To many, Ashford in Kent is best known as a Eurostar stop on the way to France, and some locals refer to it disparagingly as ‘Trashford’. But Frazer Thompson, Chief Executive of wine and beer maker Chapel Down, chose to build a brewery right in the centre of the town for Curious Brew, the award-winning lager.
Beer is a hugely democratic product. It doesn’t matter if you’re young or old, rich or poor, male or female – it’s a pleasurable experience for everyone – teetotallers excluded of course! So it makes sense for breweries to be in the middle of town, where everyone can see them and enjoy them. Historically, they always were and if you visit craft brewers in the US or Australia, they’re places to go and enjoy. But here, breweries have increasingly been set up on soulless industrial estates.
We didn’t want to do that. Our winery in Tenterden is very important to us. People come and see it, they have a nice time, they buy the wine and they go home and talk about it. So it seemed to us that, rather than being out in the countryside, where you expect a winery to be, this was a great opportunity for us to be right in the centre of town.
And Ashford seemed like the perfect place.
As the garden of England, Kent has a powerful brewing heritage. Ashford is the most accessible point in the county. And it gives us the opportunity to restate the modernity of beer. Until a few years ago, opening a brewery in the centre of town might have been considered regressive. But beer has had a renaissance – so where better to put a brand new, modern brewery than at the heart of a regeneration project in a county known for its breweries and its hops? And strangely, Kent has been under-represented in beer’s new wave. Hundreds of breweries have been opening but relatively few in Kent. This will redress the balance.
From the start, we were determined to find a site right in the middle of town. Ashford didn’t have a core. There was nowhere that local people could be really proud of and visitors would think of as unique.
Fortunately, Ashford Council was wise enough to see the opportunity that a brewery could bring to the town. It’s more than just the rent. It’s a sense of pride; it’s a sense of belonging; it’s a heart.
So we’re very excited about it. We want to create an icon. That’s not vanity; it’s marketing. If the brewery’s right in the middle of town, more people will see it and if it looks great, they’ll build up a connection with our brand.
A sense of pride
So that’s what we’re going to do. As the three ingredients of beer are hops, water and barley, we’re going to have hops growing up poles at the side of the building, we’re going to have a water wall and there are going to be barley and grasses all around the brewery. It’s going to be open to everyone and we want it to be great fun – a hymn to the hop.
But this isn’t just about entertainment. I am hugely ambitious for Curious Brew. This is not some little local beer. It’s a lager beer, made by a winemaker using Champagne yeast, and it tastes better than any other beer. So it has real global potential and in future I want people all around the world to say: “Ashford – that’s where they make Curious Brew.”
And the brewery’s already created loads of local enthusiasm. It’s a £10 million project and we decided to raise some cash through crowd-funding, not least because we wanted to give people a sense of ownership in the brewery and the beer. People could invest as little as £100 and we ended up raising £1.7 million. Not only was that a lot more than we expected but 35% of the people who invested came from Kent.
At the time that surprised me, but with hindsight it shouldn’t have. I’m a Geordie but I’m incredibly wedded to Kent. And this development is really going to change the town. We’ve actually had nothing but support for this project. It’s been incredible. But I guess it struck a chord. Because beer just brings people together.