Heady brew

19th September 2003 at 01:00
Chris Fautley joins Year 13s touring a Kent brewery and discovers the biochemistry behind a unique taste sensation


Shepherd Neame Brewery

17 Court Street Faversham

Kent ME13 7AXTel: 01795 542016; www.shepherdneame.co.uk

You hear some strange words in a brewery. Trub (a hop residue) and sparging (spraying grain with hot liquor), are just two that crop up as I accompany Year 13 students from Sandwich Technology School in Kent on a tour of the Shepherd Neame brewery in Faversham. The aim, as part of their AVCE double-award science course, is to gain a better understanding of the fermentation process.

Caroline Wiggins, our guide, provides a brief history of the company - the sole surviving brewery in a town which once boasted 84 of them. They still use the same 60-metre Artesian well that attracted the company's founder in 1698, annually extracting nearly 170 million litres of water. These days, the brewery produces 1.2m pints of beer a week, with almost 4m stored on site at any one time.

First stop, the brew house, where we are offered barley to taste. Here, my ignorance shows: beer is made from hops, barley, yeast and water. But what then? What process fuses the ingredients to produce the end product? It is surprisingly complicated, but factsheets are available to explain everything you see on the tour. Each stage is described as we progress through the plant, including the more scientific aspects, such as how starches in a brew break down to produce malt sugars, and how heat exchangers aid fermentation.

Only at a relatively late stage are pelleted hops added - ordinary hops from which 90 per cent of the moisture has been removed. Caroline Wiggins hands some round for an impromptu tasting session. Plenty of volunteers step forward to experience what she calls "a unique taste sensation".

Suffice to say there is chilled water on hand to cleanse the palate.

We also learn that hops have anti-bacterial qualities. Yes, enthuses our guide: "Beer is good for you!" Just what we wanted to hear.

Progressing through the brewery, we pause to peer into vast tuns, tarry there to look at the steam engines that once powered the plant (they still work). In the lager room, we are dwarfed by huge fermenting vessels, each containing 41,000 litres. This one room contains one million pints of lager.

The yeast, having multiplied fivefold during fermentation, is extracted from the brew as a slurry and passed through a press - thus producing an additional 1,440 pints of beer from each brew before being recycled. One fifth is recycled into the brewing process, the remainder making yeast extract and, together with spent grain, going to make cattle feed. Nothing is wasted. The accumulated hop residue is used to produce agricultural fertiliser.

Our tour ends with a bird's-eye view of the bottling plant (capacity: 18,000 bottles an hour), before we return to the staff social club for a tasting and question and answer session with a quality-assurance brewer.

"What is the difference between beer and lager?" asks one student. (The yeast used to ferment them.) "What makes a good brewing yeast?" asks another. (It must be easy to filter out of the brewing system and have a good taste.) "How do you 'taste' beer for quality?" (Scientists have identified more than 2,000 beer taste components. No one possesses all of them, so it is not easy to gain a common consensus.) In an age where, in some industrial plants, production seem to be of almost secondary importance to the visitor centres that have sprung up around them, Shepherd Neame breaks the mould. What you see is what you get - a busy, working brewery - and these tours take you into the thick of it. If you want first-hand experience of British industry at work, then Shepherd Neame will not disappoint.

Shepherd Neame tours cost pound;2.60 per student. Minimum age 12. Advance booking is essential

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