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The Art of Brewing

When hops were first cultivated in Great Britain, it was here in the Garden of England that they were grown. In the 500 years that followed, the industry saw rises, falls and renaissance – a history which ultimately established Kent as the steadfast home of British brewing.

Hops first arrived on the balmy shores of Kent via the trade of Dutch and Flemish merchants around 1520. A county which has a lot to thank its nutrient-rich soil and mild climate for, Westbere near Canterbury saw Britain’s very first hop farm, which grew Humulus lupulus in such luscious abundance that Kent soon became the thriving centre of the British hop industry. For hundreds of years following, brewing became and remained one of Kent’s major industries with hop picking, the art of brewing and the appreciation of beer and ale itself becoming ingrained in both Kent’s history and identity. 

One of Kent’s favourite locals, Charles Dickens shared this appreciation for Kentish brewing and ales and depicts the county’s historical identity affectionately through one of his characters in The Pickwick Papers: ‘Kent, sir, everybody knows Kent – apples, cherries, hops and women.’ Although our iconic oast houses still stand proudly silhouetted against the Kentish skyline, many things have changed in the Garden of England since the author strode about the county in 1837. Despite a huge decline in British brewing during the post-war years, Kent still grows hops, embraces its brewing heritage and now celebrates an excess of 60 breweries – a huge increase since the industry was at its lowest ebb during the mid-1990s. 

The Kentish brewing industry peaked around 1870, during which some 77,000 acres of land were devoted solely to growing hops. With such a vast amount of crop to harvest, Kent’s biggest challenge was acquiring the workforce to pick them at speed within a very narrow window each September. Thus, a glorious British pastime was born – Hopping down in Kent. Although many Kent locals and members of the travelling community took part in the annual harvest, the majority of the hopping workforce were strong and resilient Londoners, predominantly working class and from the East End. With them, not only did they bring an abundance of culture that would entwine with Kent’s own identity, but also hard work in numbers that was needed to bring in the crop. Each year as many as 200,000 would make the journey out of the smog of London to revel in the clean country air of Kent, with ‘hopping’ becoming an annual working holiday for generations of London families working hard in the day and unwinding with raucous fun in the evenings. Sadly, by the early 1960s, this way of life declined into history due to a combination of industrial farming methods, falling beer sales and the growing popularity of continental lagers.

As a loyal reader of insideKENT and/or simply a Kent local, you will undoubtedly have heard of the county’s sole surviving big brewer, Shepherd Neame in Faversham. As Britain’s oldest brewer, Shepherd Neame have over 300 pubs throughout London and the South East and just as they have done throughout history, still pride themselves today on brewing traditional Kentish ales such as Spitfire, Master Brew and Bishops Finger. Not only this, Shepherd Neame have also built upon their own historical technique and the art of Kentish brewing, now creating award-winning lagers such as Hürlimann, Samuel Adams and the popular Whitstable Bay Collection alongside a range of seasonal brews. For those who want to get firsthand experience of the art of brewing, Shepherd Neame have made their mastery accessible to any visiting beer and ale appreciator. Nestled in the medieval market town of Faversham, guests can experience a tour of the ancient brewery – where brewing has continued for centuries – with the chance to discover how Shepherd Neame still use natural ingredients, such as mineral water from the town’s aquifer and local hops to create their award-winning brews. This experience was recognised and heralded by The Good Pub Guide in 2021, whom awarded Shepherd Neame the prestigious title of Brewery of the Year having been ‘impressed by the independent family firm’s sustainability practices and its efforts to attract ‘the beer-curious drinker’ with its Cask Club initiative and contemporary Whitstable Bay and Bear Island ranges.’ The award is the latest in a series of accolades for Shepherd Neame, which was named Tenanted Pub Company of the Year at the Publican Awards and honoured with nine medals in the International Beer Competition.

Another claim to beer and brewing fame that Kent can proudly call itself home to is Britain’s very first micropub, which came in the form of Martyn Hillier’s groundbreaking Butcher’s Arms in 2005. Sitting sweetly in the village of Herne, real ale lovers can squeeze into this East Kent gem and enjoy a pint and a chat, literally off the butcher’s block. “The beer is only as good as the banter,” says Martyn, and you are sure to find plenty of lively and friendly chat from the loyal band of locals, as well as the vast array of beers and ales that are sure to bedeck the bar here too. Since Martyn first opened The Butcher’s Arms in 2005, there are now over 500 micropubs in the UK, with Kent claiming at least 50 of those according to the Campaign for Real Ale’s (CAMRA) official list, and with the majority in the east of the county. 

Thanet is arguably the micropub capital of Kent with 12 including Britain’s smallest brewpub, which calls the district home. The Four Candles in Broadstairs is a real ale brewery crammed into a cellar little more than 3m x 3m, with the results sold in the cosy drinking area above. Boasting no regular beers and no big-brewery products, owner Mike Beaumont proudly serves Kentish treasures, such as Biddenden ciders, wines and fruit juices, Canterbury cheeses, local pork pies and pork scratchings alongside his ales and beer. Thanet has in fact long enjoyed a reputation for the quality of its beer, with Samuel Pepys’ famous diary being a long-standing testament to this, in which he wrote about being sent 12 bottles of ‘Margett (Margate) ale’, adding ‘three of them I drank pleasantly with some friends in the Coach.’  

Not only is Kent the birthplace of the micropub, the county is also a huge influence behind the phenomenon of the microbrewery and craft beer boom which has seen popularity and sales skyrocket in this age of social media, bespoke marketing and a newfound love of independent brands and local businesses. Kent alone is home to over 100 breweries and brewpubs, each showcasing their own unique take on the Garden of England’s ancient art of brewing combined with their own experiences, personal preferences and tastes. These microbreweries and craft beers are also an excellent way of showcasing the individuality of the multitude of landscapes and growing environments found in Kent, which can be divided into three areas. East Kent, with its brick earths mainly around Faversham and Canterbury, has always been known for high quality hops, hence the vast number of breweries in this area during industry peak, as well as the Weald and High Weald, particularly East Peckham and Yalding with their Weald clay and Tunbridge Wells sand. 

Mid-Kent, mainly the Medway valley including the Maidstone district on the Lower Greensand, was for many years the centre for brewing in the region. Even in the mid-19th century when brewers were disappearing at an alarming rate, Maidstone could still boast eight of its own. Aside from Shepherd Neame, the most famous historical name in Kent brewing, which you may recognise from old pub windows through their iconic elephant logo, was Fremlins. After buying the rundown Pale Ale Brewery in Maidstone’s Earl Street, a 28-year-old Ralph Fremlin would go on to become the biggest brewer in Kent thanks to his insight for seeing the potential of bottled beer, particularly for home consumption. Fremlins went on to swallow up many smaller Kentish brewers, even after Ralph’s death in 1910, and by the time Fremlins Brothers Limited were eventually too gulped down by an even bigger brewer – Whitbread – the final deal also included some 800 tied pubs. In 1972, the famous Earl Street brewery was closed with the glorious brewhouse demolished in 1976. However, visitors to Maidstone can still catch a glimpse of its former glory and an ode to Kent’s brewing past in the form of the Fremlin Walk Shopping Centre, which incorporates the original brewery entrance and even the original weather vane, surviving complete with the golden elephant logo.   

Many tales, techniques, buildings and characters have woven their way into the rich and layered history of Kent’s brewing industry. Today, visitors and locals can relish in this not only through glimpses of Kent’s glorious brewing past through ancient pub windows, oast houses and surviving architecture, but also via the spectacular renaissance of micropubs, microbreweries and the long-lasting big brewers that have embraced this Kentish art form and, in doing so, have not only written the most recent chapter in Kent’s charming and colourful brewing history but have also put Kent, beer, ale and brewing back on the epicurean’s map of Great Britain.

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