Inside the Griffin Brewery

Summer 2021 has so far proved to be full of firsts for me- first COVID vaccinations, first time seeing England in a EUROs final and now, after having lived in Chiswick for over 20 years, a first visit to the home of my local beer, the Fuller’s Griffin Brewery.  Perhaps best known for their signature London Pride, Fuller’s distribute to pubs across the country and export to over 80 countries worldwide. Their beers have consistently earned praise from ale drinkers and awards from groups such as the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), with brewery tours themselves earning excellent reviews on Tripadvisor and through word of mouth. I figured it was high time I paid it a visit.

For this venture I sought the company of one Keith Richards, a friend of mine and former column writer for The Chiswick Calendar. Keith happens to be very knowledgeable about the brewing industry, having worked in the Guinness breweries in Nigeria for many years. It was perhaps surprising, then, that Keith had never done the tour himself, despite also living in Chiswick for over a decade. We booked ourselves in for the Friday 4.00 -6.00 pm slot, an often popular time as its a fitting way to kick off the weekend. (Saturdays are even more popular, so its worth booking well in advance).

The brewery occupies an impressive spot in the heart of Chiswick, just off the Mall. With its gargantuan chimneys and wrought iron gates, it is easy to draw parallels with Roald Dahl’s fictional giant chocolate factory. For my brother and I growing up, it was a source of fascination, with its lorries going in and out and its exotic smells being exhumed, so I felt a gleeful sense of anticipation knowing I’d finally see inside the walls.

The tour experience itself begins in the shop, just off Chiswick Lane South. Our guide, John, greets us and our fellow tour group before issuing us with our accreditation and high vis vests. We’re shown to the Hock cellar where we’re able to leave our bags and jackets (highly recommended, especially if its a hot day, as there’s a bit of climbing involved). From here we’re shown the vast timeline of the Fuller’s story which gives an early sense of the extensive history of the business.

Image above: The formative Fuller, Smith and Turner partnership

Centuries of fine-tuning

Brewing in Chiswick has a life which far predates the arrival of the Griffin Brewery. Prior to the 17th century it was not uncommon for large households to produce their own beer. The gardens of Bedford House in Chiswick Mall was one such brewhouse, which was acquired by Thomas Mawson in the late 1600s (after whom the adjacent pub, now sadly closed, is named).

The business then expanded until the 19th century, when the owners, Douglas and Henry Thompson and Phillip Wood, were forced to seek a new partner. John Fuller, of Wiltshire, was approached to inject capital into the venture. Eventually in 1845 Fuller’s son, John Bird Fuller was joined by Henry Smith from the Romford Brewery and his brother in-law, lead brewery John Turner which formed the union of Fuller, Smith and Turner. This date is celebrated by the eponymous ale which remains ever popular to this day.

Image above: A former pump used for groundwater extraction (note the London Pride flower behind)

By contemporary standards it’s amazing just how beer much Londoners drank in previous centuries. In fact, the brewing industry used so much water that groundwater is actually several times higher today than it was during its heyday. That’s surprising considering that some nine million people now live in London, almost 13 times the number living here in 1750. Water was much more heavily taken from groundwaters using pumps which can still be seen on site today, although they are no longer in use.

The 20th century is when things really ramped up at the Griffin. The brewery’s ales started to win acclaim. Chiswick Bitter first appeared in 1930, followed by London Pride in the 1950s and ESB in the early 1970s. Fuller’s attracted a steady stream of praise from CAMRA and other high profile admirers. Prince Charles added a handful of hops to a copper of 1845 in his 1995 visit. It is unsurprising then that when Asahi bought the Griffin brewery in April 2019, there was a collective intake of breath – a big Japanese multinational taking over a traditional English brewery with 200 years of family history attached to it? What next?

Well not much, it would appear. The big boss, CEO Akiyoshi Koji came over from Japan to assure the assembled workforce that he’d bought the company because he liked it exactly the way it was. Far from changing the name or dropping beers off the sales list, Asahi said they wanted to take the well-loved Fuller’s brands and market them better, across their extensive worldwide network. From what I discovered, the only major change has been a downsizing of staff at the premises, as most marketing executives now work from Asahi’s main offices offsite, so the factory is now mainly staffed by brewers and tour staff. Clearly then, the heritage of the business remains in good hands.

Image above: The simple(ish) guide to brewing

Into the Brewhouse

After a brief introduction to this rich history, the tour guide brought into the main brewhouse which is where the bulk of the tour takes place. A very informative, and much appreciated diagram (to the uneducated beer drinker, like myself) gives an outline of the entire process from start to finish. It resembles those great systems you’d encounter in your biology or geography GCSEs – the many inputs and outputs of a glacier system, or of photosynthesis in plant cells. It is as much a biological process as it is a mechanical one, as subtle temperature differences can cause fundamental changes in flavour and even the type of beer produced. Helpfully then, the tour largely follows the process in chronological order, winding its way upwards through the vast facility.

Image above: the Old Copper

At a very simple level, beer is formed from malted barley, a lot of water, hops and yeast. The process starts with grains (in this case barley), which are processed through heating and drying. This milled malt, called grist, is added to huge vats called Mash Tuns which are mixed with hot water, resulting in a sweet liquid known as wort (pronounced wert). The wort is moved to a Copper where hops are added first for flavour, then for aroma. We’re shown a variety of hop varieties used for the different products, which come in the form of pellets. Notably some are described as having ‘chocolate’ characteristics, again encouraging the Roald Dahl imagery (maybe that’s just me).

As we reach this area it’s easy to see how the historic buildings can have their drawbacks as well as blessings. The temperature rise is striking, and we’re told these rooms can be quite unpleasant on hot days, so it’s definitely a good idea to bring a bottle of water if you go on a tour. The oldest copper, installed in 1823 and last used in 1984, had a boiling capacity of 160 barrels which is small by today’s standards. John informs us that these vessels used to be cleaned by the youngest, often adolescent members of the teams.

This would be no easy task, as peering inside you get a sense not just of the confined space, but also the temperature, which would have been quite unbearable. Thankfully, we’re told that the young lads would be rewarded with extra tokens for pint of wheat beer. Questionable by today’s standards perhaps, but the alcohol would be low and the alternative was probably a rather putrid version of ‘water’. The coppers in use today are made from steel and are almost entirely automatic, though hops – and honey for Honey Dew – are still added manually.

Our tour then takes us onto one of the most crucial parts of the process. After the mixture is cooled, it is then moved to a fermentation vessel where yeast is added, which ferments the sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide. It’s at this stage where most of the final product is decided, depending on the length of the process. For example Frontier lager is stored for longer at cooler temperatures and vice versa for ales. There are great eerie hisses from the machinery, and so its comforting that all guides carry CO2 monitors to make absolutely sure the group is safe when navigating the facility. After several days in these fermentation vessels, spent yeast is then collected and used for products such as Marmite.

Images above: part of the Fuller’s collection, John providing samples in the cellar

Tasting success

The final stage of the process is packaging, either in casks, kegs, or bottles, which are then sent to a fleet of lorries for distribution. Each method of storage has a particular process of its own – although we don’t witness this first hand as from here we’re offered a choice: either to get a glimpse of the kegging process, or to make an early descent to the tasting rooms. Naturally, being the last slot on a Friday, our group votes for the latter and we head back to the Hock Cellar. 

John switches from tour guide to barman so naturally its hard to believe he’s the newest member of the team (although still with a solid five years at the Brewery). Offering us samples of all the many varieties, its hard to know where to start. I decide to go for the lighter options of Honey Dew and Oliver’s Island, which are very refreshing after the heat of the main rooms. Keith, being partial to darker lineup, goes for the HSB and London Porter.

For the remainder of our slot, we’re free to explore the caverns and memorabilia of the museum, or sample as many different varieties as we so wished. We have a lovely chat with fellow local Chiswick residents who’ve also never done the tour before, and share stories of our experiences in the area. After a generous 40 minutes of unlimited tasting, we’re returned to the shop where we return our accreditation and are free to browse the wide range of beer, t-shirts and more.

So, with our minds considerably more knowledgeable about brewing and stomachs pleasantly lined with our chosen brews, we left with a new sense of respect for Fuller’s and West London’s heritage. It’s a scientific marvel, perfected over centuries and undoubtedly one of great success stories of modern production.  Even as an old hand, Keith found the historical aspects fascinating, so we both agreed it was time well spent. Of course, having got the taste there was only one thing left to do. We went straight to The Raven for a pint of Pride.

Club Card offer

The tour is an absolute must for anyone who’s serious about beer, or brewing as a whole. Better still, a Chiswick Calendar Club Card will get you 15% off the £20 ticket price of a tour, as long as you go into the shop to book it and show your Club Card (ie. you can’t access the discount when booking online).

The brewery shop also offers Club Card holders 15% off anything on sale in the shop except spirits.

The shop’s opening hours at time of writing are Tuesday to Saturday, 10.00 to 6.00 pm and Sunday 12.30 to 6.00 pm. The tours operate Tuesday – Thursday and Saturday at 11.00 am, 12.00 pm, 1.00 pm, 2.00 pm and 3.00 pm. On Fridays, they offer tours at 10.00 am, 11.00 am, 12.00pm, 1.00pm, 2.00pm, 3.00pm, and 4.00pm.

Image above: The Brewery Shop

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