A glorious sunny day in May saw 24 club members make the trip to Fuller’s Thameside brewery in Chiswick.
The brewery, which can be traced back to a brewery founded by Thomas Mawson in the late 17th century, and bought by Messrs Fuller, Turner, and Smith in 1845, was sold to Japanese brewer Asahi in 2019, with the Fuller’s company keeping charge of the original company’s pub estate.
The first thing that greeted our visitors to the Chiswick site was the sad sight of the closed Mawson Arms (named after the person who started brewing there). The Fuller’s pub company has retained the ownership of the pub and the short terrace attached, but it is unclear what will happen to the property and if the pub will ever reopen.
The closed Mawson Arms, the former brewery tap.
Things improved when we entered the tour starting point, the brewery shop, which has its own small tap for on and off sales. Beer prices were very much London prices at £5.50 for a pint and £3.50 for a half of London Pride. No CAMRA discount! Through the glass wall at the rear of the shop could be seen the new small five barrel trial brewing plant.
The new Fuller’s Brewery shop and tap room.
Our party was met by our guides for the day, Dave Elmer and Colin Ford, who, after running through safety rules and logging us in, led us to The Hock Cellar. On the way we passed the Wisteria plant which has covered the wall of the director’s house since 1816, making it the oldest of its species in the UK. The plant had flowered a couple of weeks previously, so our party missed that glorious purple display. Although there may be a second blooming in August.
Colin Ford, one of our group’s two tour guides, outside the Hock Cellar.
The only noticeable change following the Asahi takeover was by the door to the company’s office, where all various company registration plates owned by the Fullers pub company had disappeared.
Having disposed of surplus coats, bags, etc., in the Hock Cellar (it was a warm day), we set off in two groups of 12 round the brewery. On our way round the brewery we first passed the old mash tuns, coppers, etc., before encountering the newer stainless steel mash tuns and coppers (brewing kettles) installed in 1986, each with a capacity of 320 barrels.
One of the tour groups in the brewing room.
The old mash tun installed in 1863, and still in place, was last used in March 1993. Behind a glass screen we caught a glimpse of the two malt mills (one for organic malts), which are still in use after more than 100 years, and, to emphasise this, the wooden staircase next to the mills showed the wear from the shoes of head brewers over the last century.
The malt mills, still going strong after more than 100 years, and the well-worn wooden stairs.
Open fermenters are now a thing of the past and enclosed conical fermenters is where ales and lagers now ferment. The fermenters are of 320 barrel capacity to match the output from the coppers. Three yeast strains are used: a Fuller’s yeast, the old Gales yeast, and a “commercial” yeast for the Dark Star brewery beers. The same yeast strains are used for both lagers and ales.
Passing the packaging area, it was noticed that the cask racking line was currently out of action and undergoing maintenance. Production levels are still down post Covid and are yet to fully recover, particularly cask ales. One hopes the cask line will soon be back in operation.
It was soon time to head back to the Hock Cellar for sampling. On our way there we passed a small flowering plant, Saxifraga or London Pride, made famous by the Noel Coward, 1944 song and the name of the Brewery’s flagship beer, which accounts for over 50% of their beer production.
During the sampling session, we were lucky to get the first taste of the Fuller’s Vintage Ale 2022. The beer this year has been brewed using all English ingredients, the hops being Bramling Cross and a new variety, Emperor, from hop merchants Charles Faram. The beer still needs to be matured and bottled but should be available in October, with a limited amount going out in cask to selected pubs and beer festivals. Our party also got a taste of Fuller’s Platinum Jubilee beer, which was due to be released in the following days to coincide with festivities.
A cheerful band of club members after the brewery tour and visit to the sampling room.
All too soon it was time to leave the Hock Cellar as another tour party was due to arrive. This was probably the only major change there has been since the Asahi takeover; brewery tours have become more commercial, with only a limited time allowed in the cellar for sampling.
To give the Japanese brewing giant credit, they do not seem to have made any obvious changes to the brewery. The only thing that was surprising is that export sales of beers, particularly London Pride, do not appear to be growing, and reports from Sweden and Finland still talk of a lack of cask-conditioned Pride and ESB in the speciality pubs and bars of these Nordic countries.
Time will tell what plans Asahi have for Fuller’s and the Dark Star brewery, which continues to brew the Dark Star brewery beers for local consumption, whilst most of Hophead and other Dark Star beers are brewed at Chiswick.
And we will continue to closely monitor the share prices of both Asahi and the Fuller’s pub company.
Report by Iain Loe – CMIC Committee Member