db Tours: Fuller’s Brewery, Chiswick

db’s Phoebe French takes a tour of Fuller’s and its historic Griffin Brewery in Chiswick which now exports its beers, including London Pride and ESB, to 85 different countries.

The brewery: Fuller’s, or to give it its full name, Fuller, Smith & Turner plc, was established in 1845, but brewing has taken place at the historic south west London site since the late 1600s. The Griffin Brewery itself acquired both its name and emblem in 1816 when it was under the stewardship of brothers Douglas and Henry Thompson.

Later in 1845, founding fathers John Bird Fuller, Henry Smith and John Turner gave their names to the business and descendants from the Fuller and Young families still work at the company, the Smith line having died out.

The wisteria in bloom.

Known for its flagship brews, London Pride, ESB and 1845, Fuller’s owns a total of 190 tenanted and 198 managed pubs and hotels in an area which stretches from Brighton to Bristol, although 174 sites are located inside the M25.

As well as its pub empire, the brewer owns cider and soft drinks producer Cornish Orchards, has a 76% stake in cider and pizza business The Stable, acts as UK distributor for Sierra Nevada, is the UK importer of draught Chimay Gold and imports draught Veltins Pilsener for use at its pubs.

Fuller’s also owns and brews George Gale & Co beers, originally based in Horndean in Hampshire, and in December 2015, it acquired a 51% stake in Nectar Imports, a wholesale drinks company.

While Fuller’s is by no means a small brewer, it brews and bottles its beers and operates its own cask and keg lines on site.

Over 18,000 people visited the brewery in 2017, a number which is rising year-on-year, in part owing to the successful launch of a Saturday tour in December 2016 in addition to its existing Monday to Friday tours.

Tours start from the so-called ‘brewery tap’, the Mawson Arms, a Grade II listed Fuller’s pub adjacent to the brewery. It is named after Thomas Mawson, who in the late 17th century, first began brewing on the site.

The structure: Upon arrival at the Mawson Arms, we were able to order a drink before a guide arrived to collect the tour party.

The old copper mash tun, last used in 1993.

The first stop is the Hock Cellar, a former store room that was refurbished in December 2016 and which now contains a bar and various items of Fuller’s memorabilia from through the ages.

After donning a high-vis jacket, we were then led outside to gaze at the brewer’s prized wisteria, the oldest such plant in England, which covers the wall opposite. Though sadly lacking its purple blooms on my visit – it was December after all – we were told it is quite a sight to behold in summer, the floral smell wafting through the brewery yard to mix with heady scent of malt.

Our tour guide, Tia Nicholson, then went on to summarise the history of Fuller’s which included us showing the place in the brewery yard which was once used to weigh vehicles to check that no-one had siphoned off any of the beer on board.

Nicholson explained that the structure of the tours change, for instance, parties are often taken to the cask and kegging line first in order that they see it in operation before it closes for the day. Given that I toured the brewery on a Saturday, this wasn’t an option, so we began by taking a look at some pieces of heritage brewing equipment, including the old, copper mash tun last used in 1993 and the old copper, the brewery’s oldest vessel, installed in 1823 and last used in 1984.

We also passed the room housing the two milling machines that have been in use since 1932. Nicholson explained that one of them is used exclusively for milling organic grains for use in Fuller’s Honey Dew ale.

The new, and much larger, mash tuns.

Continuing past the door to the science laboratory and the quality control department where the all-important beer tasting sessions take place, we were shown some of the Fuller’s brewery records, where since the 19th century, brewers have meticulously logged recipes and ingredients used to make their beer.

From the old, we moved onto the new, passing into the room containing the modern mash tuns and copper, all operated by a computerised system housed in a control room. Given that Fuller’s produced a total of 337,000 barrels (a UK barrel is equivalent to 288 imperial pints) last year, it is inevitable that its equipment is on a much larger scale than the pieces that were formerly used.

The mash tuns at Fuller’s, of which there are now two, can hold 9,000kg of grist, while the brewery’s new copper holds 320 barrels (92,160 pints).

Next we were taken to the see the fermentation vessels. Throughout my visit, I was struck by the fact that despite the size of the vessels in use, the Fuller’s brewery site is remarkably contained. This is unsurprising given that it is located on a prime patch of south west London real estate and expansion is not really an option. Nicholson explained that all of the fermentation vats were brought in through the roof due to the space constraints.

For a brewery that gets through 100 tonnes of pale ale malt and racks 10,000 casks a week, Fuller’s has had to think long and hard about how it deals with its waste. It ships excess yeast to Japan for use in whisky production as well as donating some to British spread stalwart, Marmite. The spent grains are used in animal fodder while the local council collects old hops to fertilise flowerbeds.

Coming out into the yard, we were taken past the fleet of lorries, each adorned with griffin, before entering the cask and kegging line.

Fuller’s has invested heavily in robotic aids for its packing and distribution lines. It not only puts its own beer into casks and kegs, but also that of other brewers that is due to be served up at its pubs and hotels. The original robot, called ‘Les’ after its former chief engineer, is capable of filling 280 kegs in an hour.

Les was joined by ‘Brendan’ and ‘Richard’ last year on the cask line, and all three robots have substantially reduced the manpower needed to operate both lines.

While the route taken does vary, all tours end back in the Hock Cellar where guests are invited to sample beer at the bar.

The beers: After the tour, a selection of beers are available fresh from the brewery. London Pride, ESB and HSB (a George Gale & Co beer) are available on draught along with seasonal beers.

Behind the pumps, keg beers are available on tap including Montana Red rye red ale, Wild River pale ale and Frontier.

During my visit I tried the London Pride Unfiltered, introduced in February last year, with the aim of recreating the flavours of the London Pride original using the same hops (Northdown, Challenger, Target and Goldings) and transferring them into a keg beer. While I commend the idea, the extra CO2 and lower temperature of the keg version masked the flavours I associate with the original.

Other beers on offer include Oliver’s Island, Seafarers Ale, Honey Dew, Fuller’s IPA and Black Cab Stout though it is worth checking before visiting if you would like to sample a particular beer in the range. All beers, together with merchandise, are available at the brewery shop. 

The local transport: According to Fuller’s website, the closest tube station to the brewery is Turnham Green, a 20-minute walk away. On my trip, however, we alighted from Stamford Brook, a stop further up the district line, which also worked well.

If driving, Fuller’s advise that parking around the brewery site is limited but there are a few parking metres in Chiswick Lane South.

The cost: Tours cost £20 (£18.52 + £1.48 booking fee) and can be booked online here for parties up to 15.

Gift vouchers are available and can be redeemed when booking under the ‘discount code’ section.

There is a 10% discount given to group bookings for 15 or more people. Military or police groups receive a 15% discount.

The availability: Fuller’s offer five tours every day from Monday through to Saturday, plus an additional two tours on Fridays, usually working out at 32 tours per week.

Tours are held at 11am, 12 noon, 1pm, 2pm and 3pm (plus 10am and 4pm on Fridays). The brewery also offers bespoke tours at different times which can be arranged by contacting Fuller’s at brewery.tour@fullers.co.uk.

Group bookings are also available and party size is limited to 45 people, made up of three groups of 15, at any one time.

Who to know: While you cannot request a tour guide, at least for the standard tours, if you are lucky enough to have Tia Nicholson, you will find yourself in safe hands. She joined Fuller’s in 2012 and after covering a tour for a colleague one day, subsequently found herself regularly called upon to show visitors around the brewery. Aside from her tour guide duties, she also runs Fuller’s online shop.

John Bass, also part of the brewery tour team, is also worth seeking out, and if not conducting tours, can usually be found helping man the brewery shop.

Don’t leave without: taking a look at the Fuller’s ‘museum’ in the Hock Cellar. Among the items on display is the full set of Fuller’s Vintage ales – the 1997, the oldest and first bottle to be produced, is now worth over £500. Also in the collection are items relating to the Fuller’s Fire Brigade, formed during the Second World War to protect the brewery during the Blitz, and a beer dispensing machine from the days when beer effectively formed part of the staff wages.

Last word: While the Fuller’s brewery tour is on the expensive side, I felt it was worth the money. The experience was polished and well-rehearsed in the sense that information was not simply regurgitated, but tailored to the mood and interests of the group in question.

This comes as no surprise – John Bass told me that he estimates that Fuller’s have been running these tours for at least 25 years. It is no wonder they have got it off to a fine art.

While the Saturday tours are ideal for workers, it is worth stating that the machinery and brewery equipment does not run over the weekend. If you are wanting to see the brewery in action, I would advise choosing a weekday slot. That said, I did not feel that it detracted from the experience and it did mean that we were able to hear the tour guide without the clamour of the keg line.

Finally, I should mention that the bottling plant is not part of the tour. This does seem a shame given that it is an integral part of the operation and it is notable that Fuller’s bottles its own beers (as well as that of others including Chapel Down’s Curious Drinks brand) on site, rather than using an outside party. I do, however, appreciate that groups of people traipsing through what is a mammoth operation is not practical, nor does it probably comply with health and safety standards.

Fuller’s, The Griffin Brewery, Chiswick Lane South, London W4 2QB

Editor’s note: the cost of the tour was paid for by the author.

One Response to “db Tours: Fuller’s Brewery, Chiswick”

  1. Keith Johnsen says:

    Such a great and historic location, this was also essentially the closest local brewery to the residence and office of late legendary beer writer Michael Jackson, whose home was in Hammersmith and he considered the Andover Arms (a Fuller’s pub) his local. When Michael so sadly passed away unexpectedly in 2007, the Fuller’s ownership hosted a wonderful small private gathering in the Hock Cellar, of his family and friends who attended his memorial service that day. They created a wall of photos and looping video from “The Beer Hunter”, and provided a warm and thoughtful atmosphere that gently befitted the circumstance and will remain forever in my memory. It was my third and last time to the brewery, and my first without Michael except in spirit. The Turner family and brewer John Keeling were some of the most respectful people that I’ve ever met in the entire worldwide beer industry, a wonderful testament to the company. A group of perhaps 25 of us walked along the river path after the reception there at Fuller’s to the Andover Arms and toasted Michael with pints of ESB and Chiswick Bitter. Long live Fuller’s!

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