by Robert S.Wallace (Brewing Techniques - Vol. 6, No.6)
This year, Britain’s oldest continuously operating, brewery celebrates its tercentenary, establishing a milestone in British brewing history.
When a brewer thinks of Kent in the southeastern part of England, the immediate mental images are of hops and ale — an inseparable combination. This year marks the 300th anniversary of Shepherd Neame’s Faversham Brewery, Kent’s only surviving major brewery. Excellent spring water, superb locally grown and malted barley, and some of the finest hops in the world enable the brewers at the Faversham Brewery to continue the city’s centuries-old brewing tradition. That a family-owned brewery can celebrate 300 continuous years of operation is particularly noteworthy; that it retains much of its old traditions and remains competitive and independent is exceptional.
Beer from the Abbey
Beers have been produced in the city of Faversham for more than 850 years. In 1147, King Stephen established a Benedictine abbey in the city, and with it came the start of the brewing tradition in East Kent. Shepherd Neame’s story began in 1698, when the mayor of Faversham, Richard Marsh, built a brewery on Court Street (at the Faversham Brewery’s present location) with an artesian well. This well would supply the brewery with pure, high-quality brewing water for the next 300 years. In 1741, ownership of the brewery transferred from the Marsh family to the Shepherd family, and Samuel Shepherd assumed control of the business. The Shepherd family later forged brewing partnerships with other families that first changed the company name to Shepherd & Hilton, then to Shepherd & Mares. The company didn’t become known as Shepherd Neame Ltd. until Percy Beale Neame joined the partnership in 1869. Descendants of Percy Beale Neame are still active in company operations and are also advocates for the international and domestic brewing industry.
Shepherd Neame’s well-established presence in the British brewing industry includes control of 380 pubs throughout England, most of them tenancies. The company also produces wines and liquors. One of these, Grants Morella Cherry Brandy, was voted Best Liqueur in the World at the 1994 International Wine and Spirits Awards and has obtained royal approval from the Prince of Wales.
The diversity of products made and marketed by Shepherd Neame is noteworthy. They produce traditional cask ales, kegged and bottled ales, and several seasonal beers, taking advantage of their close proximity to British hop-growing areas. In addition to these, Shepherd Neame produces a variety of lagers at the Faversham Brewery under license from other international brewers, using these brewers’ recipes and using malt and hops obtained from British suppliers. The brewery maintains a diversity of product lines, meeting the needs of the market, while retaining many traditional elements in their brewing practice.
Classic Ingredients for Success
Shepherd Neame brews several beers from quality ingredients using traditional infusion mashing and an interesting mix of historic equipment and modern, state-of-the-art facilities. The synergy of ingredients, location, brewing experience, and a commitment to product excellence make the beers brewed in Faversham classics, by all definitions.
Water: Just as it did 300 years ago, the water used at the Faversham Brewery comes from three 200-foot-deep artesian wells. The brewery is located within several hundred yards of the sea in a tidally influenced area adjacent to the Isle of Sheppey at the southern end of the mouth of the Medway River. Because of the proximity of the sea, the possibility of salt water entering the brewery’s fresh water aquifer is a legitimate concern. The wells are monitored closely for salinity, though studies of the geology and hydrology of the surrounding Kentish countryside show that the aquifer that supplies Shepherd Neame with its most basic raw material is vast and not likely to pose significant problems in the near future. Groundwater contamination from urban development in East Kent is still a possibility, however, so the brewers remain vigilant.
For the time being, the only water treatment necessary is the addition of salts to Burtonize several of Shepherd Neame’s ales (though it’s not necessary for the majority of their products). When the mash or wort must be acidified, the brewers add lactic acid.
Malt: Shepherd Neame takes pride in using English-grown barley malted by British maltsters. Using home-grown malt maintains the freshness of Shepherd Neame’s products, saves the brewery transportation costs, and supports the domestic malting industry. Shepherd Neame’s preferred barley varieties are Halcyon and Fanfare. Maris Otter malts are rarely used because they cost 30% more than other malts of similar characteristics owing to their low yield per hectare. Various specialty malts, including crystal, black, and chocolate, round out the palette. In addition to barley malt, several of the brewery’s ale recipes call for 10–15% micronized (torrified) wheat which improves head retention and fullness in the company’s lower-alcohol beers, including Master Brew Premium Bitter and some lagers.
Hops: As one might expect, only Kentish hops are used for brewing at Shepherd Neame. East Kent Goldings, grown extensively within 25 miles of the brewery, are used extensively for the production of Shepherd Neame’s ales; target hops are used for bittering. Both Target and Wye Challenger varieties are used in the lagers. At one time Shepherd Neame grew its own hops on company-owned farms throughout the nearby rolling hills, but the brewery now contracts with local hop growers. The brewery also benefits from the proximity of Wye College, one of the world’s premier hop research institutions; the relationship keeps Shepherd Neame abreast of hop-breeding, disease-resistance, and pesticide management issues.
A Modern Facility with a Historic Flavor
Though the ingredients may not have changed much, Shepherd Neame’s facilities have changed significantly since the Faversham Brewery was established 300 years ago. The original brewery front still exists at 17 Court Street, where visitors pass through a door adorned with a bas-relief of hops in tribute to the role hops have played in the evolution of British ales throughout the centuries. The brewery evokes a sense of history, as though one were seeing a working brewing museum in operation. Its air of longevity is reflected in the age-worn brickwork of walls, which have seen hundreds of thousands of barrels of beer leave the brewery to quench the thirst of an enthusiastic and appreciative local population. A brewery setting like this is irreplaceable. Yet this sense of brewing antiquity does not preclude the use of modern kettles, fermentors, filtration, and lagering and bottling systems; Shepherd Neame is a modern brewery in a historical setting.
Using gravity: As was common in Victorian times, the brewery was built to take advantage of gravity. Grain is stored in several silos located on upper floors of the brewery. These supply a grain mill that was once driven by steam engines on the ground level through a system of leather belts, pulleys, and drive shafts. Though no longer used for day-to-day brewing, these steam engines are kept in working order and are fired up on occasion.
After the grain has been crushed, it is transferred to the adjacent mashing room, half a floor below the mill room. Two wooden mash tuns made from teak with metal bands produce sweet wort as they have since 1910, using infusion mashing only. The tuns are covered with wooden panels that enclose the overhead sparge arms; brewers can remove sections of the cover to gain access to the mash. Each tun contains a grist raker driven from below and a spent grain port on the bottom.* Two 4,320-gal (120 imperial bbl) stainless steel kettles (coppers) are located on the second floor in the main brewhouse underneath the hot liquor tanks.
*Shepherd Neame’s combined mash/lauter tun is typical of British breweries.
Preparing for distribution: Cask ales are preconditioned on the premises and fined with isinglass before shipment to publicans throughout the south of England, who condition them further until they are ready to serve. Noncask beers destined for bottling or transport in kegs undergo filtration through diatomaceous earth filters and the addition of Polyclar AT to maintain clarity in the finished product. This process yields kegged beers with a useful life of about three months. A tunnel pasteurization facility adjacent to the bottling line ensures a one-year shelf life for bottled beers. Throughput of the bottling line is approximately 15,000 bottles per hour. The packaging line is also capable of canning beer at 11,500 cans per hour, although little of the brewery’s product is canned. The brewery’s 500-mL clear bottles enhance consumer recognition of Shepherd Neame’s name. Despite the use of clear bottles, the brewers report little, if any, incidence of the beer being lightstruck, possibly because of the bottles’ secondary packaging.Attached to each kettle is a hop hopper that allows the brewers to add pelletized Kentish hops at various times during the boil without opening the manway atop each kettle. Irish moss finings are also added to the boil for some of the beers. Countercurrent heat exchangers for cooling bitter wort are on a lower level adjacent to the fermentors. Shepherd Neame’s fermentation and lagering facilities consist of 46 cylindroconical tanks: two 35-bbl, eight 120-bbl, eighteen 250-bbl, and eighteen 500-bbl tanks.
The brewery employs approximately 80 people in its brewing operations; another 20 are employed in distribution and transportation. Four specialists work full-time in the brewery’s quality control laboratory performing standard tests for alcohol concentration, bittering levels, and so forth using HPLC and GC instrumentation. They also conduct routine microbiological assays for standard beer contaminants.
Shepherd Neame’s Beers
Shepherd Neame produces about 150,000 imperial bbl of beer each year, which puts it somewhere between U.S. regional breweries Pyramid and Redhook in scale. Approximately 60% of Shepherd Neame’s production is lagers. The remaining 40% consists of ales (cask-conditioned, kegged, and bottled) distributed to local pubs (both tied and free) and distributors throughout southern England. Shepherd Neame beers are also distributed internationally, particularly its bottled ales and its license-brewed products (such as Kingfisher Lager, Oranjeboom, and Hürlimann Sternbrau).
Cask beers: Cask ales make up approximately 50% of Shepherd Neame’s domestically consumed beer (which means 20% of domestic production is cask). Master Brew Bitter (O.G. 1.037; 3.7% v/v) is a moderately brown, traditional bitter with impressive hop aroma.
Best Bitter (O.G. 1.041; 4.1% v/v) is similar to Master Brew, less aromatic but more malty in character.
Spitfire Premium Ale (O.G. 1.045; 4.5% v/v) was introduced to Shepherd Neame’s product line in 1990 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Britain. The beer was named for a famous Royal Air Force fighter plane. It has been permanently added to the line-up, and proceeds from the sale of this bitter assisted the Royal Air Force’s Benevolent Fund for veterans. Spitfire is also sold in a bottle-conditioned form and is among the most flavorful beers I’ve experienced in Kent. The beer was deemed the world’s best strong ale at the Brewing Industry International Awards in 1995 and is usually found on the medal list at other international competitions.
Bishop’s Finger (O.G. 1.052; 5.2% v/v) is an outstanding, well-hopped premium ale in traditional Kentish style. The beer gets its name from the numerous signposts formerly found throughout the region, which depicted a hand with a pointing finger directing religious pilgrims to Canterbury (12 miles to the east of Faversham) where they could visit the Cathedral and its bishop. This well-known beer is a popular export and another perennial award-winner in international competitions. It is the only beer Shepherd Neame produces in cask, kegs, bottles, and cans.
Original Porter (O.G. 1.052; 5.2% v/v) is a traditional dark porter, available from October to March. Formulated in honor of Shepherd Neame’s recipes of the 18th and 19th century, the porter contains licorice root, though brewers stopped short of adding wormwood or bog myrtle.
Other seasonal beers, such as Earlybird Spring Hop Ale and Goldings Harvest Ale, are also part of the Shepherd Neame offerings, celebrating the local hop crops (East Kent Goldings were originally called “Early Birds”). Another commemorative beer is the 1698 Celebration Ale (6.5% v/v in bottles, and 4.5% v/v in cask form), brewed to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the brewery. Malted rye makes up 20% of the grist in this recipe. It has many of the attributes of a traditional India pale ale, but its assertive use of Target and Goldings hops make it unique and subtly enjoyable in many ways.
Bottled beers: These include Master Brew Premium Bitter (4.0% v/v), Bishop’s Finger Kentish Strong Ale (5.4% v/v), Original Porter (5.2% v/v), Spitfire Bottle Conditioned Premium Bitter (4.5% v/v), and India Pale Ale (4.5% v/v).
License-brewed beers: Several beers are brewed under license for other brewers; Shepherd Neame adapts the other brewery’s recipe to include local ingredients. The bottling line is also occasionally used to contract-bottle bulk lots of other products. For Brauerei Hürlimann of Zürich, Shepherd Neame brews Steinbock (3.3% v/v) and Hürlimann Sternbrau (4.8% v/v), both of which are lagers. Oranjeboom is brewed for Interbrew. Both Oranjeboom and Hürlimann are also past award-winners. Prinzregent Luitpold Weissbier (5.0% v/v) is a wheat beer brewed for the Bavarian Kaltenberg Brewery. Kingfisher Lager, a standard Pilsener, is brewed for the United Brewers of India. Sunlik Beer is a light-colored Pilsener brewed for the San Miguel brewery in Hong Kong.
The diversity of beers produced by Shepherd Neame testifies to the adaptability of its brewers to meet market needs. It is also a statement about the talents of the brewery’s management team that they can brew such different beer styles using only infusion mashing in 90-year-old wooden tuns.
Shepherd Neame Ltd. is using its status to lead a challenge to Britain’s taxation system, which makes it difficult for British breweries to compete with foreign beer ferried across the English Channel by consumers and bootleggers. One out of every three pints of beer consumed in Kent now comes from France. Like other British breweries, Shepherd Neame has been hit hard by the tax situation; it has closed or sold 50 pubs since the Beer Duty changes took effect 1993. The company is suing the government over this issue, and the outcome of this suit will have a far-reaching effect on British brewing. Though the suit has been dismissed in British courts thus far, it will go to the European Court in 1999 for a final appeal.
Despite these struggles, the Faversham Brewery, as operated by Shepherd Neame Ltd., will likely continue to provide outstanding beers long into the future. It will continue to build upon its unequaled brewing heritage, one based upon traditional brewing practices, but also incorporating modern improvements in equipment. The company has maintained high standards of producing superlative beer from quality ingredients while showing profit and growth throughout the company’s history, even in hard times. As other independent regional brewers succumb to the effects of megabreweries and a perceived waning of public appreciation for traditional beers, the example of Shepherd Neame is heartening. With due respect to her Majesty, the Queen — long live Shepherd Neame!
I would like to thank Ian J. Dixon for his time and patience answering many questions during my visit to the Faversham Brewery, and Jonathan Neame for discussions about his family’s involvement in the brewing industry. I must also express my appreciation to Keith Grantham of Luton who established contact with Shepherd Neame Ltd. on my behalf; his hospitality and assistance throughout my last visit to England made the entire experience exceptional.
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