Thursday 10 December 2009

Big(ish) brewery that thinks craft.

Right, I need to get back to some proper writing. It's all very well being pleased about recent event's, but that's done now. I have to get to what this blog is about; beer, pubs, perhaps food and anything else to do with the crazy industry I seem to be part of.

In my remote place tucked away in a distant and occasionally wet part of the British Isles I can become detached from the reality that most people experience. I'm glad of that detachment most of the time and today, with the weather fine it was nice to continue my outdoor maintenance on the roof. Nevertheless, I have more reporting to do on the trip to London last week. I very much enjoy these trips to the big city. I couldn't live there - too many people all crammed into too little space - but I enjoy the cultural things we don't have here. You know, things like street lamps and buses, cinemas, theatres and best of all beer that is different to the beer I get at home. Sometimes I even find beer that is better than at home.

I had an invite from John Keeling of Fullers Brewery to visit him in his big "industrial1" plant. I had previously met him at the barley wine seminar and had been more than just a little bit impressed by his enthusiasm. I did wonder what brewers of big breweries actually do. I guessed they didn't dig out the mash tun very often or clean the copper for that matter. I'll apologise now for any inaccuracies here. I didn't use my note book as I felt I needed to just soak up the feelings and attitudes in the brewery; to see if I could get what the core differences, and more importantly, similarities between the really little breweries like mine and these regional breweries. I think peoples attitude to beer is far more important than brewery capacity. Facts and figures don't a good beer make, good brewers are what make good beer. Fine and enthusiastic ones, I normally find.

Although I was keen to see the brewery it was more getting to understand the ethos behind the place that interested me. So when John had invited me to visit I made it a key part of my trip to London. I heard various comments about Fullers; Some think they produce ubiquitous beers like London Pride, it gets everywhere in London for goodness sake. Other people think they produce fantastically interesting beers like London Pride, and it's great that you can get it all over London and it's one of the things that makes it worth going there for. When you get differences of view like this it makes life interesting. I seem to think the views on other very young breweries follow similar themes.

In the eyes of some it cannot be possible to make good beer in a large brewery. Furthermore, there is some debate about what makes a good beer. For some the ability to drink a gallon is important. For others maximum flavour is the key. Some would say that there are beers out there which have been made without any consideration to their drinkability. Other people would say that the vast majority of beer in this country is boring and only the stuff brewed with masses of American hops is worth drinking at all. I'll confess to being one of the latter types of people and upon mentioning this to John he threatened me, that next time I'm in London, he would take me out and show me just how drinkable London Pride is. It would be churlish to refuse I feel. My principles will only stretch so far you know.

We arrived at the brewery on a wet December day, luckily whilst walking down Chiswick Lane from the tube the rain actually stopped. Signed in and badged up at reception we waited for John to meet us. The lovely smell of brewing hung in the air like an enticement of a good perfume. In his office we had a chat about the relative sizes of his brewery compared to Coors2. We looked at some old brewing logs that Ron Pattinson had been nosing at earlier and John refreshed my memory about how the Fullers parti-gyle system worked. I'll come onto that shortly. As I suspected, it turns out that John doesn't actually brew, the name on the door says "Brewing Director". There is a real brewer who looks after the day to day brewing, but just to confuse me, apparently he doesn't dig out the mash tun either.

John had to go and have a meeting with more important people than himself. It's difficult to imagine who might be more important than the Brewing Director in a brewery. I suspect it's those bean counting type people who have far more control than they deserve. Thankfully, John seems to have them under control, but even so he felt that much as he'd prefer to stay with us and talk about beer and his brewery, he really must go and kowtow. Derek Prentice, who is now the real head brewer has not been with the brewery long, was to take us around the brewery. That was fine seeing as Derek is just as nice a chap as John and equally as enthusiastic and knowledgeable about beer. It's a good job really seeing as he has an awful lot of beer to look after.

We were taken to see the Victorian part of the brewery. Now unused since 1984 its a marvel of engineering from that time. One of the two original mash tuns is retained in the building. The remaining copper really is made out of an orangy brown metal and is encased in a thick layer of brick. It looks great to the romantic traditionalist, and apparently it was even quite energy efficient. The bricks act as a combined insulator and heat store, which must have made it a right bugger to clean as it would have remained hot for hours in there. The wort for the next brew is held in a tank above and so kept hot by the heat from the boiling of the previous brew. Back when it was build in 1823 it was fired by coal. In the 20th century a steam calandria3 was installed in the copper. That must have made it even more of a bugger to clean. To this sentimental brewer it is a piece of engineering beauty, but by modern standards completely wrong for making beer; As well as being troublesome to clean it has now been found that in most cases brewing beer in copper vessels causes WHO limits on copper in food stuff to be exceeded.

We then moved on to look at the new brewery. This was installed as part of a major refurbishment in 1984, which was when the old copper was last used. The main brewhouse is surprisingly compact and modern looking and as it is only 25 years or so since it was built I guess it should be. Considering the old brew house was in use for 161 years this one has a way to go yet. When we were there they were just in the middle of a boil and the mash tun was being cleaned out. It turns out that nobody gets into the mash tun to dig it out. It's all done by a mash rake and CIP4 equipment. The coppers now use external colandrias which also make cleaning easier. In fact CIP is used in nearly every vessel in the brewery. I think that's cheating. Still, at least it means everybody can walk around looking smart rather than my usual brew day look.

Parti-gyling, I said I'd get to it. The brewery has two mash tuns and two coppers. There are two streams of wort, often the same grist mix in both mash tuns, although I'm assuming they could be different. The first runnings at perhaps an OG as high as 1090 from the sparge is run into one copper with one hop recipe. The second, much weaker runnings at perhaps 1020 is run into the second copper with a different hop loading. After the boil the two streams are blended to make different beers. The resultant wort is at production OG. This is not high gravity brewing, which is a different thing altogether. The great thing about party gyling is that Fullers get to make the occasional barley wine like Fullers Vintage and at the same time make a low ABV beer resulting in very efficient use of barley.

I love fermenter rooms. The smell of the yeast getting going on the malt sugars and some of the hop aromas wafting around reminds me of the fact that there are billions of little microorganisms working hard in the name of beer. I wonder how often they get thanked for the brilliant job they do. I know that the yeast is incredibly important to Fullers. They have about 10 people in their lab looking after it. Isolating and nurturing the correct strain has been a key part of quality control for them for a long time. Every crop of yeast from a previous fermentation is carefully checked for viability before being pitched on. If any problems develop a new batch is cultured up from yeast that has been carefully preserved on agar slopes.

Some discussion was had with Derek regarding the behaviour of my dried yeast. Most pitched on yeasts form a crust on top of the beer at the end of fermentation. In all my experience and that of several other brewers who use dry yeast, it tends to drop out very easily leaving nearly no crust. Derek's concern is that the lack of a crust might allow in bacteria. Good point perhaps, although thinking about it I don't use open fermenters anyway. An advantage of 90 gallon Grundy tanks is that I can stick a lid on any time I like.

Fullers now use cylindrical fermentation vessels for all their beer. Back in the 80's some were installed with a view to making lager. Their lager brewing didn't last long and so they started to make their standard beers in the newer vessels. It made better beer and they won more CAMRA awards with it. So, to cut a long story short all the square fermenters were replaced with cylindrical ones. Cylindrical stainless steel fermenters are much easier to clean than square copper lined ones. Even so, Derek still reminisces about old square slate fermenters in a previous brewery he worked in. You can't take the romanticism out of a good brewer.

On route we spied some old oak casks lying around looking like they had been abandoned. I didn't find out why they were not in the nice old undercroft where casks used to be stored. I'm guessing there is a duty reason for that. Breweries do not have to pay any duty on beer until it is shipped out but some HMRC officers can be touchy about beer in duty suspense being stored in the same place as beer is consumed. Anyway, it turns out these casks contain brewers reserve. As this is being typed John tweeted that he's going to organise a tasting sometime of all his experimental beers. It's been noted John. I learnt some interesting stuff about whisky cask aging and from John. Subject of another post probably.

Finally we look at the expansive casking and kegging hall. An automated keg facility packages some of the Fullers beers for export. Anybody who reads this blog will understand that I wonder about the possibility of putting quality beer into keg for markets in this country. I'm unlikely to ever sell London Pride here but if I could get a 30 litre keg of Golden Pride, well, that might be a different matter. It would be fun for the beer festival. The kegging line is almost fully automated including a very intelligent robot that handles kegs to and from pallets. The robot is called Les, apparently after the chief engineer. Not, it would seem, because the chief engineer is also intelligent - although I'm sure he must be as you don't get to make a place like this work if you are not - but it's because Les stands in the middle of the room waving his arms around.

Interestingly, the kegging line is justified on the throughput of beers from larger breweries. Fullers can keg tanker supplied beers for less than the difference between the cost of tanker supplied and keg supplied beer. Nice way to increase the revenue for the brewery and I guess it must help transport problems in and around London. Bulk supplied beer can be brought into the area in less vehicles.

Casking takes a little more manpower. It is not easy to automate putting beer into cask. There was obvious signs of people doing real hard graft. Somebody hitting the keystones into the casks and somebody else manually controlling the cask filling. That's nice to know that not everybody in the brewery swans about in suits all day.

Before leaving we retired to the aforementioned undercroft. A traditional vaulted cellar where up until sometime in the second half of the last century beer was conditioned in casks. It is now a nice tasting room come function hall. We tried some beers, well you have to when you're in the brewery, don't you? I tried London Pride and yes John, you are right, it is drinkable. But don't let that honesty from me prevent us testing the limits of that theory at some later date. I particularly like Chiswick Bitter as a session beer. I think I remember it having Northdown and Challenger hops in it. Anyway, I like that one. As we moved up in strength my beer geek side kicked in and I started to get nice esters and stuff, I love the fruity notes you get in these beers, but you wouldn't want to drink a gallon. Vintage and Gales Old Ale were also tried. I'm starting to wonder why I buy Belgian beer when there are some equally as good beers this side of the Channel.

Gales Old Ale used to be made in wooden lined fermenters. It gives the beer it's distinctive sour edge that some people find difficulty liking. Gales was bought out by Fullers and the beer production moved to Chiswick. There are no wooden fermenters at the Griffin brewery so how is it still made? John explained that they brought the last batch to be made at Gales and put it into a conditioning tank. Each time some is bottled an amount is left in the tank and a new batch of fresh beer added. The micro-fauna in the tank grow and flavour the beer to create something very authentic. Whatever, I like this beer too.

Before leaving we visited the shop. That was dangerous. We'd taken a large suitcase and a rucksack so as to maximize beer carrying capability. We had the rucksack with us at the brewery and filled that with several different years of Vintage, plus some Gales Old Ale. Pleased with that we headed off. Later, when we packed up during a move of hotels my suitcase lost a wheel on a curb. Beer is heavy when it's added to your luggage. I so wish Sapient Pear Wood was real. Anyway, the London hotel/luggage/tube disasters needs a whole new post. Fullers came to the rescue in part - look out for the sad story of a country bumpkin adrift in London.

So, my main thoughts behind visiting the brewery was to get into the ethos of the place. There is no doubt that London Pride and the other session beers are the core business of the place. Although they have a tied estate it's not big compared to some and a large proportion of the volume is sold to the free trade. You can't argue with that. Moreover the estate concentrates on quality premium establishments, which my luggage story shall confirm. I like Fullers and that's not just because they were very hospitable to us during our visit. I like the enthusiasm of John and Derek. It's not just about barrelage and money, although without making a profit no brewery can exist, but it's also about making good beer, and that they do too.

That was a long post. Amazingly, I could write more, perhaps it's a good job I didn't use a notebook. I can't really imagine anybody will read it all, except perhaps John Keeling himself. I do hope he's got a sense of humor. I did feel that perhaps I was digging a big hole for myself and insulting this great brewer with my little jokes. I hope not, it's all in fun. It's also interesting treading the line as a beer writer who wants to be honest about what he sees but also not upsetting companies that extend hospitality to amateur beer writers like myself. I hope I managed to get the balance right. My conclusion, as expressed in the title of this piece, is that so long as John and Derek are in charge of brewing, there will always be a firm foot in the craft beer market at Fullers.


1Hey, I'm kidding, but if you read all this post carefully you'll know that. "Industrial" is a matter of perspective.

2Fullers make about 150,00 brewery barrels of London Pride a year. Coors make about 6 million barrels of Carling per year. 40 times as much and irrespective of anything else I might say I know which I'd prefer to drink and that ain't the Carling. John likes to think his brewery is closer to the size of mine. I'd disagree as I only make about 50 barrels of beer a year total. John and his team sell 300 times as much London Pride as I sell of my own beer total. Perhaps I need to start making drinkable beer.

3A calandria is a set of cylindrical tubes used to heat one fluid by passing another fluid through. A heat exchanger effectively.

4CIP = Cleaning In Position. It's dead good. Yes, even I use it for my fermentation vessels.


Whorst said...

I know Derek Prentice. He worked for Young's previous. Educated, well mannered, polite and extremely knowledgeable.

Isbell said...

This American loves Fullers and I can't go to London without visiting the Churchill Arms on Kensington Church Street - outstanding. I've had Pride, ESB, 1845, and my favorite London Porter. A brewery tour is a must next time I go.

Sid Boggle said...

I've been lucky enough to meet John Keeling on a couple of occasions, once doing the tour with him as host for GBBF staff working on BSF. He shared some of his early barrel-aged bottled beers with us and answered pretty much every question, awkward or otherwise, thrown at him.

I had a real fondness for the old Young's Ram brewery and I have similar feelings about Fullers and their place in London brewing. While I don't care too much for London Pride, I'm fond of a pint of Chiswick and their London Porter is always a winter treat.

Brewers Union Local 180 said...

Does their brewery have a sink?

Sat In A Pub said...

An interesting day. Many years ago, I once famously toured both Fullers AND Youngs in the same day. Great, but not recommended for the liver!

Unknown said...

Wurst, my experience of Derek matches your's completely. Since posting this several people have pointed out to me that Derek is as revered in the brewing world as John is. Indeed, he did work for Young's. So there you go.

Brad, indeed, a brewery tour is very enjoyable, you must.

Sid, yes, London Porter is grand. I believe some beery people cite that as a beer that is in fact better on keg, although I'd have to compare cask and keg together and make my mind up. It might take several pints to form a firm conclusion, just to eliminate any experimental error you understand.

BUL180, yes, I believe his brewery has a surfeit of sinks. Most are in the "restroom"

Tyson, TWO breweries in a day. If Young's were as generous as Fullers are then it would indeed be a liver challenging day.

Nicholas King said...

Excellent post Dave,

Been away form the interweb all weekend so rather slow off the mark with this. Did you get to try any of the barrel aged beers or were you just restricted to photography? It looks as if Fullers are well on the way to have their own bona fide Beer Solera. If John Keeling is ever tempted to do a tasting of these beers it would be one heck of an event.

Unknown said...


I didn't get to try the barrel aged stuff, but I'm sure there will be time in the future.

Velky Al said...

I have a big soft spot for Fullers, simply because they are the local brewery for my father's family and every beer I have had from them has been the very definition of nectar.

I have a couple of bottles of Vintage 2008 in the cellar awaiting the pre-chosen days for opening, however, I wish I could get some 1845 over this side of the pond, a magnificent beer.

Next time I get to the UK a few days in London supping cask Fullers is most definitely in order - even Mrs Velkyal is looking forward to such a prospect.