Westerham Brewery Showcase

Last night myself and fellow members of West Kent CAMRA visited the Anchor in Sevenoaks. The pub was hosting a three day mini-beer festival designed to highlight some of the excellent beers produced the local Westerham Brewery , and Friday was the opening night. Landlord, Barry Dennis had erected a stillage to one side of the bar, allowing the beers to be served by gravity. Six Westerham beers on tap; I didn’t quite manage to try them all, but I was already familiar with several of them. It was good though to have the chance of tasting them side by side. I will list the beers later on, along with my comments on them, but before doing so here’s a bit of background information about the Westerham Brewery.

The brewery started production in May 2004, so the company is just a month or so short of celebrating its fifth birthday. It was set up by former City trader, Robert Wicks, and Robert was on hand last night to answer any questions, and also to give a short talk about the brewery.

Robert’s company is not the first to trade as the Westerham Brewery, for up until the mid-1960’s there was a substantial brewery on the western fringe of this pleasant small town. Operating from the Black Eagle Brewery The official name of this concern was Bushell, Watkins & Smith (the name the result of a series of earlier mergers), but the company traded under the title of Westerham Ales. In their hey-day they were similar in size to Shepherd Neame, and had a good reputation locally.

In 1948 the company was purchased by the London brewers, Taylor Walker, of Limehouse, but brewing continued much as before. However, when Taylor Walker were bought out by Ind Coope, the writing was on the wall for Westerham, and the Black Eagle Brewery finally ceased production in 1965.

Today’s Westerham Brewery has a number of things in common with its predecessor. Firstly, although it is housed in a National Trust owned farm, at Crockham Hill and not in the town itself, the water used at the brewery comes from the same aquifer source. Secondly, and most importantly, the yeast used by today’s Westerham Brewery is the same, or virtually the same, as that used by the original company. This came about because the latter deposited a sample of their yeast in the National Yeast Collection at Norwich. Robert had the original yeast re-cultured; it was found to be a 3-strain variety, one of which was a wild strain. This wild strain was omitted when re-culturing took place (wild strains of yeast are NOT a good idea in a brewery). The other two strains though have allowed the present day company to closely replicate the taste of the original Westerham Ales, which brings me on to the third point. Several of today’s recipes are based on those from Bushell, Watkins & Smith; the 4.9% Special Bitter Ale 1965, was based on the recipe for the last brew of Westerham Ales, back in 1965.

I have mentioned the Special Bitter Ale 1965, but the first beer I sampled on Friday was the 3.8% Black Eagle SPA. This is a well-hoped, pale ale that has always been one of my favourite Westerham Beers. I moved onto the 4.0% W.G.V – the initials standing for Whitbread Golding Variety. Up until comparatively recent times, Whitbread had their own hop farm, at Beltring near Paddock Wood. W.G.V hops were grown at the farm, which boasted the largest group of oast-houses in the world. Whitbread sold the Hop Farm over a decade ago; it now functions as a “country park” hosting such diverse events as rock concerts and the massive “War & Peace Show”; an event dedicated to those who like to re-enact World War II. Visitors can still see the famous oasts, whilst trying to avoid getting run over by tanks and other half-track vehicles, or dodging groups of Yorkshiremen dressed as Waffen SS troops!

An unusual beer followed next; William Wilberforce Freedom Ale (4.3%) is brewed from a mash that includes 20% free-trade demerrara sugar from Malawi. I am not normally in favour of brewers adding sugar to their beers, as to me it seems like cheating. However, I am prepared to make an exception in this case, as a proportion of the profits from the sale of the beer goes towards a charity that is helping to stamp out modern-day slavery. So not only do the sugar growers of Africa benefit from the sale of this beer, but the ideals of William Wilberforce in helping to abolish slavery are also being supported. The beer itself is pretty tasty, so perhaps I am being a bit too “Reinheitsgebot” in my opposition to the inclusion of sugar in beer.

The last beer I sampled was well worth waiting for, and sensibly worth leaving until last. Audit Ale at 6.4% abv, is a recreation of an old style of beer that was originally brewed for the time of year when tenants would gather to pay their yearly rents to the local landowner. A feast would be laid on, no doubt to help ease the pain of parting with such large sums of cash, and Audit Ales would be a feature of such occasions. Westerham’s version was brewed nine months ago and is based on an old Westerham recipe, last used in 1934. Branch members had previously sampled this beer at the SIBA Beer Festival, held at the former Whitbread Hop Farm last August. From memory, that version was sweet, but not cloyingly so. The same beer, after six months extra maturation, was much drier and, if anything, packed even more of a punch! It was the perfect beer to finish on.

Myself and other West Kent CAMRA branch members would like to record our thanks to both Robert Wicks of Westerham, and to landlord Barry Dennis and his staff at the Anchor for a thoroughly enjoyable evening’s supping.