I'm not a country girl. I am city born, my lullabies are the sounds of sirens and 3am revellers. Four years living in Cambridge, albeit glorious and the location of my discovery of real ale, often felt like clasutrophibic village living to me. Meanwhile, my friend from rural Devon thought she had arrived in a dangerous, graffitti- ridden metropolis.
So it was with a mix of intrigued trepidation that I allowed myself to be driven down the deepest, darkest lanes of Kent towards the Westerham Brewery. When I say I allowed myself to be driven, I should admit, we actually managed to convince Non-drinking Mum to drive us there, pay £8 for a shandy and stand in a cold barn. She didn't get the reward for the crazy journey, pot-holed driveway and snow-ramped car park that we did, as we heaved open huge sliding doors to find a brewhouse brimming with jugs of beer, the glitter of fairy lights bouncing off mash tuns and hundreds of balding heads. We paid eight quid, we poured unlimited ale into our non-plastic compostable cups and we merried ourselves squeezing into nooks between pieces of brewing equipment.
We made our way along the jugs, from the refreshing 1965 Special Bitter, the William Wilborforce Freedom Ale (mixing demerera sugar- fairtrade, of course- with Kentish hops), past SPA, British Bulldog, Finchcocks Orginial and Grasshopper, to the Christmas brew God's Wallop and the relatively new Double Stout. We had an 18 pint box of God's Wallop last Christmas (it goes very well with turkey, in fact, the food offering at the brewery itself were baps of turkey marinated in the stuff). This year, we will be making our way through an 18 pinter of the Double Stout- a beautifully rich and fruity, yet smooth, easy drinking beer full of winter warming oomph.
Westerham is a brewery which, from the farmyard location and open-air gents, appears quaint and old-fashioned but in reality is at the forefront of innovation in beer. Robert Wicks, the brewery's founder, peppered his tour with nuggets of the future- his sccience geek 'hoprocket' system (oo-er), the eclectic, up-coming international beer style specials, the ethical and environmental credentials of the brewery, all the while singing of the health benefits of ale. They have recently started growing their own malt and use almost entirely Kentish grown hops, being loyal to the beer heritage of the local area both through the ingredients sourced and by creating beers to old recipes from the archives (and the original yeast) of the famous Black Eagle Brewery.
A unique experience: a glimpse of the future, in a dark and muddy farm, while handling the biggest jugs around. (Ahem).