, was the first microbrewery on the block, and although it still brews beer, they no longer allow drinking on the premises. Perhaps Ben is onto something...
Evin O'Riordain, founder of Kernel, confirms they closed their tap room two years ago. Describing their clientele at the time, he says, "90% of people were into trying nice beer. And then there was a small percentage of people who were more into getting drunk." What, like stag dos? "Ah, really, stag dos?" O'Riordain does a comedy faux-surprise voice as if he's been waiting for this question. "There were a few of those, yes. Obviously a small number of rowdier people changed the atmosphere very quickly. But yeah, the Beer Mile became one of those areas where the lure of seven different places to drink beer in, sometimes can attract a certain crowd." So it got rowdier as more microbreweries opened along that stretch? O'Riordain says, "Yeah! We opened up before there were any microbreweries in London, and the first four or five years, it was a relatively small number of people." There came a tipping point, he says, with the increase in interest. "It changes the atmosphere quite a lot," he explains, "it crosses the threshold into something that becomes — well it's different."
I wonder if Fourpure is planning to follow Kernel's lead in closing their taproom. However, when I tell them about the stags in torn dresses smashing pint glasses, their Head of Marketing, Adrian Lugg tells me, "it doesn’t happen too often, so that's unfortunate timing for your friend!" Echoing O'Riordain, he says, "I guess that's one of the implications of having a number of breweries all close together." Lugg tells me there's a structure to the mix of people they get coming in. "Earlier in the day it's people trying a tasting paddle, asking lots of questions about the different styles of beer we do — but we get less questions as the day goes on." Later in the day, he says, they tend to sell more pints, "so it's a bit more of a drinking crowd than an education crowd." They'll often be, "knocking back quite a few," he explains, adding, "they might have done a couple of the other breweries by that stage."
Lugg tells me that rowdy behaviour is, "managed quite closely by our tap room team." I ask him how exactly, and whether door staff might help. He explains there's, "an on-going conversation we have, regarding what sort of impression a live security might put out." Emphasising that they don’t have problems regularly, Lugg tells me the tap room manager is training new staff, "to build up their confidence to be able to deal with situations like that." He explains it's, "just a matter of the teams doing their best to manage those situations when they arise," adding, "we encourage quality over quantity — that's what craft beer's all about."
It's a tough call, but it seems the only answer is to do the Beer Mile myself. I have some misgivings however, as I remember Bermondsey's reputation prior to its re-branding. If you're unfamiliar with this, it's been described as a, "chav fray with this most dangerous bunch of tight knit (inbred) Sarf London shitbags. Do not go to Bermondsey, they will spot you, then they will kill you, the whole 'community' will then close ranks. Their 'football' team is the noble Millwall, that beacon of multicultural relations." The same site points out that, "Ray Winstone starred in a film about this hovel called 'Nil By Mouth.' My Mrs said it looked an awful place. The film actually made it look like St Tropez."
But hey, it's all been gentrified now, and there's nothing like a bit of social cleansing to make your craft beer taste better. So I set off with my Argumentative Lefty Friend (as he likes to be known) on a bloody long walk from Bermondsey tube, to find our first microbrewery. "Ah, the Latin for drunk!" Alf declares, as we approach EeBria, which has a toilet cubicle wallpapered with beer bottle wrappers. People are sitting on crates, like you might if you were poor and couldn't afford furniture, but these people are getting splinters in their bums for the fun of it. One might call it cultural appropriation of the poverty stricken, but actually it was all very pretty and I like it there. I'd go back, if it were in W1.
There is one bloke dressed like the runner off the 118 ad, in a wig, but he does nothing rowdy, so after a bottle of Mad Hatter Transmission, I elbow Alf along to Partizan next door. It's about 5 o'clock, and bizarrely they tell us they're closing, so we crack on to Brew by Numbers, which apparently should be a bit livelier. It's bloody miles and we wonder why people do this. Alf keeps trying to drag me into pubs we pass, but I insist we stick to the trail.
My persistence is rewarded when we rock up at Brew by Numbers, and see police cars and an ambulance in the road. Excellent! I am hoping for a stag do punch-up involving Danny Dyer, Mel Gibson, the Wealdstone Raider, and Katie Price's colony of ex-husbands. Unfortunately, it's just some bloke who broke his elbow. So we down our beers and make our way to Fourpure, hoping we're bang on time for trouble.
It's a very long walk and Alf says his girlfriend will be pleased he's had some exercise. I acknowledge that I might have planned our route better and Alf says, "did you plan it at all?" Shut up. At Fourpure we sit down like we'll never move again. Only we do, because we're by some Portaloos and the stench is assaulting my senses. Aside from this, it's infuriatingly civilised and not one person starts a fight. Do I have to start one myself? Alf says it's time to go and just as we're leaving I spot an ambulance. YES! Unfortunately, it's just parking there.
We've picked up some Australians, and we all agree the microbreweries are spread too far apart. Despite all the crisps we've eaten, no one has the energy to walk, so someone books an Uber and we head to Ubrew, where NOTHING HAPPENS.
I go home wobbly, but unwilling to admit defeat. I will find someone who's seen a stag do wrecking the Bermondsey Beer Mile. I corner my friend Ed, who sort of lived in Bermondsey for a bit. He says, "I've seen people on Druid Street dressed up as golfers — they sounded very common! They had inflatable golf clubs and a dwarf in a golf trolley." Excellent — what were they doing? "They were hitting each other with inflatable clubs, and intimidating the local hipsters — and me, to be honest." Brilliant! Any chanting or vomiting? "Sadly not, they all looked very drunk though." And they were definitely on the Beer Mile? "Yes definitely. They had a map!"
I surge on, talking to Tim who recently did the Beer Mile with his girlfriend, witnessing students wearing Hawaiian shirts. "I think one of them suggested a game of beer pong but that was shut down by the breweries — they said it's not that kind of establishment." Excellent, Tim, anything else? "There was a guy on his 30th birthday in a tutu and a stupid shirt, with balloons tied to him." OK? "But he got told to take his balloons off, for health and safety reasons." Alright Tim, just how stupid was his shirt? "There were naked women on it, and dogs — and there was another group of lads who were racing each other down the mile. I think the last one had to get the rounds in, and drink a dirty pint." He adds as an afterthought, "but when we saw them near the middle point, they'd given up — I think they were too old for it." How old were they? "Mid-20s to mid-30s." Right. Fuck off Tim.
Rachael saw stag dos when she did the Beer Mile with her boyfriend a few weeks ago. She says, "we saw a couple of groups of lads who were definitely smashing out the beers, then speedily moving on." She adds, "On the way home my boyfriend was saying how much fun it was and how he'd like to bring his boys for another trip there — so it definitely appeals to big groups of lads."
And yet, although stag dos are doing the Bermondsey Beer Mile, the overall impression I get from everyone who's done it, is that it's all actually rather nice. Rachael describes, "squishing up next to strangers for a seat," and says, "it's all part of the fun." Tim says everyone was, "pretty civilised — there was no excessive behaviour." Even towards the end, when everyone was a few beers in, "they were all good natured enough to be looking after each other."
Are stag dos destroying the Bermondsey Beer Mile? It seems to be safe for now. But if you are a craft beer fan with a faint disposition, go earlier in the day — and maybe give match days a miss, when Millwall are playing at home.
Some names have been changed.
Samantha Rea can be found tweeting here.