Britain’s oldest (and newest) brewer

If ever there was a case of having your cake and eating it, it’s Kent’s Shepherd Neame.

On the one hand its publicity people are sending out press releases showing how Britain’s oldest registered brewer is even older than they thought. The next they’re showing off a state of the art visitor centre.

And this sort of ‘one step forward, one glance back’ approach to its business can be found at every level of this impressive English regional brewer. Traditional pubs with hops round the restaurant and fine quality dining? No problem. A pint with the lads in one of Kent’s many feeder towns? You’ve got it.

Fine South East English ale? That’s what Shepherd Neame does. No matter, though, if lager is your tipple of choice. Sheps is the lager equivalent of the United Nations, with Dutch, Japanese, Swiss, Indian, Chinese and South African versions all brewed on site.

The brewery itself dominates the town of Faversham in the way large industries once did across Britain. Its impressive main entrance opens in to the sort of traditional authoritarian reception area that seemed to have been designed to intimidate, its dark wood furnishings and grandiose furnishings recalling an era long gone. If you’re fortunate enough, they’ll also show you some of the storerooms, with the big heavy iron safes and handwritten original ledgers recording every pound and shilling that has passed through its doors. It’s a stark reminder of the brewery’s great family history.

Enter the heart of the brewery and you walk out between the old high-walled building down what was once the old cobbled road from where the horse drays would come and collect beer barrels. On each visit the driver would be treated to a small glass of beer so that by the end of the day judgement was impaired and the tight turning spot became a challenge. You can still see the scrape marks on the wall.

And yet to the sides of that same roadway, offices are populated by research and development technicians using the latest techniques to perfect their beers. Precise science ensures that the yeast strains for the range of lagers remain separated from each other. Beyond and across the road computerised robots pack boxes in the bottling hall.

It all adds up to a wonderful mix of old and new, of a brewery proud and aware of its history but not resting on its laurels. It will adopt any worthwhile practice to advance its business and guarantee its future and that of its employees, which it clearly treats with respect.

One of the most impressive aspects of the brewery is the way it has managed to stay on its original brewery site and to grow its business at the same time.

Article continues in Beers of the World Magazine issue 9

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