Completed: Saturday 8th July 2017
I’m not really much of a drinker, and I don’t* even like beer, but I do love understanding processes and how something is made. I also knew that if I told friends I was going to a brewery there would be enough people interested to get our own group tour for the afternoon (that makes my friends sound like a group of alcoholics – they aren’t).
One sunny Saturday we headed off to Faversham to the Shepherd Neame Brewery. The town is known for brewing beer and had another very large brewery opposite Shepherd Neame until a few years ago. Brewing ale in the area dates back to 1147 when the Cluniac monks made it in the local abbey, and being safer than local water, would drink up to 8 pints a day – fortunately it would have been a lot weaker ale back then! Shepherd Neame holds the prestigious title of Britain’s oldest brewery, founded in 1698, with evidence that there has been a brewing firm on the site since 1572. Originally the brewery was owned by the Shepherd family, and they had various partners in the business until in 1865 it became Shepherd Neame and has remained ever since. It is now solely owned by the Neame family, with Jonathan Neame being the fifth generation to run it. As the tour started our guide Martyn asked for someone to wear a high-via jacket and to stay at the back of the group and ensure everyone stuck together – most doors can only be opened with a pass so we all had to stay as a group. I was volunteered to do this and to be honest, I was living the dream.
The process of making ale and larger is fascinating. Nowadays a lot of the work is computerised to ensure it reaches exacting standards and ensures consistency from one batch to the next. There are a few brewers who still work on the day to day running along with the laboratory team who constantly check the product.
Both ale (beer is the same thing) and larger start with the same process. They both take four ingredients to make; water, malted barley, hops and yeast. The barley is malted by spending 8-12 days germinating in damp conditions in a maltings house. The germination is stopped by roasting – different temperatures of roasting gives different colours and flavours when added to the other ingredients. Shepherd Neame use 6000 tons of malted barley a year mainly from East Anglia. We tasted two different barleys – pale malt (tasted like malted milk biscuits, Horlicks) and chocolate malt (tasted of coffee, burnt toast).
Once roasted, it is ground down into grist – this grist grinding machine called a ‘malt mill’ was built 1887 and came to the brewery 1920. Grist is then mixed with hot water – known as ‘liquor’. 180 million litres are pumped up each year from
under ground, and is heated at 60 degree for mixing.
This mixing happens in a mash tun – it was wooden till last year when it had to be made stainless steel to meet exacting standards from retailers. Maltose (sugar from hot barley) then sits for 1 hour in liquor and infuses then drained to make ale – sweet wort. They need enough in each mash tun to make 30,000 pints. The waste mash is sent to feed cattle.
Larger malt is gentle and heated gentle and agitated to infuse – sent to another mixer – lauter tun- and at the end you have sweet wort. This is then put in coppers (more large metal containers) to make sweet hot hop wort. Hops are picked and put in sacks called ‘hop pockets’ (see picture above) – 80% is sourced within Kent, mainly East Kent Goldings hops. Hops only came over 600 years ago. Every September a ‘green hop ale’ is made straight from vine to machine. The green hops are picked by head brewer and put straight in to the mix. Hops are actually related to the cannabis plant! Larger is kept in the coppers at 12 degrees for 2 weeks, whilst ale is kept at 20 degrees for 1 week.
The brewery has 58 fermentation vessels to use for the next stage – conditioning – of the brewing process. The wort fills the containers then the brewer pitches (adds) the yeast – using different yeast makes different drinks. When finished conditioning, the yeast drops and is drained for pig food. Larger sits in the tank conditioning for 4-6 weeks whilst ale conditions for 1 week.
Brewers go to the sampling room and regularly taste the drinks – this is one job a computer can’t do! They then refer any problems or differences in taste to the laboratory. Kentish ales that are brewed here include Masterbrew, Spitfire and Bishops Finger, and Largers include Whitstable Bay. Bottling can be done at 600 a minute – a quarter of a million in an 8 hour shift. At full capacity 4 million pints are made over a month – this makes up just a quarter of 1% of U.K. supply. Ales are pumped to cask tanks – to make ‘real ale’, a small amount of yeast is left in for second fermentation. Largers go in to kegs, and kept in cellars at 12-14 degrees. You can see a larger by the ‘lacing’ on the cup when you pour it in. Beer and ale are now interchangeable names for the same drink, whereas larger is conditioned for longer. Shepherd Neame supply 365 pubs plus 800 other outlets.
2 – Sam Adams Boston Larger: 4.8%
3 – Spitfire Gold Ale: 4.1% – this was my favourite, and a big hit in our group. (When it was first made for the Faversham Hop Festival in 2015, 60,000 bottles were made and sold out.)
4 – Bishops Finger Ale: 5%, bottled at 5.4%, EU geographical protected indicator status – ‘Kent in a glass’ (‘Bishops Finger’ refers to the wooden sign posts directing pilgrims to Canterbury Cathedral after Thomas Beckett’s death).
5 – 1698 Ale: 6.5%, natural carbonated beer – bottled conditioned beer – 2nd conditioned on yeast
6 – Whitstable Bay Black Oyster Stout: 4.2%, pumped up with nitrogen not C02 – more head on top, chocolate malt
Then as an extra special prize for wearing the hig-vis jacket (even though three of us got separated and literally locked in a brewery) I got a free drink at the bar…my first ever pint and I didn’t even have to pay!
*’don’t’ isn’t entirely true now…I still couldn’t drink a whole pint of it, but a Spitfire Gold wouldn’t remain untouched.
Apologies it’s taken a week to write this, and sorry if any of it is factually incorrect – I was desperately trying to take notes as we went round as I knew I couldn’t remember it all but I fear some of it may be a bit mixed up! Why not do the tour yourself to find out?!
To see the full list of 30 things I’m doing, you can see the original post here.