Monday, 3 May 2021

Tapping a new demand - brewery taprooms

At the beginning of the year, I mentioned the opening of a new brewery in my adopted hometown of Tonbridge. Constellation Brewing occupy, small unit in a relatively new development of such facilities, on the edge of the town’s sprawling industrial estate. I mentioned at the time that several friends had sampled Constellation’s wares beer. The brewery was selling 5 litre mini kegs of their beers for people to click and collect.

As well as debating as to whether West Kent needed another brewery, and the impact its appearance would have on the performance of other local breweries, I also advised that Constellation had plans to open a taproom at the brewery. This was planned to coincide with the easing of pandemic restrictions, even though at the time, the PM’s “roadmap out of lock-down” hadn’t yet been formulated, let alone published.

Constellation’s taproom finally opened to the public on Saturday.  I was altered to this by a message on social media, that flashed up on my phone, and had every intention of paying the place a visit. Unfortunately, Mrs PBT’s had other ideas that included a shopping expedition to Sevenoaks. To cut a long story short, by the time son Matthew arrived home from work, and we’d had our evening meal, there was insufficient time for a visit.

I do intend to call in before the long Bank Holiday Weekend is over, but in the meantime, I want to take a closer look at the idea of brewery taprooms and reflect on a few of the ones I have visited, both here and abroad. They are certainly a relatively new concept, particularly on this side of the Atlantic, but one which seems to be catching on in various parts of the world.

I’m not exactly sure where the idea of a brewery taproom first came from, because when talking about such a space, I’m not referring to what us older drinkers would think of as a “brewery tap.”  This, by definition, should be the nearest pub to the brewery, and examples which spring to mind include the Ram Inn, in Wandsworth, the George & Devonshire in Chiswick and the John Harvey Tavern in Lewes.

The latter two pubs serve as brewery taps for Fuller’s and Harvey’s breweries respectively, whereas the Ram is now devoid of the brewery it once served, following the sad closure of the adjacent Ram Brewery of Young & Co Ltd.

Given their proximity to the parent brewery, all three pubs acted as convenient meeting places for brewery tours, plus the opportunity of a generous sampling of the brewery’s products, at the end of the visit. I certainly have fond memories of enjoying a few, pre-brewery tour beers, in all three pubs.

Other pubs have fulfilled this function in an unofficial way, one prime example being the excellent Cooper’s Tavern, in Burton-on-Trent. I visited this iconic little back street pub with members of the Beer & Pubs Forum, at the beginning of March last year, and enjoyed what turned out to be some of my last, pre-pandemic pints.

A completely different concept is that of the brewery taprooms, and these are the prime focus of this article. The main difference is they normally form part of the brewery itself, rather than being a stand-alone building, such as a pub, and with the bulk of the new wave of micro-breweries housed in industrial units, this makes perfect sense.

Many so-called taprooms will have started out as little more than a few tables and chairs, or even some bench seating, housed in a convenient part of the brewery, where the brewery’s beers (keg as well as cask), can be sampled and enjoyed. Nowhere is this layout more evident than on the legendary Bermondsey Beer Mile in South London. Son Matthew and I undertook this crawl in June 2014, when it consisted of only a half dozen breweries the majority housed in railway arches. Today’s participants will need a lot more saying power, as there are now fifteen of them!

The general layout was as described above, but as all the venues on the crawl were working breweries, and only open to the public on Saturdays, the facilities on offer were basic at best, and rudimentary at worst (especially the toilets). They did however, set the scene and provided a glimpse of what was to come in subsequent years.

The first “proper” brewery taproom I experienced was that of By the Horns Brewery, which I visited three years later. The brewery is situated on
an industrial park, in the Summerstown area of South-West London, and was founded in 2011. The brewery has since expanded into adjoining units on either side of the original. Sharing the site with the brewery, is a tap-bar, and a bottle shop. This is good news for local beer lovers and the brewery has now become a much-valued part of the local community.

By The Horns set the bar for brewery taprooms as far as I was concerned, but whilst I’d visited a couple of other breweries in between, it wasn’t until a couple of years later that I experienced another proper one.

Cellar Head Brewing Company was founded by Chris and Julia McKenzie in 2017. They were joined by Dave Berry, whose previous brewing experience included stints at both Old Dairy Brewery and Tonbridge Brewery. Cellar Head's cask beers are un-fined, which means they carry a natural haze and are also vegan-friendly. In addition, they do not filter or pasteurise their bottled beers and neither do they artificially carbonate them.

Cellar Head beers were well-received locally, and just two years later they opened a new brewery and taproom, just off the A21 at Flimwell, between Tunbridge Wells and Robertsbridge. To celebrate the opening of their flash new premises, the brewery held a birthday party, which I attended along with a group from West Kent CAMRA. We arrived by coach, already suitably lubricated, on our way home from a visit to Harvey’s Brewery in Lewes, earlier in the day.

Cellar Head’s premises are housed in a small industrial-type unit, situated down a rather narrow lane, and with all the parked cars belonging to other visitors, our driver found it rather difficult to squeeze the coach past and find a suitable parking place, but all credit due, he managed it without any scrapes.

The party was in full swing when we arrived, with everyone having a good time. There were plenty of thirsty punters, plus quite a few families, sat at picnic-benches both inside and out. There were three beers on hand-pump, plus a couple of keg ones. There was also a food truck parked outside.

The whole brewery-taproom set-up, along with the al fresco drinking, reminded me of the Vanish Farmwoods Brewery in Leesburg, Virginia, which I visited whilst attending the Beer Bloggers & Writer’s Conference in the United States, the previous August.  With its stunning rural setting with views over the local countryside – this time across to Bewl Water, and the families there with their children, enjoying a few beers, I could have been back in rural Virginia. There was even a duo blasting out country and western music in the bar!

That evening excursion to Vanish Farmwoods Brewery, involved a coach ride deep into the heart of rural Virginia, with the brewery acting as our hosts for the evening. The event showcased not just their own craft beers, but also brews from some of the other Virginia based breweries. Vanish had also laid on an amazing barbeque for us, which included some of the most delicious and tender roast beef it has been my pleasure to have experienced.

What I liked about the place was it was very family oriented, with a large outdoor play area for the kids, plus a large off-sales section where visitors could load up with bottles and cans to take away, as well as filling up their "growlers" with freshly brewed craft beer.

This particular taproom was one of several I visited during my time at the Beer Bloggers & Writer’s Conference. Others included Lost Rhino Brewing, Stone Brewing and Triple Cross Brewing, and all were good, in their own way.

You probably get the picture by now, so I will end here, and report on Tonbridge’s effort once I have made that promised visit to Constellation Brewing.



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