Saturday 19th March 2011
Linda Clarke & Bob Thompson
We had been wanting to go to the Whitstable Brewery for a considerable time and so, when we heard from the CAMRA Brewery Liaison Officer, Peter Burstow, that some of the customers of the Concorde pub in Rainham were paying a visit, we asked if we could join them. So on a sunny afternoon we made our way to the farm that houses the brewery.
We were warmly greeted by Rafik Abidi, the head brewer, who directed us towards the three casks of beer awaiting the group's consumption. They were East India Pale Ale (4.1%), Oyster Stout (4.5%) and Pearl of Kent (4.5%). The pub coach party arrived about twenty minutes later. They had difficulty finding the brewery.
One of the first things that Rafik explained to the group, after they had acquired some beer, was the history of the brewery, which can be summarised as follows. The equipment belonged to the erstwhile Swale Brewery. It is much-travelled and this is its fourth location, the first three being in Swale. When that enterprise went under, the brewery was purchased by the Whitstable Oyster Company who have considerable business interests around the port, including the Hotel Continental.
It was the intention to move the equipment to that area but the high prices and lack of anywhere suitable meant that it stayed in its present home. Which is good thing, as it has enabled Rafik to develop the brewery into one of the major players on the Kentish beer scene and also in Essex, Surrey, Sussex and London. What's more, there's room to expand further.
This occurred around 2003 and during the first year they only supplied their own outlets. Now, of course, it's a different matter as cask beer, although a staple product, is not everything, as they produce wheat beers and lagers. A very large amount is produced in bottle. One of Rafik's signature beers is Raspberry Wheat, for which he has received considerable acclaim. It's a beer that's popular in restaurants and it goes well in farm shops and other off-sales outlets.
Rafik then gave an informative talk, with questions from the audience, about the brewing process. Starting with the water, he went through all the other ingredients. He explained how the water is treated to suit the various styles of beer. For example, Pale Ale should replicate the water of Burton-on-Trent so it is treated mainly with Calcium Sulphate (gypsum). Conversely Stout requires a hard water to emphasise the malt character of the beer. Lager requires very soft water, and so on for each type of beer. He then dealt with the malts, explaining the process of kilning. He used Oyster Stout as an example, saying that it employed three different malts including chocolate malt along with a little wheat malt. He said he couldn't use very much of this as it would have induced a haze.
Continuing on to hops, he said that the four he used the most were Fuggles, Goldings, Cascade and Perle. He brews with both pelletised and whole hops. The whole hops have a greater surface area that reacts in the brew but they were more susceptible to atmospheric degradation before brewing. He told us how the resins provide the bitterness in the taste and the essential oils of the hop give the beer its aroma.
Now on to the yeast. It is a pertinent point that not many small breweries produce so many different types of beer on a continuous basis as Whitstable. Because of this Rafik holds three different yeasts. Top-fermenting for the ales and stouts, so called, because the yeast floats to the top during fermentation. Naturally, bottom-fermenting does its work in the base of the vessel. This is the only way that true lager can be brewed. In a similar fashion only the correct yeast can be used for traditional wheat beers with their characteristic cloudiness.
I have to say the visitors were very attentive. Now, having learnt all about the ingredients, Rafik guided them through the brewing process from the crushing of the malt, then to the mash tun, through the sparging (spraying with hot water), into the copper, the subsequent cooling and finally into the fermentation vessels. As a matter of interest wheat beers are in the tank for three days at 23C, ales for four days at 21C, and the lagers ferment for seven to nine days at 13C.
We then enjoyed some more excellent beer and Rafik showed us his latest award. Whitstable Brewery has won Best Kent Brewery in the Taste of Kent Awards 2010. A very fitting accolade for the five or so employees of this small enterprise.
Look out for their beers in free houses throughout East Kent. For bottled beers, the two Macknade shops in Faversham always stock them, along with Waitrose supermarkets in Kent.
After the visit we followed the coach party to the White Horse at Sandway, a pub that usually has two beers from Whitstable Brewery on offer. Here we enjoyed an excellent buffet, one of the best we've ever had. All in all, a superb afternoon and our thanks go to Rafik, Peter, and the Concorde customers for their good company.