Down the Pub with Britain’s Oldest Brewer

Spring, 2019

* A very special thanks to Johnny Homer for his exceptional hospitality, passion, and learned insights.

There simply aren’t many breweries like Shepherd Neame.  Britain’s oldest brewer, now in its 321st year, occupies an incredibly rich and singular place in both British and brewing history.  The darling of County Kent is nothing short of a brewing icon, as well as the rarest of animals; an independent, family-owned brewery with both historic credentials and progressive inclinations.  At Shepherd Neame the past is definitively alive, but no more so than the present, and the future is very much paramount. Theirs is a story both classic and modern, and one that all started in Faversham, in a place now called The Street.

Faversham, a charming market town that predates the Roman conquest, is located in the Borough of Swale in County Kent, an area affectionately known as the “Garden of England”.  A wide variety of fruits and vegetables are grown here, and up until not too long ago, two of the four key ingredients for brewing-barley and hops. One of the remaining two, water, is also plentiful, and in Faversham, it comes with a bit of history as well.

Faversham sits on a natural aquifer fed by the North Downs, a series of chalk hill ridges running from Farnham in Surrey to the famed White Cliffs of Dover.  Rain falling on the Downs takes roughly seven years to reach the aquifer, where it feeds both historic and modern wells. The quality of the water is exceptional, and has been employed in brewing since at least 1147 with the founding of Faversham Abbey.  The abbey, now nothing more than a few walls, lies roughly half a kilometer north of Shepherd Neame, born in 1698 as the Faversham Brewery. Its location was chosen for its artesian well, the same well used today, and its sole water supply. Odds are the new brewers picked up where the monks left off, albeit a half-century later, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Records show that by the 16th century there were roughly 86 women, colloquially known as ‘alewives’, brewing in Faversham.  Hops, introduced to England by Flemish immigrants in Kent, were gaining in popularity as a substitute to gruit.  Hopped ale (known as ‘beer’) was being brewed domestically and increasingly imported, challenging the preeminence of traditional, unhopped ale.  Though hops were likely cultivated as far back as the early 14th century, the country’s first official hop garden was established in Westbere, 10 miles from Faversham, in 1523, and malthouses in the region were an increasing sight.  Taking advantage of the provincial tendencies was William Castlock, brother of Faversham Abbey’s last abbot, who by 1525 was both importing and exporting beer. By 1550 his son was leasing the abbey brewery, and by 1570, had purchased and begun brewing at 18 Court St, the property that would eventually become Shepherd Neame.  The building’s industrial fate, it appeared, had been sealed.

But things were indeed to change.  The brewery soon changed hands, passing to Thomas Hilton, likely owing to the fact that Castlock’s grandson had been banned from brewing by the local authorities for reasons unknown.  Hilton though, was effectively little more than a placeholder. The brewery changed hands again in 1678, this time to one Richard Marsh, and resumed its historical importance.

In 1678, according to tax records, there were 27 brewers operating in Faversham.  Marsh, paying the most duty at that time, was likely the largest commercial operator, but the exact whereabouts of his brewery are unknown.  The location was likely well-noted, however, by one particular monarch, King James II in 1688. James arrived in Faversham rather by accident, his ship having run aground nearby and his skiff intercepted by local fisherman.  The Catholic King and his entourage had pulled up stakes and were fleeing to France, surrendering the country to his invading son-in-law William of Orange, a Protestant Dutchman, in the beginning of what would become known as “The Glorious Revolution”.  James was held for several nights at 18 Court Street before being returned to London, the brewery presumably now a bit more notable, and Britain’s transition from Absolute to Constitutional Monarchy irretrievably set in motion.

Ten years later, Marsh bought the property, and founded Faversham Brewery, which he left to his second son, also Richard, on his death in 1726.  The heir, however, was himself not long for the world, passing away a mere year later and leaving the brewery to his widow Mary. Mary married again, to the wonderfully-named Hilles Hobday, but this too wasn’t meant to last.  His death in 1731 delivered Mary into her second bout of widowhood, and ultimately, into the arms of Samuel Shepherd in 1732.

Shepherd promptly took the brewery reins, ushering in a period of growth and expansion centered on pub acquisitions, five of which remain in the estate to this day.  Upon retirement, his sons took over, but only one, Julius, went the distance. Under his watch the Faversham Brewery became the first in the world outside of London to employ steam power, installing a Boulton and Watt engine in 1789.  The brewery passed to Julius’ son Henry, and then on to Henry Jr, who eventually partnered with hop farmer Percy Neame, creating Shepherd Neame in 1865. The brewery immediately expanded, and nine years later the pubs estate numbered 100, an achievement that must have sent Henry Jr off in good spirits when he passed away in 1875, leaving Neame as sole proprietor.

The brewery survived both world wars intact, at one point even employing Italian POWs in the malthouse.  Today, Shepherd Neame is Britain’s 19th oldest company, and is thought to be the UK’s oldest industrial site still in use.  That’s a lot of history, to be sure, but incredibly, that past is still best thought of as prologue, as history continues to be written at 18 Court Street.  The brewery was designated Britain’s first Green Brewer in 2001 and won the Queen’s Award for Sustainable Development in 2006. It launched its first Organic Ale under the Whitstable line, in 2004, expanding the range in 2013.  Another line, Bear Island, premiered in 2017, marrying British brewing tradition with New World hops. It has a pilot system coming online by the end of the year as well as a canning line in the works. And in early 2019, it launched its “Cask Club”, a monthly-release project revisiting traditional seasonals with modern interpretations.  All of these developments have of course run concomitantly with the management of a celebrated estate of 322 pubs. In Kent alone, Shepherd Neame spends more money on building restoration and preservation than the National Trust and English heritage combined. Not many traditional breweries in this world approach the future with as much enthusiasm as they reserve for their pasts, but Shepherd Neame is different.  Though the epitome of traditional, they consider themselves first and foremost “specialty brewers” of provenance, and we’re all the richer for it.

A walk around Shepherd Neame is a treat for the senses, and very much a stroll back in time.  The heart of the property is The Street, a gently sloping hill that was originally the plot of land behind the Castlock’s house.  The Street includes the Brew House (rebuilt in 1864), the Steam Room (containing two working steam engines that once powered the brewery), the Malt Kiln (which dates to 1840; last used 1908), the artesian well (still in use, providing an average of 150 million liters/year), and 57 fermenting vessels (which collectively produce upwards of 50 million pints/year).  Up until 2016 the Brew House also housed several storied mash tuns; two 110 barrel wooden vessels made from Russian teak. At decommissioning they were the oldest tuns being used in the UK, and after the upgrade the wood was repurposed, with some now serving as elegant cladding on the new tuns and tanks.

Most of the brewery is Grade 2 listed, the second-highest order of historical significance, and walking the Victorian grounds does impart a sense of veneration slow to fade.  This history lesson is a delight and far from a well-kept secret; on average the property sees approximately 20,000 visitors a year, a fair amount of them coming from the 35 countries the brewery currently exports to.

Though these numbers seem to suggest otherwise, Shepherd Neame still feels, and is, a locally-minded operation.  All of their malt comes from within the UK, mostly from Kent, East Anglia, and Scotland, while 80% of their hops are sourced within a 50-mile radius of the brewery.  This provenance is showcased in their core lineup of classic, Kentish ales: Master Brew (a traditional Bitter with Designation of Origin protection), Spitfire Amber (Best Bitter), and Bishop’s Finger (a Strong Ale also PDO-designated).  To drink these beers is to drink brewing history, and Shepherd Neame’s in-house pub, after the requisite tour, is the best place to start. After that I’d suggest the unparalleled Anchor Inn, just down the road, and of course, a few more days in Faversham.  It’s a delightful town of exceptional history, and one best discovered as a local, through a few pints with Sheps.