Maidstone has long been a significant market town with strong agricultural connections. So it should be no surprise that it also has a tradition of brewing and distilling stretching back over 400 years. We take a look at the legacy of alcohol production in the region, ranging from gin to brandy, and beer to cider.
Brewing has been an important industry since medieval times because, until recently, beer was safer to drink than water, with the latter often heavily contaminated and polluted. As such, by 1650, there were at least six breweries operating in the Maidstone region. These would have relied heavily on hops grown in the numerous gardens found around the county which, once harvested, were roasted in oast kilns – a distinctive part of the local landscape today.
Perhaps the most well-known brewery in the town was the Fremlin Brewery. Bought by Ralph Fremlin in 1861, the brewery on Earl Street began producing beers under the family name. Due to Fremlin’s deeply held religious beliefs, his principles prevented him from purchasing public houses, instead opening branch offices in London and other towns across the South East.
Fremlin pioneered the supply of beers in bottles and gallon jars, developing an extensive product range. The main product was pale ale and, when the Fremlin Brewery began supplying the Courage brewery in London, it became one of the largest pale ale brewers in the country.
The business was eventually bought by Whitbread in 1967, yet the legacy of the Kent brewer has been preserved to this day. While Fremlin Walk Shopping Centre now stands on the former brewery site, some of the arches from the original perimeter walls still remain, providing access from Earl Street and St Faith’s Street. The iconic Elephant logo, synonymous with the Fremlin brand, retains a prominent position on top of the shopping centre.
While the history of the Fremlin Brewery lives on in the modern shopping centre, there remains one operational brewery in town – Goacher’s Brewery in Tovil. An independent, family-run operation, Goacher’s continues to produce traditional ales with barley and hops, and has been named among the CAMRA top beers in recent years.
During the Middle Ages, gin was used as a herbal medicine, only becoming popular as a drink in 17th century. Following the coronation of William of Orange, leader of the Dutch republic, demand for the Dutch product genever – a superior product to English gins of the time – was high, yet excise rules prohibited genever manufacture in Britain.
For George Bishop, a Maidstone native, learning his trade in Holland meant transforming the face of gin distillation at home. On his return to Maidstone, Bishop built a large distillery on the south side of Bank Street and began producing gin. Petitioning Parliament to allow the production of genever, Bishop argued that it would reduce smuggling and increase duty for the Revenue. In the face of much opposition, Bishop ultimately won the debate, and the production of genever, also known as ‘Maidstone Hollands’, began in earnest.
By 1789, Maidstone Hollands had gained a national reputation for quality and strength, with production peaking at over 5,000 gallons each week. The link to Bishop’s pioneering work is evident today, with the Maiden Distillery at The Old Brewery producing its own gin, as well as a number of several other spirits following recipes dating from the 1790s.
Kent enjoys a reputation for growing flavoursome cherries, so it’s little wonder that it became a centre for production of this popular tipple. Arguably the most renowned brand is Grant’s Morella Cherry Brandy. Originally established in Dover in 1774, Grant’s would relocate to Maidstone following a severe cliff collapse at its previous location. With the move, a new distillery and warehouses were built near the West Station, and a sizeable export business was quickly established. In fact, by 1892, such was the demand for the cherry brandy, over 20,000 cherry trees were used to supply Grant’s with the fruit they needed for manufacture.
The drink quickly became a favourite of Queen Victoria leading to Grant’s being afforded a Royal Warrant by the Prince of Wales. Such was its appeal and growing popularity, the drink was also mentioned in Charles Dickens’ first novel, The Pickwick Papers.
Grant’s Morella Cherry Brandy continued to be manufactured in Maidstone until the 1960s when F. Leslie Grant (great, great grandson of the founder) died and the company was taken over. Today it is still available through Shepherd Neame Faversham.
Find out more
To discover more about the legacy of gin production in Maidstone, Maiden Distillery is hosting a fascinating talk and tasting at Maidstone Museum on October 24, 2015. Find out more today.
About the author
Ann-Marie is part of the marketing team at Visit Maidstone. She studied archaeology at Southampton University and has a particular passion for historic buildings. View more by Ann-Marie.