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Goachers: Kent's great survivors

Added: Tuesday, December 7th 2021


Goachers is a great survivor. The brewery was launched in 1983 by Phil and Debbie Goacher and it’s not only one of the country’s oldest small independent breweries but it’s also restored brewing pride to Maidstone.

The Kent capital was once home to two major breweries, Fremlins and Style & Winch. Fremlins had the misfortune to be taken over by national brewer Whitbread who closed it in 1972. Style & Winch had shut down earlier in 1965.

Phil Goacher had worked for Bass in Burton-on-Trent and knew his way around mash tuns and coppers. With his wife Debbie, he set up a five-barrel plant in an old paper mill in Maidstone and they produced Maidstone Ale (4.1 per cent, now Best Dark) as their first brew.

They followed this ale five years later with Fine Light Ale (3.7 per cent). At the time, mild ale was being discarded by many brewers. It has survived and is still a regular member of Goacher’s portfolio and is enjoying the growing appreciation of dark beer.

In 1990 Phil and Debbie moved the brewery to an industrial estate in the suburb of Tovil. It’s less cramped than the original site and gives them room for expansion. After nearly 40 years of hard but rewarding brewing, Phil and Debbie have retired and the brewery is now run by their son Howard.

When he left college, Howard learned the brewing skills with a year’s stint at Gadds Brewery in Ramsgate. He’s expanded capacity at Goachers to a seven-barrel plant that can produce 1,200 barrels a year. Following in his parents’ footsteps, Howard has mapped out a distinctive route to market.

“We don’t deal with pubcos,” he says. “We trade just in Kent and East Sussex, as far as Margate and Rye. 98 per cent is in Kent and most of our trade is within a 25-mile radius.

“We only make cask beer plus a little in polypins and mini pins. We don’t do any bottled beer – we don’t have the capacity. We have strong local customers who take four to six firkins of beer a week. A dozen of those and we’re up to full production.”

He’s proud of the fact that he buys hops grown in the county – Fuggles, East Kent Goldings and Whitbread Goldings Variety. He uses 100 per cent Maris Otter malt bought from  Warminster and Muntons grain merchants. He would like to find Kentish farmers willing to plant Maris Otter.

“That would tick all the boxes with everything grown in Kent,” he says. “I’m told the terroir – soil in particular – is fine for growing barley.”

Little Gem

Back in the 1980s, Phil and Debbie got their yeast culture from Shepherd Neame in Faversham. Howard says the local water is very hard, ideal for pale ales. He treats the water with calcium for his paler brews but not for darker ones.

Goachers has a small estate of three pubs: the Rifle Volunteers in Maidstone, the Royal Paper Mill in Tovil and the Little Gem in Aylesford. The Tovil pub offers lager and bottled beers as well as draught for local drinkers but the other two serve just cask beer.

The high point of my visit was meeting up with Phil and Debbie, after a long gap, in the aptly-named Little Gem (pictured above). The pub had fallen into the hands of the Punch pub company that, true to form, planned to sell it. Fortunately, it was bought at auction by someone who knew the Goachers and it passed to them.

The pub is Grade II-listed and was originally part of a manor house. In recent times it was a tea rooms next to a bakery. The Goachers are spending time and money restoring the tiny building. It has an inglenook, ancient beams and a mezzanine floor that will offer additional seating when it’s refurbished.

The bar has two hand pumps with other beers served straight from casks stillaged at the back. The range includes two winter beer, Imperial Stout (4.5 per cent) and Old 1066 (6.7 per cent).

I relished a glass of Best Dark (4.1 per cent) while I reminisced with Phil and Debbie. In 2023 they will mark 40 years of brewing and it promises to be quite a celebration.

First published in What's Brewing. December 2021