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Being in charge of your own brewery is no small beer

PUBLISHED: 10:09 07 February 2013 | UPDATED: 10:09 07 February 2013

Pictures of John and Mirian Millis with son Darren Millis

Pictures of John and Mirian Millis with son Darren Millis

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John Millis always enjoyed homebrewing beer so much so that he created his own microbrewery. Anna Dubuis finds out more.

While the home-brewing revolution has only taken off again recently, John Millis started 25 years ago from his home in Gravesend.

It was just a small enterprise at first, a kitchen table experiment to produce a personal batch. But when his job at a factory in Northfleet came to an end 10 years ago when the business moved abroad, he used his redundancy pay to take his brewing to a commercial level.

With John, 65, already well-practised in the craft, his knowledge was there but the practicalities of upscaling required space and equipment.

Millis BeersMillis Beers

Luckily for him, but not so much for other start-ups, regional breweries around the country were closing and he and his wife Miriam, also 65, spent a year travelling far and wide to build up their second-hand brewing equipment.

“Second-hand is just as good, and meant we could afford it all without borrowing any money,” says John.

The next challenge was to find somewhere to put it all and an old storage unit at St Margaret’s Farm in South Darenth was soon discovered and rented.

Their production now has five different beers which have their locality branded on them – there’s the Gravesend Guzzler, the Dartford Wobbler and three Kentish varieties, the Red, Best and Gold.

Working seven days a week, often from 5am until late, he and Miriam keep the beer chugging away, with son Darren also helping out.

Brewing takes up to seven days, during which time yeast has to be skimmed from the top of the fermentor as and when it is ready. “It dictates your life,” says John.

After that comes the maturing period, the length of which depends on the beer’s alcoholic percentage and could take up to two months for the strongest.

Given the various factors that could change – the bitterness of the hops grown and the levels of each ingredient – consistency is essential for the small operation.

“When a farmer harvests the hops they have no idea how bitter they will be. We have to adjust the ingredients to keep the beers the same because people who drink it know when it is different. We are a slave to quality and consistency,” John says.

He explains that brewing beer is much like cooking. “When we started we tried out different ingredients and tweaked the recipes. All the beers have pale ale malt in them, then some have light crystal malt, some have black malt and one has dark red crystal malt.”

Beyond cooking, it is a matter of scientific experiments for John, who is drawn to the microbiology side of it.

The water supply at the farm is particularly hard water which required a yeast strain that would work well with it.

John tested many and found one that suited. The particular strain is kept freeze-dried at the National Cultures Yeast Collection in Norwich which holds more than different 3,000 strains.

The microbiologist who tends to those yeast strains has, in John’s opinion, “the most coveted job”, though some would think that John has it all.

n Millis Brewery sells its beers to local pubs, such as the Three Dawes in Gravesend, as well as selling bottled beer from the farm. If you run or know of a business to feature email feedback@gravesendreporter.co.uk

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