I am a somewhat frequent visitor to Kent so I thought I should take the time to visit Faversham and the oldest surviving brewery in the world, particularly since I do enjoy many of their offerings and eagerly await the start of each new season for the seasonal specials. However I was aware that not everyone on the IrishCraftBrewer site is a fan and that the burning question for some time has been: why clear glass in the bottles and not brown to avoid skunking?
Armed with my ICB t-shirt and my brother-in-law for moral support I showed up at the visitor centre on Saturday morning. The tour starts, as many of these things do, with a short video presentation on the history of the site and brewing in Kent. The guide then elaborated that it had been thought that brewing started here in 1698 but recent papers discovered had shown brewing taking place on the site as far back as 1500.
The secret of their success is, they claim, the water from the well on the site. They use millions of gallons of it each year so it is vital to the economic viability of the brewery that they have their own water source (they already have water charges in England). This brewery is in a central location in a small town so the scope to expand the premises is limited therefore they have fitted a lot of kit into a small space. In a number of areas you need to watch out for pipes at head height and narrow stairs. There is a lot of stainless steel in use here but we did get to see the oldest working mash tun in the world, as well as a pretty old grain mill along side a brand new shiny heat exchanger.
The brewery's portfolio includes traditional Kentish ales like Spitfire and Bishop's Finger, and internationally-renowned lagers brewed under licence, such as Asahi (Japan), Holsten Export (Germany), Kingfisher (India), Oranjeboom Pilsener (Holland), Sun Lik (Hong Kong) and Hurlimann Sternbrau (Switzerland). Jonathan Neame is the Chief Executive and this company does have a family business feel.
Lately the brewery has added a pilot plant and encourages employees to try out their own brews. Some of the more successful attempts go on to be featured in their new monthly beer offerings which supplement their usual seasonal offerings. The pilot plant would not be out of place in any micro and would be a welcome addition to my own shed as you can see. I had a long chat with the crew in the gift shop who were discussing their own plans for a brew and recommended they visit this site for some recipe inspiration.
The tour finished with the usual tasting session in the pub attached. Instead of pushing their more commercial brands we were treated to some samples from the pilot plant (good and bad) including an 11% ABV Imperial Stout, after that we had a token for a drink of our choice at the bar. I got to sample some of the Beer of the Month offerings and enjoyed them, but can't help wondering if we will ever see them in Ireland.
Anyway about the bottles; well I asked everyone I met but no one knew the reason for the clear glass I was told that the bottle shape was patented for the unique glug, glug on the pour! In order to finish this article I resorted to email and the Visitor Centre manager replied as follows:
Thank you for your e-mail.
I am delighted to hear that you and your group had an enjoyable Brewery Tour.
You are right; we use clear glass for our bottled ales. The main reason for this is that it looks more attractive on the shelf so it is preferred by marketers. There is a small chance that light, natural or artificial, can react with hop compounds in the beer and slightly alter the flavour – if this happens, the beer is said to be sunstruck. Pale beers and lagers are affected more than dark beers and, for that reason, we package our lagers in green or brown bottles. It must also be remembered that, even in clear glass, the beer is not exposed to the light for very long as for most of the time between production and sale it will be on a pallet, stacked under and behind other pallets and in many cases further protected by a cardboard case.
I hope this of use.
Graham E Hukins
Visitor Centre Manager
So that’s that then! Overall the visit was worthwhile with some good beer tasted and some interesting beer history explored. More information on Shepherd Neame can be found on their web site www.shepherd-neame.co.uk.