“No other brewery brews beer the way we brew our beer now in the UK,” says our guide Paul at the beginning of the Adnams Brewery tour in Southwold, Suffolk.
The deceptively small brewery is nestled between buildings in the middle of the popular seaside town of Southwold. The site also has a distillery, which is a separate tour.
The brewery tour takes around one hour and 40 minutes, depending on how long you spend in the tasting session at the end. It is open to over 18s only, involves some limited stair climbing and costs £20.
If you are going during the summer, be warned, it does get very warm inside the brewery. Also, if you want to see a working brewery, don’t go on a Saturday or Sunday, because it’s not operational at the weekends.
Pre-booking online is essential, as the tour is very popular, especially during the summer months.
Adnams has benefited both from the growing popularity of craft beer and the increasing number of people ‘staycationing’ in the UK. The brewery owns all of the pubs and several hotels in Southwold and many more pubs in the surrounding area.
The company can trace its history back 700 years. However, the Adnams company didn’t start brewing at the Southwold brewery until 1872, when Johnathon Adnams and Simon Loftus incorporated the company.
After an appropriately brief corporate film and a discussion about the company’s past, the tour starts properly at the brew-house’s receiving area for raw ingredients, where there is a short presentation. Interestingly, hops from Kent are no longer used by Adnams because the craft beer trend means the region is being over-farmed and there has been a drop-in quality, Paul tells us.
The brewing process
Once inside the brew-house there are large stainless vats, pipework, control panels and instrumentation crammed into every nook and cranny. All of the brewing equipment was installed during a complex major refit in 2006 that saw it shut down for a short period of time.
The site is capable of brewing 259,200 pints a day, around 1.2 million pints a week. In practice it produces between 800,000 and 1 million a week. The brewery produced 156 million pints last year.
The process begins with milling, barley, wheat and rye together, which is put into the mash tun. This is where the starch present in the malts turns into the sugars that are fermented into alcohol.
The mash is transferred to the lauter tun, where it is kept at 60˚C for 3 hours. Inside the Lauter tun, the solid parts, such as the malt husks, are separated from the sugary liquid and mash. The sugary liquid is from now on called the wort.
The lauter tun is later washed and the mash is disposed of as feed for local pigs.
The wort may be held in a third tank, before it enters the fourth tank, the kettle/whirlpool. This is where the hops are added during a three-stage process that takes around an hour.
First the wort is boiled at 101˚C, then the hops are added and finally the mix is swirled in a whirlpool to remove the material and protein.
At this stage some of the modern features of Adnams Brewery are used.
The steam from the kettle is saved for preheating the next brew and washing out the tubs. Before the 2006, refit the brewing process required 51 pints of water to make one pint of beer. After the refit in 2006, this was reduced to 32 pints of water.
An unexpected benefit of the steam recycling system’s installation in 2006 for the residents of Southwold was that it almost completely eliminated the smell of brewing from wafting around the town.
Another eco-feature of the brewing process is that the contents of the kettle are put through a transverse heat pump where its temperature is reduced from 101˚C to 18˚C. This heat is also re-used in the brewery.
The yeast is added after the transverse heat pump in a controlled environment before the beer is pumped into the fermentation vessels.
From the brew-house a short crossing of the road (the beer travels in pipes underground) takes you into the Fermentation area. Here 19 vessels each holds 300 barrels of beer.
The yeast used by Adnams is a two-strand variety unique to the brewery. Since 1943, when there was an infection, the company has used a strict quality control process. Samples are taken, tested and kept in two different locations every six months.
The yeast grows on top of the beer in the vessels and is skimmed off every few days. Fermentation takes around a week, unless the beer is lager. After primary fermentation the beer is held in conditioning tank for about 7 days.
When brewing lager, the fermentation tanks also have to be kept colder. Last year, Adnams installed 16 new fermentation vessels in the brew-house (we weren’t showed these on the tour) to meet increasing demand for the company’s lager. Each holds 150 barrels installed.
Before October 2017 there were 19 fermentation vessels making 1 million and 6,400 pints. With the new vessels the brewery’s capacity rises to 2 million 332,800 pints.
Finally the beer is filtered and pumped back under the road to the brew-house where it is put into 72-pint casks for shipping out to the UK and overseas.
The modern + the traditional = satsuma beer?
At each stage Adnams’ brewing process is controlled by computers. There are panels and displays hidden away in various places amongst the barrels and brickwork.
But despite the computerisation and modern equipment, there is still an art to the brewing that takes place here. It’s this fusion of modern process equipment and tradition that gives us the wide variety of Adnams’ beers today – from satsuma wheat beer, earl grey tea-flavoured beer.
Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing – you can decide yourself during the tasting session at the end of the tour. Alongside the now well-established Ghost Ship IPA, all the strange and seasonal beers can be tasted there.
The entire tour was delivered an informal and jolly manner, questions were welcome and at no time did I feel hurried.
If you are unfamiliar with the brewing process, this will be a steep learning curve, but a thoroughly enjoyable introduction. If you are familiar with it, this is an opportunity to see a brewery that has managed to incorporate the most modern equipment and process-driven approaches to brewing with its heritage flavours, practices and site.
If staying in or near Southwold, it’s difficult to avoid Adnams – a visit to where it all began for the company is a more than worthwhile activity. If you like beer, it’s almost a must.