London: Fuller’s Brewery Tour

dsc08083-copyAs I’m sure I’ve said before, I’m really not much of a drinker.  I’ll have a gin and tonic once every few months, or the occasional cider or perry, but my extremely low alcohol tolerance coupled with some fierce gastric reflux has pretty much put a stop to any kind of more serious/regular drinking (not that I was ever a serious imbiber, but I did go out to the pub quite often when I first moved here in an ill-fated effort to be more sociable.  Ill-fated because I am not naturally sociable, and spending most of my free time with people eventually made my introversion rear up in a big way.  And didn’t win me any friends).  So a tour of Fuller’s Brewery in Chiswick wasn’t a natural choice for me, but my parents were still in town, and they are both interested in beer, plus the limited amount of people allowed on each tour meant there wouldn’t be any crowds.  Fuller’s it was then!

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Actually, it was a good chance to go, because Marcus has wanted to take the tour for years, and we were clearly unlikely to do it on our own, so my parents’ visit provided the perfect excuse.  Happily, Fuller’s participates in the National Rail 2-for-1 scheme, so I was able to get us all half price tickets by booking online using the 2-for-1 discount code (advanced booking highly recommended, perhaps even required).  £6 for a tour + generous tastings seemed like a pretty good deal, even to a light drinker like me, considering a pint in London will set you back at least £4.  (However, shortly after our visit, Fuller’s closed down many parts of the brewery for refurbishment, and will re-open in December, with a new brewing museum as part of the tour, so it will then cost £20 instead of £12, without the 2-for-1.  Basically, you should DEFINITELY get the 2-for-1 if you visit after they re-open, because £20 is a ridiculous price.)

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We all met at the Mawson Arms, the pub next to the brewery, about 15 minutes before our tour time. We were then led into the brewery, and given sexy high vis jackets to wear on the tour (probably necessary, because people kept whipping around the corner of the road that runs through the brewery on forklifts and things). Our guide was called Martin, and though he repeated himself a lot, he still did a good job of being entertaining/amusingly “Lahndahn” enough for the American tourists (my parents weren’t the only ones. There was also a group from Chicago…since my parents are from Cleveland, this didn’t go over too well as the World Series was imminent at the time of our visit.  I hate all sports, so I didn’t care either way, but my father promptly took against the man in the Cubs hat).

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Even though I’m not a beer fan, I have been on brewery tours before (Cantillon, Heineken, De Halve Maan), and although Fuller’s is a fairly large operation, the tour was more in the same vein as a medium sized brewery like De Halve Maan than something as high-tech and glitzy as Heineken, where you don’t actually get to see the brewing facilities.  Fuller’s was founded in 1845 when John Bird Fuller inherited the brewery upon his father’s death and joined with investors Henry Smith and John Turner, who provided the capital and contacts that allowed operations to expand.  But the site has been used as a brewery since at least the 1600s, operating under a number of different owners. Some equipment from the 1800s is still hanging around (I think the oldest stuff just pre-dated Fuller’s), and a few old pieces are still used in the modern brewing process.

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Unfortunately, the photos are about as exciting as the tour was (i.e. not very), because breweries are intrinsically not that exciting to look at.  There’s big tanks, some of which you could peer into and see beer being sloshed around, and more big tanks with other stages of the beer-making process in them (like wort and junk), and lots of hoppy smells (to be honest, some of them smelled more yeasty to me, but Martin claimed it wasn’t the yeast we were smelling).  Martin told us a little about the history of brewing, but it was fairly basic stuff (anyone who had watched one of that Ivan Day guy’s culinary history presentations at some point or another (and he seems to pop up a lot on the BBC…if you watch British cookery programmes, you’ve probably encountered Ivan) or one of Ruth Goodman’s various (Insert Historical Era Here) Farm shows would probably already know what Martin told us; basically, before hops came to England, beer was just a sweet barley-based liquid that would start to spoil within a day.  Hops act as a preservative, but of course the downside is that they taste like bitter crap).  The tour in general didn’t go into the sort of depth that craft/home brewing types would require, and some people asked technical questions that didn’t really get answered, but I wasn’t bothered by this because I’m not a beer nerd.

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Really I think we were just killing time until the group before us left the tasting room, because I’m convinced that the “tasting” was the only reason most people went on the tour.  The tour fee included what was essentially all you could drink beer; well, all you could drink in 45 minutes or so anyway, which is how long we were given before Martin rang the last call bell (still a much better deal than that “all you can eat cake” that wasn’t, from a few weeks ago).  Fortunately for me, because I only really like fruit beers and some sours (which are definitely not part of the current Fuller’s range), Fuller’s also owns a cider manufacturer, so there were a few ciders available, and the blush cider was surprisingly very tasty.  I do find most English beers drinkable though, even if I don’t really enjoy them, which is more than I can say for those super strong and disgusting American IPAs that seem to be all the rage these days.  Sadly, my parents, who are big fans of IPAs, decided they didn’t really like real ale because it was “too warm.”  But I managed to get tipsy in the tasting time allotted (not hard for me to do, given that a pint is pretty much enough), so at least the tour had some benefit!  Still, for the normal admission price (not the discounted rate I got), I think there are better tours around (Marcus recommends Sambrook’s), so this is probably only worth doing for the hardcore Fuller’s fan.  I guess it remains to be seen what their new museum will be like, though I don’t think I’ll be rushing off to visit it.  2.5/5.

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11 comments

  1. I was excited by your title but it all sounds a bit mediocre. There are three breweries with tours in Glasgow and I haven’t been on a single one! You’ve reminded me that I really should rectify that.

    1. It was indeed mediocre. Maybe I’m not the best person to judge these things, since I’m not interested in beer, but Marcus is, and he agreed, I think it was probably lacking. The only brewery I really enjoyed was Cantillon, and even their “tour” (self-guided) wasn’t so great, but I do love their kriek, so the samples made up for it! There are an awful lot of London breweries that do tours though…the only reason I picked Fuller’s is because they were the cheapest!

  2. I didn’t realize hops are a preservative – no wonder they taste like hell. I suppose I don’t mind them when they’re used sparingly, but beer these days (especially the craft ones around here) have really ramped it up so that it’s almost unsafe to try anything new. Like you, I’d probably have stuck with the ciders.

    1. So I’m not the only one who hates hops then! I never would have guessed from all the hoppy-ass beers on the market that everyone else seems to love. It’s the same with craft beer everywhere I think; there are a few breweries that specialise in sours, but most just seem to put out the strongest, bitterest beers possible.

  3. Though the visit ended up being a bit lackluster, it can be kind of cool to see the brewing facilities. When I went to the Guinness Storehouse, I found all the flashy screens telling me about beer to be dull. I also prefer having a guide instead of being forced to read things because sometimes I end up being lazy and just walking without trying to learn anything.

    1. I guess if I was more interested in beer, I’d be more interested in seeing the brewing facilities. Hence why I probably am not the ideal person to review this. But yeah, I’m glad we gave Guinness a miss when I was in Dublin. It looked just a little too corporate (not that Heineken wasn’t, but that did have a ride, which made me feel like I was in Duffworld! Only not as fun).

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