Inside Britain’s Oldest Brewery.
We do love a good beer here at DayOne, I think we might have mentioned that before…
So, when Giles Hilton (Head of Customer Relations at Shepherd Neame and, incidentally, Chairman of Canterbury Rugby Club), very kindly invited the DayOne team on a tour of the brewery, we had accepted his offer faster than you can say ‘Oranjeboom’.
Packing up early for the day on a Thursday lunchtime, we made our way down to Faversham, where Shepherd Neame (or ‘Sheps’ to the locals) have been brewing continuously since 1698, although following a revamp of the Visitors’ Centre in 2006, evidence to suggest it may be older was unearthed.
And the history is palpable. Carved into the brickwork of the brewery walls are deep ridges from where the horse-drawn carriages of the draymen edged up the narrow, cobbled passage to load their freshly-brewed cargo from chutes which remain intact (nowadays, a distribution centre on the outskirts of Faversham does the work of horse and cart). Above the grooves, the names Shepherd, Neame and Mares (a former partner who died in 1864) are also written in stone, another reminder of the brewery’s rich history. Jonathan Neame is now Chief Exec., who we were able to have a brief chat with when we bumped into him whilst on the tour – great to see a CEO having such a hands-on and invested approach.
Ducking our heads, we ventured into a small tunnel lined with exposed bricks – part of the recently-restored old kiln (not for the claustrophobic!) where the grain would’ve been roasted to make the malt, one of only four ingredients from which beer is made.
Heading upstairs into the brewhouse, we were treated to a very interactive experience with three of these ingredients. We got to sample the malt, roasted for different amounts of time (the longer it’s roasted, the darker the beer), and the hop pellets, which leave a strong taste on the back of tongue! This was washed down with a glass of liquor (which is what they call ‘water’ in the brewing biz). But not just any water, this is artesian-well-drawn-filtered-through-the-chalk-of-the-Kent-downs-for-years-before-reaching-Faversham water, coming from a larger aquifer that stretches from Kent right down to the Champagne region of France.
Speaking of Champagne, we learnt that Sheps’ beer has something in common with its bubbly French neighbour. Kentish Ale also benefits from Product Description of Origin. The majority of the barley is produced locally, the water is sourced from 200ft below the brewery, and 80% of the hops are grown in hop gardens in Kent (the name ‘Hop Garden’ is still used, as opposed to ‘Hop Farm’, since back in the day farms were taxed and gardens weren’t, well-played hop gardeners!)
The final and most intriguing ingredient, and most importantly where the alcohol comes in, is the yeast. Only a tiny amount is needed to be cultured, and this can be used about 8–12 times before fresh yeast is required. And where does the fresh yeast come from? The National Collection of Yeast Cultures in Nottingham of course (news to us!), kind of like the Noah’s Ark of yeast. Brewers are very protective of their yeast – it’s the ingredient that cannot be replicated by competitors and is unique to the brewery, and Sheps’ yeast strain can be traced back for generations.
After passing through the fermentation room, or ‘Cathedral of Beer’, we had worked up a thirst – luckily it was time to put our now expert beer knowledge to the test – the taste test. Martin, our fantastic tour guide, presented us each with a flight of six different beers, and we recapped the ingredients and processes we’d just learnt. Bear Island, a hoppy pale ale and a relatively new addition to Sheps’ range, was one of the favourites of the DayOne team, as was 1698 (bottles only, and going down especially well with the DayOne gals!), which Martin diplomatically pointed out was more for seasoned drinkers, due to its 6.5% abv. We also sampled the signature Spitfire Ale, which had been intended as commemorative beer marking the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Britain. Twenty-nine years later, and after some cheeky advertising campaigns, it’s still going strong.
Beer is undergoing a revolution in the UK at the moment, with there being at least 2,000 breweries nationwide. So how does Sheps stand out? The members of the DayOne team have visited many breweries between them, and while a lot of modern breweries are simply rooms of stainless-steel vats, Sheps is steeped in so much history. Its new mash tuns (the old oak ones were replaced in 2017), retain the old oak cladding, bespoke stained glass windows installed in the Millennium Brewhouse pay homage to the region’s brewing history, and the packaging of the Whitstable Bay range uses the moniker ‘Faversham Steam Brewery’, a nod to the traditional steam-powered process Sheps used in the 18th Century (the steam engine still works to this day). This heritage, along with the 300-odd pubs and hotels it owns (more listed buildings than any other commercial organisation in Kent), its sustainability (97% of the grain and hops are recycled as animal feed) and its ability to be adaptable and reactive (they recently changed the name of ‘Cinque’ lager to ‘Five Grain’ to appeal to a wider audience), will ensure that they will be brewing for a long time to come. And we’ll drink to that!