For some time now I have been interested in historic beers, particularly from breweries that are no longer in existence, of which there are too many to count. Very few have stood the test of time but the main reason for their disappearance is commercial gain. Most were bought by the bigger ones and thus rapidly faded into nostalgic reminiscence. When you ask people of a certain age they will recall with fondness how a beer used to taste and how it does not taste like it now.
Going back a hundred years or so, every single city, town and sometimes village had a brewery they could call their own and more often than not, they had a plethora of them to their name. So this is where my journey began.
Being a Kent boy all my life the name that stood out for me was "Fremlins", which was born in the County town of Maidstone. Now, I’m not so old that I actually ever drank a true pint of Fremlins, or even a substitute, but the name and the iconic logo of the elephant stuck with me; although I do recall visiting Maidstone before the brewery was turned into a shopping mall and witnessing the pure grandeur of the old brewery building sitting just a stones throw from the banks of the river Medway.
When I first cut my teeth in the brewing industry some 7 years ago, my then Head Brewer at The Old Dairy Brewery in Tenterden, Ed Wray, was and still is, an encyclopedia of information. He developed a beer called an AK which was a recipe from 1911, a barley wine, as well as one of the best Imperial Stouts I’ve ever tasted. His interest in historic recipes must have rubbed off on me even then as a brewery assistant.
Fast forward 5 years and before Cellar Head was even a twinkle, I visited the Kent History and Library Centre in Maidstone to view the brewing records of the Fremlins Brewery. These records were very graciously donated to them by the huge Whitbread company. It is a real historic shame that Whitbread no longer have any involvement in brewing, but prefer to deal in coffee shops and hotels. At one time they owned the biggest hop farm in the world - such is the price of progress I guess. Someone in Whitbread’s fortunately had the foresight to think that over 100 years of brewing information was worth saving and we are forever grateful to that person.
So, in October 2016, I booked my place at the Kent Archive and selected the various records I would like to view. To be honest the records in the early days, we’re talking 1860’s here, are a mine field even to a relatively experienced brewer - everything is in a brewers code and it is a real stab in the dark to even comprehend what ingredient has been used and when. But something changed at the turn of the 20th Century, maybe new head brewers, maybe different management. So at this point in time, all, well mostly all, becomes quite clear: Malts are listed, strength of beer is apparent, timings of brewing and the like are all well documented. The only thing that still evades is the hops where the only information given is the quantity and the farmer. Hop growing then was very secretive - no farmer would reveal which hop merchant he sold his hops to or which brewery had bought them. Surprisingly the tradition still exists today, but being so few farmers left now it is just that, a tradition. As there are only 50 hop farmers left in the country, everyone knows everyone but the quirky tradition, is I think, an endearing one.
The records I looked at then fascinated me and I promised myself I would return at some point. So when we were approached by our local cricket team in March of this year to brew a special beer for the Armistice Centenary Celebrations, my interest in the archives was immediately reawakened. Whilst they are a rural village team, their heritage is something special. Having lived in and around the villages of Matfield and Brenchley all of my life I knew that our most famous resident was the renowned World War One poet and writer, Siegfried Sassoon. The cricket team still hold a commemorative match every year in his honour. Suddenly everything clicked - what if I could find an historic recipe that may have been drunk way back then possibly even in our villages? Fremlins were the dominant local brewery in 1918, but a couple of others were also prominent. Those being Style and Winch, which were located on the south side of the river in Maidstone across from Fremlins and Jude, Hanbury & Co based in Wateringbury. With further research I found that The Bull in Brenchley (sadly no longer a pub) was tied to Style & Winch as well as The Standings Cross in Matfield. The Walnut Tree (now a private dwelling) which lies almost halfway between the two villages was tied to Jude, Hanbury & Co. Much time was spent trying to find more on these two breweries but to no avail - the brewing records were not kept, although some information was found, it is of no significance to a brewer. So the next best bet was Fremlins.
In April I visited the Kent Archives again with a view to find a recipe of significance. I spent many hours studying records during the years of World War One. Despite what history may have documented, it appears that beer sales did not fall during this period and brewing continued with vigour. It seems nothing comforts more than a pint of good English beer. I thought long and hard about what beer would be appropriate, but then I looked at the records for 11th November 1918. Beers were consistent and the names the same, but at no other time could I find the brewery had brewed three times on the same day other than this one. Two of the beers were the staple, but the third was an occasional as far as I could see. It had to be significant. I don’t know if they knew peace was coming but they must have known somehow.
Reproduced with kind permission of Kent History and Library Centre. Archive number: U3555/2/F/Bx2/1/43
Production of any image is strictly prohibited without prior consent of the Kent History and Library Centre
And so this is where the inspiration for the commemorative beer has come from - a beer brewed 100 years ago and with a little artistic licence has been reborn. The malts may differ slightly as the maltsters listed bare no records anymore. The hops are at a best a guess, but as 75% of Kent hops were a Fuggle back then, I say it’s a pretty good bet, also helped along with a dash of Kent Goldings. What better way to commemorate the sacrifice of our great grandfathers and grandmothers than with a fine traditional English Bitter.
I really cannot thank enough the Kent History and Library Centre in Maidstone for their help. In particular Dr Helen Wicker and her amazingly patient colleagues. They are truly an asset to the history of Kent. Also, Pauls Maltings in Suffolk, who were so helpful in determining some of the historic malt records.
A second commercial brew is underway and will be available in cask for November. Ask you local pub to reserve one. Trade enquiries, please contact Chris McKenzie 07391 557407.