Friday 10 March 2023

GADDS' comes of age

It’s 21 years this March since the first casks of GADDS’ Number 3 Premium Kentish Pale Ale (Number 3, for short) were tapped and drunk in the Ramsgate Royal Harbour Brewhouse and
Bakers (The Belgian Bar, for short). 21 years of ups and downs and changes and no changes, and we’ll all have time to reflect and recount on all things GADDS’, Kent, brewing, and beer over a few pints of iconic cask ale at the Brewery’s 21st Birthday Cask Beer Festival, at the GADDS’ Taproom, this Good Friday and Easter Saturday. 

But I’ll likely be busy serving you, so I’ll take this opportunity to look back, and look forward. 

Those first casks of #3 were delicious, and in our naivety we thought we were poised to take over the Kent beer scene very quickly (whatever that meant). But the casks we sent out to local pubs were sent back a week later, not having dropped bright. And the replacement casks were also sent back, for the same reason. This was a very early lesson in quality control – we had been filling the casks in the beer cellar, a place where beer gets spilt and wild yeasts thrive. Also a place with a big fan blowing cold air around the casks, and blowing the wild yeast into the beer as the beer went into the casks. And although we figured out our mistake fairly early on, at least one of those early pub customers didn’t trust us again for a few years (looking at you Artillery Arms!). No grudges held, to be honest I’m surprised the other two pubs did trust us again so quickly. Following that, and to this day, we don’t send any batches of beer out until we’ve checked how they’ll behave in the cellar (and we’re not fussed about taking over the Kent beer scene, either). 

Whilst building the brewery, one Saturday evening a certain local pub magnate (on his way to the casino opposite) found his way into the building site and enquired politely what kind of beer the brewery under construction was going to produce. ‘Real ale’, I replied, ‘No one drinks that around here’ were the kind words of encouragement (curse) I received in return. He was right of course, the number of pubs in Thanet with active handpumps could be counted on one hand. That didn’t change for a few years until the Thanet branch of CAMRA held that first, game changing beer festival at the Monkey House in 2006. The rip-roaring success showed that not only was drinking beer on a bank holiday Friday popular round here, but that the local population really were looking for the good stuff, and would enjoy it in great quantity given the opportunity. At last, the curse was broken, and the success of the festival catalysed a Thanet revolution, transforming the beer and pub desert landscape into the oasis it is today. 

Of course, timing is everything and the worldwide craft beer movement (taking encouragement from Thanet CAMRA, no doubt) got underway. New breweries were springing up all over the place and the number in Kent began to rise from the 9 it had been stuck on for a few years (OK, name all 9?). Change was afoot for GADDS’ too, as we moved operations from the Belgian Bar to our new home up at Hornet Close, and focused on producing cask ale for the pubs and people of East Kent. But whilst the number of Kent breweries was rising, the number of handpumps available wasn’t (yet) and sales were flat, at that just-about-enough level. In the ‘old days’ we’d always get a decent mid-summer boost from the Canterbury branch of CAMRA, and their Kent Beer Festival, who could be relied upon to buy up to 10 kilderkins from each of the Kent breweries, equating to a 25% uplift in sales in a week for us at GADDS’. As the number of new brewery openings accelerated, this much appreciated bonus diminished, and we went off to music festivals, where cool, local cask ale found favour in an otherwise sea of short poured Heineken. 

A couple of years after the big move to Hornet Close, a combination of a localism movement, the ongoing annual success of the Planet Thanet Easter Beer Festival, an emerging craft beer revolution, and a rise in the number of Kent breweries, produced a growing interest in (and demand for) local beer that finally began to take effect, and our phone started to ring. Local publicans were at last open to the idea that cask ale might just work for them. Sales rose strongly and we rebuilt the brewery, purchasing Dark Star’s old kit and tripling capacity. By this time we had long had our core beer range of Numbers 3, 5 and 7, alongside Seasider and Dogbolter, and we organised our specials into an annual seasonal range, adding such beers as She Sells Seashells, Rye Pale Ale and Summer’s Day. 

Licensing laws had changed in 2005 and a certain off-licence owner not too far from Thanet took advantage, adding an on-licence to his modest, beer only establishment, hailing it as a micro-pub and evangelising the concept. Eventually, in 2010, Colin Aris from Ramsgate answered the calls and opened Thanet’s very own micro-pub, The Conqueror, on the westside of town. The Bake and Ale House and the Four Candles followed, and the flood gates opened. Today there are around 14 or 15 micro-pubs in Thanet, adding to the many existing pubs now serving cask ale and helping to create the beer oasis of today. 

It was in September 2009 that, taking inspiration from a visiting brewer from Falling Rock in California, we tentatively brewed our first batch of Green Hop Ale, not really knowing what we were doing, how it would turn out or what might happen next. The brewing gods smiled upon our efforts and the rest is history. The popularity of Green Hop Ale far exceeded anything anyone expected and continues to grow year by year, so much so that today we brew nothing else during harvest. Sadly in 2020, following a global collapse in demand for hops due to a big fall in beer consumption during lockdowns (I know, the headlines would have you believe we were all pickling ourselves in booze, but the truth is that the drop in hospitality drinking far exceeded the rise in home tippling), our much loved local farmer, Humphrey Hulme, was forced to quit his lifelong love of growing East Kent Goldings hops, and focus on his core fruit business. We’d used Humphrey’s EKGs in most of our beers for 18 years, and they had become the very lifeblood running through the brewery. These kind of blows can knock a business sideways, but this one turned out to be not so bad afterall – we moved our hop contracts over to the fabulous growers on Syndale Farm, John Clinch and his daughter Anna, who have produced, in the last two years, the most amazingly good EKGs this author has seen in 30 years.

GADDS’, of course, is really about the people that make it and the people that drink it, and no potted history of it is complete without remembering absent friends. We lost our Chairman, Dave, in 2020, and our Grahame in 2022. I’m sure that the cosy back street pub in the sky stocks GADDS’: Number 7 on cask, and Number 3 in the bottle (served in a Fosters glass). 

Today, in 2023, in a post-pandemic world, with certain parts of the country (principally London) reporting plummeting cask ale sales, and brewers all over the UK moving into keg, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the future looks bleak for both GADDS’ and for CAMRA. Quite the opposite, in my mind – cask ale is the fastest, freshest way of producing beer, with the very least amount of processing, and, delivered to (and drunk in) a local pub it has the smallest carbon footprint of all the beers. It’s also extremely delicious, and these attributes will ensure cask ale will survive, and flourish, long into the future. And where there is cask, there is a local CAMRA branch. 

So come on down to GADDS’ Birthday Beer Festival of Iconic Cask Ales from Across the Land this Good Friday and Easter Saturday, and raise a glass to another 21 years of great cask beer in Thanet.

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