Under the arches

Feasting in the shadows of Borough and Bermondsey


While the stalls may be a little more upmarket than they were a couple of decades ago, Borough Market is still what it always has been: a romantic, chaotic, joyful assault on the senses, enough to make even the most jaded among us flip open their wallet for a £7 jar of marinaded feta. Woven into the network of open spaces and arches beneath the broad swathe of train lines heading west from London Bridge station, the market is an institution; a cornucopia brimming with everything from organic greengrocers and cheesemongers to high-end street food, drawing inspiration from across the world.

So from the broad vistas of the Thames river bus, I’m thrown into a world of vaulted brickwork and Victorian wrought iron. The cold February air is heavy with spiced steam, rising like a beckoning finger from pans of delicious mystery everywhere I turn. Wild mushroom risotto blends into shawarma, attracting a single confused queue that is trying to avoid being run over by passing delivery vans. Across the narrow street, copper-bottomed vats of shining paella rice compete with Jewish salt beef bagels and the fragrant sharpness of Thai vegetarian. I begin to order from one stall, before excusing myself and hurriedly moving to another.

Oysters! Huge, fresh and creamy, alongside small, delicate native species, shucked to order and served on paper plates with shallot vinaigrette and a dash of Tabasco (green, of course). I treat myself to a small glass of very cold Chablis and order eight of them, dealer’s choice, just happy to be surrounded by the noise, the smells, and the excitement of everyone else scoffing their oysters away from the rain, while trains thunder and clatter over our heads.

PHOTO: Richard Croasdale

I’m another full lunch in (some kind of delicious lamb sausage flatbread) when I notice the time and have a small panic. Luckily, my next stop shouldn’t be hard to find. I just have to follow the thick braid of train tracks leading east, which works both navigationally and thematically. Also, the sheer pull of beery gravity is bound to carry me there eventually, even if I take the odd wrong turn. Yup, I’m heading to Bermondsey.

Houses of the holy

It is railway arches pretty much all the way between London Bridge and the legendary Bermondsey Beer Mile. Traditionally handy spaces for light industry, your average central London railway arch has today become a kind of shorthand for ‘cool artisanal business’. This creates something of a microcosm of London itself: an old guy who’s spent 30 years servicing Black Cabs from his dingy arch on Druid Street, sits scratching his head between an urban winery on one side and a coffee roastery on the other. Rather than causing tension, what tends to happen is the winery gets its delivery van serviced for free, and the mechanic develops a taste for biodynamic Georgian Saperavi. London can be wonderful when it wants to be.

It's thanks to a peculiarly British phenomenon that we started prophesying the demise of the Bermondsey Beer Mile almost as soon as it became a thing worth talking about. I put this down to two other national (or perhaps just human) preoccupations: the need to convince the kids that Things Were Better in My Day, and the general feeling that we shouldn’t really be allowed anything nice.

Whatever the underlying reason though, the magic of the Beer Mile persists, even though most of the breweries that made it famous have moved on. This is partly down to the space-limited nature of the railway arch keeping things fresh; you simply can’t grow beyond a certain size here, so at some point it’s time to move on and let someone else have a crack. And who knows, maybe that new someone turns out to be London’s first meadery in 500 years.

Insert ‘real buzz’ pun

Since parking its hive on craft beer’s Bermondsey front lawn in 2022, Gosnells’ of London has reached levels of notoriety to which the mead world frankly isn’t accustomed. It was founded in 2013 in Peckham, by Tom Gosnell, who started out brewing mead at home. Tom had always been fascinated by bees and honey, so the idea behind such a prominent taproom was partly to educate drinkers about the ingredients and processes, rather than just offering a novel alternative to beer.

“People do tend to pop in out of curiosity, and we’re able to offer them a wide range of flavours and strengths,” Tom says. “Since we’ve been here though, we’ve built up a base of customers who will keep coming back because they love what we do. That’s been really gratifying to see, and vindicates the idea behind this place.”

PHOTO: Gosnells of London

The taproom comfortably seats around 100, and is very deliberately modern minimalist, rather than medieval banquet hall, with clever hexagonal tables and lots of other bee references that stay firmly on the cool side of nerdy.

“So many people think mead is something from the dark ages; strong, sweet, quaffed by Vikings and knights, or something you’d find at the back of the drinks cupboard at the end of the party,” continues Tom. “Our mead is the polar opposite: light, fresh, and complex. Our meads are based on just honey and water, fermented to show the brilliance of the honeybee and its flowers.”

Ricky and Bianca

Taking my time back out along the mile, I pass Anspach & Hobday – the brewery with which Gosnells’ has just collaborated on a superb honey beer – as well as Moor, Cloudwater, Mash Paddle and countless more. I can’t stop though, as I’m already late and slightly mead-tipsy for an interview with the chaps at Bianca Road.

The confusingly named Bianca Road Brew Co (it was based just off Bianca Road in Peckham when it opened in 2016) was founded by engineer and cyclist Reece Wood, who was inspired by a mammoth bike tour from Los Angeles to Miami. The fresh, hop-forward beers Reece encountered along the way are what Bianca Road has always been best known for. 

Reece is here to meet me at the taproom, along with operations manager Matt Simpson and sales manager Terry. Like all railway arch breweries, it’s amazing how much the team here is able to achieve in such a small space. Originally sandwiched between Bermondsey stalwarts Brew by Numbers and The Kernel, Bianca Road now occupies three arches in total, but the tour is still pretty rapid. It concludes (naturally) in the taproom, where Matt pours me a pint of the Long Play session IPA, which absolutely hits the spot after a heavy lunch and a decent walk.

As well as beer styles, Reece also picked up some of the philosophy of the US brewers he met, which resonated with his own values. Bianca Road has always put a huge focus on its environmental sustainability, with 100% of its energy coming from renewables, spent grain going into anaerobic processing and a tough policy on recycling and plastic use. It’s also a great believer in localism, and has really embedded itself in Bermondsey, becoming a firm favourite among the local running and cycling clubs in particular.

Speaking of cycling, we need to address the massive amount of cycling memorabilia dripping from the taproom walls. Reece, it turns out, was a pretty extreme velodrome and criterium rider, having even taken part in the infamous Redhook series (YouTube it, really).

PHOTO: Richard Croasdale

“Redhook took me all over the place: New York, London, Barcelona, Milan,” says Reece. “It's a real life travelling circus, with the same riders going along to pretty much every race. I was involved until the end of it, which was I guess 2019. It kind of coincided with me getting married, funnily enough. I think my wife looked at it, at how many accidents there were, and… yeah.”

His beautiful steel-frame, fixed-gear crit bike is displayed at the end of the bar, decommissioned. Today, Reece’s main set of wheels is the Bullitt cargo bike he bought during lockdown to make local beer deliveries, though with his kids now a little older, he’s getting more chance to work on his serious cycling again.

While we’ve been chatting, Matt’s been slowly working me through each tap, and we’re now into the big hitters. Despite being most closely associated with light, hoppy beers, it turns out Bianca Road does an absolutely killer line in big, boozy barrel-aged numbers too (arch number three also houses its barrel store, as I discover).

Barrel-aged imperial stouts are a dangerous way to begin a big night out. Matt and Terry are keen for us to hit up Cloudwater’s London taproom a couple of doors down, where pillowy-soft, ultra-fresh NEIPAs are the order of the day. From there, we try to visit the Dutch Taproom – It Ain’t Much if it Ain’t Dutch (actual name), only to find it closed, so pivot to London Beer Factory’s Barrel Project, where there is a pub quiz and almost certainly one last pint. Precisely how many last pints I drink is, and will remain, unclear. 

Even mid-week in early February, with half the taprooms closed and not really much opportunity for its famous outdoor parties, the Bermondsey Beer Mile feels like hallowed ground. Better yet, it’s very far from the soulless Beer Disney that the pessimists warned us about. It’s still shambolic, grimy and a little weird. It still has its cracking gossip, fizzing rivalries, and an indomitable sense that this is the UK’s most exciting place to brew beer.

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