Age-old brewing traditions here in the Garden of England, through to hosting a broad range of gin and wine producers has proved a booming industry for Kent. We raise a glass to our county’s brewing past, present and future.
Being home to Shepherd Neame as Britain’s oldest brewer has provided the county with a globally-renowned heritage for the quality and range of its beverages. There are of course plenty of other award-winning tipples stemming from across Kent that have forged a thriving industry playing a key role in its economy.
This includes a host of traditional ales enjoyed in the fast-rising micropub scene, which originated from the Butcher’s Arms in Herne, and has spread across the county to spots such as the recently-opened Malling Jug in West Malling.
The emergence in Kent of dozens of these small venues, which often open up in former houses or vacant shops, have in turn led to an upturn for dedicated craft microbreweries such as The Swan On The Green pub at West Peckham.
In addition to these thriving businesses, several major wine producers including Squerryes at Westerham and Champagne company Taittinger planting its first vines in Chilham this summer, there have been plenty of triumphs across the entire brewing and drinks business.
Certainly, it seems times have moved on apace from the 1950s rural hop picking idyll in Bethersden near Ashford portrayed in David Jason and Catherine Zeta-Jones’ Darling Buds of May (www.darlingbudsfarm.co.uk), with beer and drinks production now proving decidedly big business.
As evidence of this, a number of entrepreneurs have set up within the county, tapping into the major trend for locally-developed ales and spirits.
According to drinks expert Jane Peyton, a former beer sommelier of the year, West Kent in particular was in prime position to make the most of the apparent boom in specialist brewing fortunes, saying: “It’s a golden age for beer drinkers with more breweries per capita in the UK than any other country. This has been driven by what is known as the craft beer revolution where innovation, experimentation and imagination in brewing has led to full-flavoured, high quality brews made in small independent breweries.
“Drinkers are increasingly eschewing the global macro brands and choosing locally-brewed beers instead,” explained the founder of the annual Beer Day Britain event celebrating the world’s favourite drink each June.
Jane highlighted West Kent brewers including Pig & Porter and venues such as Fuggles Cafe, both in Tunbridge Wells, as being enthusiastic members of the modern beer movement where flavour, variety, provenance and passion are proving key to their rise to prominence.
Let’s hear it for beer!
For its part, the Western half of Kent has seen a number of established and emerging business that have gained a strong reputation for their beer brewing.
From the likes of family-owned firms such as Larkins Brewery near Chiddingstone to more recent newcomers including the Tonbridge Brewery at East Peckham, the sheer range of traditional brews now being produced has offered a huge amount of variety amid a growing market.
Among the most prominent is the Westerham Brewery Company, which has carved out an established reputation for the quality of its products since starting up in 2004.
As its MD Robert Wicks has previously explained to INDEX, he has remained extremely proud to carry on a long-standing brewing tradition for the town. While he acknowledged there was competition in the market, he felt the company’s established links with supermarkets had made a major difference.
One of its unique selling points has been in reviving many of the flavours used by the former Black Eagle Brewery, which traced its roots back to the 1600s, but sadly closed in the 1960s amid competition from national breweries. But owing to the new brewery’s determination, the company secured the rights from Carlsberg to decades-old yeast cultures which had been preserved through a freezing process by Black Eagle before the business folded.
This summer has seen a major new chapter in its history with the opening of a new site for the Westerham Brewery Company, at Beggars Lane, Westerham.
The new facility includes a tap room and accompanying shop, which boasts a large range of its products, as well as hosting special weekly street food events.
Underlining its success, Westerham Brewery now produces a broad series of beers including a classic range consisting of names such as the Spirit of Kent, British Bulldog, Summer Perle golden ale, through to its Finchcocks original Kentish Hop Ale, which it has also offered in bottles. According to Jane Hunter, Director of Westerham Town Partnership, who is a consultant for the company, its fortunes continue to grow in its new location.
“The production of beer is all about the quality of the water that is used, which is excellent here as we are supplied by the Greensand aquifer,” explains Jane of the company’s pure source of local water.
She added that the move into new premises had gone especially well, and enabled the company to expand and also allow visitors to come and have a real beer experience themselves.
Jane added: “Our tours have been going very well, which includes our most popular gift which offers a chance to be a brewer for the day.
“I think what makes it special is that people can now be a part of it all – from the making of it, to enjoying drinking it, and there is a fantastic vibe which makes it great to visit.”
A place in history
While such businesses have made notable headway in the market, it is Shepherd Neame that holds the longest-running beer production history in the county.
With a history dating back to the 16th century, its headquarters in Faversham had an extremely prosperous turnover of £140 million last year.
The company’s flagship Spitfire brand is appreciated in a number of locations around the world, having paved the way for a broad range of beers in its wake. Among these are its Whitstable Bay lager series, plus a host of traditional seasonal ales spanning everything from the famed Bishop’s Finger, through to a highly-regarded stout.
This summer the business has even ventured a step further in releasing its Orchard View cider, which is a first in its five centuries of history.
Across into East Sussex, at New Place Farm, Framfield, Cellar Head Brewing Company has enjoyed its first production flourish since founding in March this year.
As owners Julia and Chris McKenzie explained, there had been “months of soul searching” to find the right venue, but support from friends and family has enabled them to finally pull off their long-cherished goal.
However, they explained there was a vital missing ingredient, a brewer, but they were swiftly approached by David Berry to join the company.
Through his industry experience they were soon underway and sold their first cask in May and demand for Cellar Head ale, featuring local ingredients, has steadily increased.
Chris said: “The actual decision to plunge everything into setting up the brewery was, without question, the hardest part, what followed was in relative terms fairly straightforward.”
Gin & it!
In addition to beers, gin has been proving increasing popular with producers in the county. There are now several West Kent firms that have made their mark including the award-winning Anno Kent Dry Gin. Made in Marden, it blends samphire from the Romney Marsh and Kent hops with locally-foraged elderflower. For more information, visit www.annodistillers.co.uk.
Other notable offerings from the county include Greensand Ride London Dry Gin developed in Shipbourne, which is an aromatic, citrusy variety using 15 botanicals; Mayfield Sussex Hop Gin; 1606 Premium London Dry Gin, bottled in small batches of 100 using spring water from Tunbridge Wells, as well as Ableforth’s Bathtub award-winning gin also from the town created using a traditional technique known as cold compounding to create its distinctive flavour.
While back in Westerham, watering hole No.17 serves up no less than 65 gins and holds regular tasting sessions for its patrons who are treated to some of the gins on offer, along with a talk on the history of gin and tasting notes, accompanied by platters of their all-British charcuterie and cheeses.
The next tasting will take place on 22nd November from 7.30pm. To book, email Info@no17westerham.co.uk or call 01959 563679.
A vine romance
In terms of county wines, there have been notable successes including vineyards within Squerryes, set within a fine estate in the Kent Downs.
The 35-acre vineyard was established by the family that owns the estate – in the wake of rejecting an offer from a French Champagne company to buy part of the land they decided they’d rather make the product themselves.
There is now a large shop on the site selling its wine, which also features a tasting room, with a large terrace designed to enjoy social occasions.
Elsewhere, The Mount Vineyard at Shoreham has gained notoriety for its produce, with its Sparkling Rose winning the Kent Wine of the Year 2017 accolade from the Taste Of Kent awards, saying it was ‘over the moon’ to have won the award, and had enjoyed an increase in guests since completing a retractable roof extension to its visitor facilities.
Customers are encouraged to visit the site, which has a tasting room with a courtyard and a fully-stocked bar.
There are also opportunities for tours and the chance to enjoy its wine Wednesday events to learn about five of its award-winning vintages. For more information, call 01959 524008 or visit the company’s website www.themountvineyard.co.uk.
• Meanwhile, another of the county’s great drinks successes has been that of Chapel Down at Small Hythe near Tenterden, which is enjoying a strong period of growth and in September launched its very own Wine Academy, a one-day course learning about wines of the world held in the Wine Sanctuary tasting room at the venue. For further information, email firstname.lastname@example.org
Chief Executive Frazer Thompson (inset) explained that its brands – which include its core group of wines and the Curious Brew beer, had been enthusiastically received. “The company is experiencing a growth rate of around 25% a year and our brand is going really well and our products are available nationally.
“We’ve been making Curious Brew for five years now and more and more people are experiencing the taste of this beer that’s quite different from much of what is out there.
“As well as our wine knowledge, we’ve also launched our own cider using Kentish apples, which is also far from many commercial drinks that use concentrates,” explained the chief executive, who said there had been plenty of interest in its expanded wine sanctuary facilities.
Optimism despite challenges
While plenty of challenges exist amid an uncertain economic backdrop as companies have felt the turbulence reaped by last summer’s Brexit vote, there remains some encouraging signs ahead for the drinks sector.
This includes real ale organisation CAMRA confirming that the rate of pub closures, which stood at 29 a week nationally, has been stemmed to a rate closer to 20. It believed there was a strong market for traditionally-brewed drinks – with the thriving micropub business – that has seen dozens of such small venues popping up across the county.
Craig Beeson, Chairman of West Kent CAMRA, hailed venues in the area including The Pantiles Tap and The Bedford as being instrumental in encouraging traditional ales.
“Tunbridge Wells is rapidly becoming the South’s beer destination town, however this has not happened overnight and there are a number of factors that have contributed to this and enabled it to happen.
“This includes the CAMRA Spa Valley Railway Beer & Cider Festival, which is probably now the South East’s largest beer event. Held in Tunbridge Wells over three days (20th-22nd October) featuring more than 200 different cask and craft keg beers and ciders it is now in its seventh year. It was one of the first festivals to embrace craft keg beers, a trend recognised as imperative to CAMRA’s survival by the nation’s Beer Guru, Roger Protz in his most recent interview.”
• West Kent-based Alison Parmar, of the county’s Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) branch, said the area’s brewing firms were some of its most exciting enterprises.
“Here in Kent, and right across the country, more and more consumers are buying local and backing the small business community. People want to support local traders and increasingly want to know where their food and drink is sourced from. They’re after unique experiences, not the same old brands,” said Alison.