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Westerham Brewery, Audit Ale

The Kent town of Westerham has a rich brewing tradition dating back to the 1600s. It was during the 1800s and the height of the industrial revolution that the hugely successful Black Eagle Brewery was founded and flourished there, largely due to the quality of the local water (hard water that’s ideal for pale ales) which filters though the Lower Greensand Ridge to the south of the town. At one point The Black Eagle Brewery was making so much beer that in 1881 a train line from Sevenoaks to Westerham was constructed to carry beer to and from London.

A lot of independent, family owned breweries suffered during The Second World War but Black Eagle’s close proximity to RAF Biggin Hill and the beers popularity among the young airmen ensured the brewery continued to prosper. Following the D-Day landings, Westerham Ales were even exported to troops in Normandy inside the auxiliary fuel tanks of Spitfires. They were dubbed “Modification XXX Depth Charges” to get them past the pen pushers.

The Black Eagle Brewery could not, however, survive the consolidation of the brewing industry in the 1950s which saw the big boys snaffle them up. It was bought in 1959 by Ind Coope, who were based in Burton-on-Trent and Romford, and Black Eagle was closed six years later.

Step forward Robert Wicks who founded Westerham Brewery, now based in an old dairy building owned by the National Trust, in 2004. Wicks brewed his first batch of home brew at the age of eight. That’s what happens when you’ve got Dick Theakston, of the eponymous brewing family, as your godfather.

Robert couldn’t be any more committed to pouring all of the town’s brewing heritage in to Westerham’s latest brewing incarnation. That started with the brewery’s yeast. During the 1950s takeovers, the then head brewer at Black Eagle Brewery deposited freeze dried samples of their yeasts with the National Collection of Yeast Cultures, no doubt sensing that it would otherwise be lost forever. 50 years later, Robert has revived those yeast cultures, acquiring them from Carlsberg UK. The brewery also uses exactly the same water supply that Black Eagle would have done 150 years ago.

This week’s beer, Audit Ale, is a former Black Eagle brew made to the original 1938 recipe and strength. “Audit Ale” is a tradition that dates from the 16th century. Colleges around the UK, most notably Oxford and Cambridge, brewed a strong ale in October using the first malts and hops of the harvest and then stored it until the following year. Once the masters of the colleges had finished totting up the numbers for the annual accounts they would celebrate by cracking into the beer at the annual Audit Feast.

Westerham’s take on the beer is a wonderful extra strong bitter (ESB) made with pale and crystal malts along with a big whack of local Kent hops. It smells of Soreen. The taste is of rich Christmas cake and marzipan with hops kicking in late to offer a long, dry, bitter, peppery finish. Lovely stuff.


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