Brewing up a storm: Kent's local brewers

Demand for local produce here in Kent has never been more in vogue, so it's perhaps no surprise that drinkers have also started to look closer to home when ordering a pint at the bar. Meet some of our leading microbrewers

Demand for local produce here in Kent has never been more in vogue, so it’s perhaps no surprise that drinkers have also started to look closer to home when ordering a pint at the barCatering for this change in demand is a legion of microbreweries that have popped up during the past decade. Pubs might be closing across the county but our small, independent breweries are going through something of a purple patch. Last year alone five new microbreweries were opened in Kent, pushing the county’s total number well into the twenties.So what inspires people to start doing this in the first place? “Like a lot of other people I got into brewing via a love of real ale,” says James Sandy, founder of the Wantsum Brewery in Canterbury.A few years ago James found himself increasingly fed up with the poor quality of the real ales the major breweries were producing, to the extent that he was forever moaning to his friends about it. “In the end a few of them starting saying that if it bugged me so much then I should do something about it. I’d always dabbled in home brewing but making that leap to the next level was a big decision. In the end it took me being made redundant to provide the necessary push. I decided to use the opportunity to change my career and start doing something I love. And that’s how the brewery got started.”One of the principle attractions of micro-brewing (both to customers and the brewers themselves) is the variety of ales that can be produced.“Around 10 to 15 years ago, the real ales available in pubs were fewer in number and pretty bland, specifically compared to what is available today. There was a need for greater variety, to make drinking real ale more interesting,” adds James.Like those in other parts of the country, microbreweries here in Kent have challenged the status quo and offered this variety, giving drinkers something to get really excited about.With this in mind, James feels that using a wide array of ingredients to produce an unusual and diverse range of beers is one of the most important aspects of his job.“People don’t often realise the array of different tastes that can be produced in a beer,” he says. “To take hops alone, it’s amazing what assorted tastes they can release, such as tangerine, vanilla or blackcurrant. “In the same way that some chefs do with food, I want to push people’s palates and really create the kind of beers that I originally wanted to drink before I set the brewery up.”

Unlike large-scale brewing, with its massive overhead costs, micro-brewing is much more financially accessible. Despite this, it’s not something that can be rushed into.“If you go into this blind you’ll probably fail,” says Simon Lewis, owner of the recently established Royal Tunbridge Wells Brewing Company. “Lots of people involved in these kinds of breweries have previously been enthusiastic home-brewers. But as I’m sure they will tell you, going from that to this represents a significant step-up.”Before Simon even started brewing he undertook months of research and met plenty of people in the brewing community, specifically several very helpful people at The Purity Brewery in Warwickshire. “I also took a course in brewing so that I had thorough grounding in the art,” he adds. “All this improved my understanding of the process. But even though I could have probably got by, I think things would have been that much more difficult without the help of Ian Dorman, who had been involved with the previous incarnation of the Royal Tunbridge Wells Brewing Company before it closed down 30 years ago. “His coming on board was a wonderful bonus for the brewery. The experience he has brought has been enormously beneficial and without it it’s doubtful that the enterprise would have been as successful as it has.”In some ways, the development of microbreweries in the county can be seen as part of a wider trend to resist the homogenisation of what we eat and drink. We can see its shared ethos in the creation and growth of Farmers’ Markets during the past decade, the many campaigns to persuade consumers to buy local produce and the efforts of various local communities to resist the colonisation of towns and villages by chain stores and supermarkets.Microbreweries have offered the people of Kent real ales that reflect local character and provided a welcome antidote to the body of mass-produced bland beers that had come to dominate what was traditionally available in our local pubs. “It always struck me as really odd that I could be sitting in a pub in the middle of Tunbridge Wells and only able to drink beers that were produced at best in nearby counties and at worst in counties hundreds of miles away. It just didn’t seem to make any sense,” says Simon.“At least now the people of Tunbridge Wells can drink something that is produced right here in the town. And hopefully in the future this will be true for more and more parts of our county.”

This emphasis on localism is perfectly illustrated at the Westerham Brewery Company. Its owner, Robert Wicks, is a man who believes in putting Kent right at the heart of the brewing process.“When I started the brewery in 2004 I was committed to make localism a factor in the beer’s production. We have now reached a point where most of our hops are grown in Kent and all of our barley is produced locally. “And when it comes to water, large amounts of which are essential for any brewer, we use that which percolates through the Lower Greensand Ridge to the south of Westerham. This local hard water has the added advantage of being excellent for brewing ales such as IPA (India Pale Ale), for which Westerham was once famous.”And if all that doesn’t fully illustrate Robert’s local credentials, he has also recultured the yeast from Westerham’s Black Eagle Brewery (which closed in 1965 following the consolidation by the ‘Big Brewers’ in the 1950’s.) “Back in 1959, the Black Eagle Brewery deposited freeze-dried samples of their yeasts with the National Collection of Yeast Cultures, no doubt sensing that it might be lost forever. Now, 50 years later, we have revived these yeast cultures,” he says.“Combined with water from the same aquifer that served the old brewery, we hope to capture the essence of what made Westerham’s ales famous.”The breweries featured here and many others in the county have to date enjoyed considerable success. The number of pubs that carry their beers has increased and in many instances they are now making themselves known well beyond Kent’s borders. For the brewers themselves, such as James Sandy, while success is very welcome, just as rewarding has been the process of learning more and more about the art of brewing itself.He says: “Brewing is a lot like cooking. There are people who are good cooks, there are people who really understand their craft and then there are those who get into the science behind food. I’m progressing along this path, learning all the time and finding that the further I go the more enjoyable it becomes.” 

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