Tuesday, 12 December 2017

The Grand Tour - Part One

Every Spring, West Kent CAMRA organise an outing or two to present awards to those breweries whose beers scooped a prize at the previous year’s Spa Valley Railway Beer Festival.

Not only do these presentations show  appreciation for the particular brewer’s beer, but they also provide an excuse for local CAMRA members to visit the brewery, to see for themselves how the beer is brewed, and find out what other beers may be available. They also act as a “thank-you” for the volunteers who have given up their time in order to work at the festival.

I always enjoy these outings and even though I’ve visited dozens of breweries over the past four decades, I always learn something new from each one. This got me thinking, and after doing a spot of totting up, I estimate I’ve been to 44 breweries; some more than once. Of these breweries, 34 have been here in the UK, whilst the remaining 10 have been overseas.

For those who like statistics, 20 of the home-based breweries are old, established family brewers – the type of firm which predates CAMRA and which, in most cases, can trace its origins back to the 19th Century, or even before.  Sadly, eight of these companies are no longer in existence; their brewery buildings either converted for other uses, or demolished altogether.

The remaining 14 UK breweries are what might be termed “micro’s”, even though in some cases they are now quite substantial concerns. Most of these “new kids on the block” are based in industrial units, although a few occupy buildings which once had other functions, such as farm-buildings or, in one case, old army Nissen huts.

I’ve obviously got some personal favourites amongst the above groups, so I thought I’d share a few of them, but in order to prevent this post running away with itself I’m going to concentrate on breweries here in the UK for now, and write about the foreign ones separately. Right, here we go.

First Brewery Visit:
This was to the Marston’s Brewery at Burton-on-Trent, and took place during my first year as a student, at Salford University in 1974. It was organised by one of the university societies, and involved a return coach trip to Burton.

I honestly don’t remember that much about it, apart from visiting a pub next to the brewery, prior to the tour, and then stopping at another, somewhere in Cheshire on the way back. There was no sample room at Marston’s back then, so instead we were “refreshed” after the tour in the adjoining company sports & social club.

The beer was all pressurised, but of course, free, and to an impoverished student, that was important. The fact that the club also provided us each with a ploughman’s, also helped eke out my student, leaving me with more money for beer.

Most Recent Brewery Visit:
The visit by our CAMRA branch to the Dark Star Brewery at Partridge Green, West Sussex took place back in May, and was actually my second visit to the brewery. The first tour had been back in 2011, shortly after the company moved into the large 16,000-square-foot unit, which is now their home.

Last May’s tour was one of the best I have been on in a long while, as it was conducted by two members of the Dark Star brewing team. It was also good to see how much Dark Star have expanded in the space of six years, as they now utilise virtually every square foot of space of  their current home. For more information  about this brewery visit, please  click on the link here.

Most Interesting Visits:
There are two of these - Harvey’s of Lewes, a brewery which needs little in the way of introduction; and the former Bass No 2 Brewery in Burton-on-Trent.

Harvey & Sons(Lewes) Ltd
I have been round the brewery three times, and possibly a fourth; but I have always learned something new each time. This is because on each occasion the tour has been conducted by Miles Jenner,  Harvey’s Head Brewer. Miles has the ability to hold his audience spellbound, as he relates the history of the brewery in conjunction with an explanation of the brewing process.

The sample cellar beneath the brewery, is the other  obvious highlight of a tour around Harvey’s.

Bass No. 2 Brewery.
The Bass No. 2 Brewery has now sadly been demolished, but it was housed in a delightful group of Victorian red-brick buildings. With its teak-clad mash tuns and gleaming coppers, it  was as traditional as any brewery you could wish for. I was fortunate to tour the brewery back in the late 1970’s, when I worked for the Wines & Spirits division of Bass.

I also saw the famous Union Rooms, where Draught Bass, fermented away in a series of interlinked oak casks. The only sound audible was that of the gentle hissing of the fermenting beer as it forced its way out of the swan-necked pipes at the top of each cask and into the collecting "barm troughs". It was certainly a magnificent sight. Afterwards I enjoyed some excellent Draught Bass, direct from the cask, in the brewery sample room.

Best Country Brewery Visit:

T.D. Ridley & Sons were based in the small hamlet of Hartford End, to the North-west of Chelmsford. The brewery itself stood on the banks of the River Chelmer, in a truly delightful and very rural setting, and the sight of the brewery emitting clouds of steam, whilst working away in such idyllic surroundings, was one to behold.

Just over a quarter of a century ago, I visited Ridley’s with a group of local CAMRA members, and was shown round by the head brewer.  Much of the plant was of a very traditional nature and the tour, of course, ended in the sample room where we were able to try several others of the brewery's range of beers, including a number of interesting bottled ones. Sadly in 2005, the Ridley family sold the brewery and its 67 pubs to Greene King, who ceased all production at this charming, old, country brewery.

Most Memorable Brewery Visit:


My visit to Ruddles was basically a PR tour of the company’s new brew-house, which coincided with the launch of their new Best Bitter. Ruddles were based in the village of Langham, just outside Oakham, and after our look around we were entertained to lunch by company chairman, Tony Ruddle, in the hospitality centre, where a substantial spread of food had been laid on.

The food was excellent, consisting of local delicacies such as Melton Mowbray Pork Pies, Red Leicester and Stilton Cheeses, with chunks of freshly baked crusty bread to soak up the beer; the latter flowing freely from jugs which were replenished at regular intervals.

Best Small Brewery Visit:
Hogs Back Brewery is housed in a group of 18th century farm buildings, just outside the Surrey village of Tongham, and close to the famous Hog’s Back ridge which gives the brewery its name.

I visited Hogs Back around 15 years ago, on a coach trip with a group of local CAMRA members. This was a tour with a difference, as after a brief introductory talk, we were given a free souvenir half pint glass which was filled with the first of several different Hogs Back beers.

As we progressed round the brewery, looking at different stages of the brewing process,  our glasses were recharged at each interval with a progressively stronger beer. So after starting off with one of the brewery’s weakest beers, we steadily worked our way upwards through the range (TEA, Hop Garden Gold, OTT), finally ending up on the 9.0%  A over T.

We’re running out of time here, and also out of space, but there’s just room to mention a couple more breweries:

Most Missed Breweries:
Young’s & Co of Wandsworth and Fremlins of Faversham; both gone to that great brewery graveyard in the sky. 

A trip round Young’s was always going to be good; what with the antique mash-tuns, the old steam engine and the menagerie of farmyard animals. The latter included the magnificent, working dray-horses plus the large ram, who acted as the brewery mascot.

Young’s was a brewery dear to the hearts of many CAMRA members, and was one which should never have been allowed to close. I did two tours, and thoroughly enjoyed them both.

The Fremlins Brewery in Faversham was a massive old brewery which was almost certainly operating way under capacity before its closure. Whitbread, who owned the plant, probably hadn’t spent a penny on the place in years, but it was still a fascinating brewery to look round, and a fine example of a provincial 19th Century, town brewery. The beer (Fremlins Bitter), was good too, and one of my all time favourites.

I could go on, but for brevity’s sake, will draw things to a close now. Next time we will be looking at some of the overseas breweries I have visited.


Russtovich said...

An impressive collection of brewery tours Paul.

Sadly I've only been on a few tours but two that stand out are:

- Carlsberg back in 1981. It was Feb so only 7 of us on the tour (!) and at the beginning they had us sign in and where we were from. At the end of the tour we were taken to a large room (for free beer) and at the table there was a national flag for each country one of us was from.

The second, and totally biased here, was the short tour of Situation Brewing in Edmonton, Alberta. A small brewpub but my youngest son is the head brewmaster (with just a helper) who gave me, my wife, our eldest (and his fiancée) a private tour. No free beer at the end but I did get a 15% VIP discount for being related to the head brewmaster. :)

Ok, on to your post:

"Afterwards I enjoyed some excellent Draught Bass, direct from the cask, in the brewery sample room."

Martin is going to be soooo jealous! (heh)

"The food was excellent, consisting of local delicacies such as Melton Mowbray Pork Pies, Red Leicester and Stilton Cheeses, with chunks of freshly baked crusty bread to soak up the beer; the latter flowing freely from jugs which were replenished at regular intervals."

Good Lord, that sounds like heaven!

"finally ending up on the 9.0% A over T."

'Something' over teacup I presume? (LOL)

"The beer (Fremlins Bitter), was good too, and one of my all time favourites."

I will be quite distraught if they ever stop making my current favourite ESB here in Canada. :(

Looking forward to the overseas edition. Maybe you had country flags at a tour of Carlsberg as well? :)


Anonymous said...

I am SO jealous, Russ. That said, the Ruddles food sounds even better !

I'm not a fan of Brewery Taps and tours in general, though our own Milton Brewery allows groups of 20 + to help themselves to as much cool beer as they like for about £20 and I that's the ultimate **** up in a brewery.

Paul Bailey said...

No country flags at my tour of Carlsberg Russ, but it was summer (of sorts) in Copenhagen, and my visit predates yours by six years. That was on my InterRail trip, and we also did Heineken whilst staying in Amsterdam.

Martin, I used to think that if you’ve seen one brewery, you’ve seen them all, but the visits I’ve made over the past few years have proved that to be untrue. The basic processes might be similar, but there are so many variations with regard to plant, brewery buildings plus the story behind each one, that I’ve always come away having learned something new. The people who conduct the tours can also make a big difference.

paul said...

Aromas Over TOngham.

Also, more colloquially @rse Over t1t (to fall over, possibly after one too many strong ales)