Interview with Toby Munn of The Kernel Brewery

After all three previous exposures to The Kernel Brewery, we’ve had at least one beer we’ve been raving about. After the first visit at the brewery in 2011 it was an IPA. At the De Molen it was the Bière De Table Barrel Aged #4 and at the CBC the London Sour Raspberry/Basil. Visiting Kernel in London thus was a no brainer.

The saying goes that it’s a good sign if the cook eats at his own restaurant. Same goes for when the brewer drinks his own beer. After pouring a generous amount of Mosaic Pale Ale into our glasses, Toby Munn realized that there was only little left for him. Na-ah. Taking our glasses and pouring some from ours in his glass, he said: “Can’t be too generous”, and laughed. Along with sharing some beers he was also generous with his time and talked to us about recipes, size and sweeping the floors.

Which beer would you serve to Michael Jackson?

The beer that you are drinking now, the Table Beer, is the beer that gives me the most satisfaction. It’s not the most exciting. But as it is a 3% Pale Ale, it is not the easiest one to make. What I like about it is, you can pick it apart and it got some great flavours and aromas to enjoy. But at the same time you can drink it without thinking about it.
Another thing that gives me satisfaction about the Table Beer is that when we started brewing it, it was good. But I consider it much better now.

So you are twiddling with the recipe?

Yes, everything is continuously evolving. Each of our Pale Ales and IPAs change a bit. We write the name of the hop on the labels, because that’s where most of the flavour comes from. But it’s not the most important part of the beer. Everything else, may it be fermentation or water profile, the malt bill, the whole balance of the whole thing – it is so important to get that right.
We are going for five years, but we by no means have reached any sort of plateau with any of our beers. That can seem daunting, but at the same time it’s nice to know what you are working towards. The satisfaction of making a beer slowly better is quite rewarding.

You have a range of Table Beers. What’s the thinking behind it?

There’s something about low ABV beers. When we started, we made a lot of IPAs and Pale Ales and we sold a lot more IPAs than we thought we’d be going to. As our journey through the appreciation of beer continued, I started to appreciate more simple beers. I don’t know if it’s because I’m slightly over chasing the double IPAs, the Imperial Stouts, or whether it is something inherent in being British. Low ABV beers are engrained in our culture.

You have mentioned a few things, but what in a beer gives you satisfaction? Also maybe, what points of possible satisfaction do you try to hit when you do a new beer?

I am sure everybody says that, but we are trying to make the beers that we want to drink ourselves. We are small enough, London is quite huge and the demand allows us to sell all the beer we brew. We don’t have to make anything we don’t really enjoy.

When you showed us the brewery, you mentioned that you brewed a Saison four times this year. Now you mentioned that you brew what you like to drink. Are you currently in a Saison-drinking-phase?

Most of what we do is still Pale Ales or hoppy beers. Then we do some Porters and Stouts which are based on old London recipes. But we also drink a lot of sour beers. We haven’t really had the opportunity to make many. One, because we’re still learning how. Two, you need dedicated space, which we’ve only just got. And you also need a bit of time. It takes a lot of focus and energy to make the beers the way we make them.

You said that London is big enough to sell your beers; does that mean that’s mainly where you sell your beers?

We sell 70% in London. Twenty-odd percent we sell around the UK. About four to five percent we sell to other European countries. There’s a bit in Spain and Italy. Sometimes Belgium. But we are still turning people away in London. We haven’t taken on any new customers for about eight months.
It’s great to sell our beer locally, for a couple of reasons: I think beer should be a local thing. It’s more likely to be fresh, which is really important for us. Almost all beers I prefer when they are fresh. Delivering is much easier and the carbon footprint is smaller. It is also easier to be in contact with the customer if there’s any issue. If we do get a new customer, we invite them to the brewery, give them a quick tour and talk them through our different beers and explain what is really important to us.

You moved to this new location in April 2012 in order to expand. However, you seem to already be too small again.

Well, not too small. I think we’re just right.

But the demand is bigger than your output.

Yes. But that means that instead of focussing on growth, we can focus on making the beer better. The bigger you get as a brewery, the more specialized you can get in different areas. For example Steph, set up a lab and she’s doing that almost full time now. If you’re much bigger, you can have nicer toys, be a bit more precise with different things.
At the same time, the bigger you are, the more of a challenge it is, to run a company the way you want to run a company. We are very happy with the size and where we are. The beer is important but we are also really enjoying working here and spending time, hanging out with each other. Our focus is not just on the beer, it’s also on making our life good and that we get enough satisfaction out of what we are doing.

Do you enjoy the size because it also still allows you to brew?

I actually only brewed twice so far this year.

Do you miss it?

At times. But I still enjoy working here. There are twelve of us that work here now, and apart from the one who joined us most recently, all have brewed on their own. So all of us know how to brew. We all know how to run the bottling line, we all take turns putting the orders together, making lunch, all sorts of different things. So everybody has got a connection to what we are doing. And everyone gives a shit. It makes a difference.
It’s a challenge to get everybody up to speed and good at everything. But there’s enough technical knowledge that we’ve shared between us, so that we are doing okay.

What do you do most often?

I do a lot of procrastinating. No. I do a few boring things like writing SOPs (standard operating procedures), fire risk assessments and fun things like that. But I struggle to sit down at my desk for more than a few hours at a time. So I’ll sweep the floors, move kegs and do a few bibs and bobs of other things.
I’ve been here now for four years and it is completely different to how it used to be. Even though we are not expanding, everything is still changing. There’s still loads of things that we need to learn.

Do you have a job title?

No. [Laughs] Someone once asked: What do you do here? Uhm, I work here!

Do you have a core range of beers?

Kinda. We always have a Pale Ale available. Always have an IPA. Our Pale Ale and IPA do change and even our Table Beer changes, even though we don’t write it on the front. But I think of the Pale Ale as one beer, although it does flux and change intentionally as well as unintentionally [laughs]. So yes, we have three hoppy beers, at three, five and seven percent. Then we have a hoppy Porter, an Export Stout and an Imperial Stout. Further we have our London Sour, which is a Berliner Weisse and our Bière de Table, which is a Saison.
We try to have those throughout the year. That wasn’t really the plan just the way things settled. Occasionally we do another beer, like a Brown Ale or a Black IPA or a hoppy Red Ale. We’ve also done a few fruit sours and plays on Saisons as well. But there’s no rush to do anything new or unique.
We want to make something that’s really good and satisfies us and everyone that drinks it. It’s nice to push yourself and inspire others. But to be new and innovative is not necessarily what inspires me anyway.

How does participating in international beer festivals fit into the picture, as you are creating demand in which you’ll not be able to fulfil?

That is very interesting: Menno from De Molen asked us “so why do you keep coming back to the Borefts festival?” We responded: “Because you keep inviting us!” [laughs]
We don’t do loads of festivals. We did one in Italy last year, but normally it’s just Borefts and the Copenhagen Beer Celebration.
But yes, we are not trying to sell any more beer abroad. We don’t need to promote ourselves in any way. But those festivals are really important for us. It was a huge honour to be invited the first time and we weren’t quite sure if we were at that level. But after trying lots of different beers, and some of the responses, we thought that maybe our beers do belong among these sorts of events.
They were very important for me when I was getting into some of these different beer styles. Being able to talk to the brewers, it gave us much higher expectations and standards. Evin [O’Riordain, founder of The Kernel] would never settle for anything that’s not his best, but it helped us realise what we should be aiming for. Tasting some of the best beers that you can get a hold of, it inspires you.
The first few times I’d go around and be “this is amazing, tell me exactly how you’ve done it”. The first time I’ve did a Berliner Weisse, a few months before I was in Copenhagen and I just pestered this guy Terry [Hawbaker] from Pizza Boy Brewing in Pennsylvania. I must have pestered him for hours over the weekend and I’ve sent him loads of emails. Then the last couple of times at Borefts, we’ve pestered other people just as much as other people asked us about our beers. We don’t have any secrets. It’s nice to share the few things we’ve learnt over the years.

Does it help or hinder the British beer scene or British breweries that Marks & Spencer sells store brand beers?

It’s not something that I have given much thought. One or two of them are incredible, for example the Pale Ale by Oakham. If people open up to new and different beers, that’s great.

It’s not a loaded question, insofar as I don’t have an opinion on it. In a way it is, as you say, great that it can get people interested in different beers and they are brewed by respected breweries. At the same time, they could just stock existing beers from those breweries.

Yes. But you could argue in general there’s already enough brands out there, why do we need to do our own thing? There are so many people doing almost identikit beers all around the world. But the thing that gives us satisfaction is the day to day and it’s nice to make something tangible. And the process of the whole thing, being able to create your own environment in our work place, that is great.

What do you guys have coming up?

More of the same, but better, hopefully. When we’ve done a Berliner Weisse style beer, up until now we have only done them in small kegs, where we added the fruit. But we’ve recently have done a few on a bigger scale.
I think the base beer for our Berliner Weisse, our London Sour, is okay, but not great. But I find it to be a great base for blending and as a base for fruits.

But your Raspberry Basil London Sour was one of the best beers at this year’s CBC!

Thank you. I really enjoyed that beer! I probably drank as much of it as anyone else did. But I find the base beer underneath the raspberry and basil is only okay.

So you say it’s like tofu, it’s a good canvas for flavours.

Yes. And the sourness is really crisp and clean. Some of the flavours are not great. But because it is only three percent, they are quite quiet.
But I would like to play around with different methods on how to do a Berliner Weisse.

Meaning you are also involved in the recipe creation?

Yes, but we all sort of collaborate. People can introduce ideas. Of course it is slightly difficult when you have twelve people, because sometimes you have chats with someone and you forget to share it. But we try to get everyone involved with everything. And everyone’s pallet is valid. A few of us have slightly more technical knowledge, but that’s not a be all and end all.
I think the recipe is slightly over romanticized. It is the process that is the most important thing. And it is the slow evolution of that that makes a great beer. You can still make a great one off beer, but it is either going to be luck or it is going to be learnt from years of experience of pissing around and trying things.

We ask this question to everyone we interview and it is usually not a popular question. Nevertheless: List five beers one should try before dying.

As I said, I think beer should be a local thing. Not just because of the freshness, but also because you get a sense of the place and the people. So there are a couple of breweries that I would like to go to and spend some time there, drink the beers and enjoy the atmosphere: Jester King in Austin, Texas. There are quite a few in Vermont that I’d like to go to. Also Colorado, there’s some really interesting breweries there. There are interesting beer cultures that I would like to go to all over the place. I’ve explored parts of Europe already, but I’d like to go back to the Czech Republic, and I’ve never been to Franconia or Bavaria.
As a brewer I’d like to think that it’s all about the beer in the bottle. It’s got nothing to do with the label; it’s got nothing to do with the branding or anything else. But that’s slightly naïve if not bullshit. The context is so important.

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