“Um, what? Where?” was my response the first time I heard about Tayto Castle. Despite being one of the UK's largest crisp manufacturers, I'd never even heard of Tayto, let alone their castle. I was assured this was a highlight of Northern Ireland, right up there with the Giant's Causeway. It was only when we were parked outside the castle however, that we realised the high walls and leafy trees completely obscured the view. We couldn't go in, couldn't see anything and ended up consoling ourselves with a packet of Tayto's crisps instead. Many years later, we finally realised the dream and joined a Tayto Castle tour to see their factory in action.
Welcome To The Tayto Castle Tour
After the safety briefing, our group was joined by a surprise visitor, Mr Tayto. Looking remarkably dapper in a smart red suit, the potato-headed mascot happily greeted us and a photoshoot ensued. It was then time to get dressed for the factory. We were each issued a blue plastic apron and an attractive shower cap style hat. Earrings were taped up and anyone with even the slightest hint of designer stubble was handed a beard net as well. With a healthy dollop of hand sanitiser for good measure, we were ready to go.
The Potato Store At Tayto Castle
First up was the potato store, a dingy and largely empty shed. Up to 400 tons of potatoes can be kept in one room here. They wrap the potatoes in a frost-protecting blanket, and leave them 'sleeping' in the dark until they're needed. It sounds like a lot but with Tayto Castle producing a million bags of crisps a day, they don't last long.
We dodged a forklift that zipped past us, depositing a crate of potatoes into a cradle suspended over a huge machine. The cradle flipped, dumping the potatoes into the hopper where they started their journey through the factory. Next, the spuds were de-stoned, washed and sliced before disappearing inside.
Ready For Our Tayto Tour
Keen to keep waste to a minimum, Tayto try to recycle wherever possible. The potato peelings are sold to farmers and used to make animal feed. Even the starch washed off the freshly sliced potatoes is dried out and sold to glue factories. This extra washing process doesn't happen to all of the crisps though. The poshest varieties are left with the starch intact.
Making Corn Snacks
As we walked on to the factory floor, we spotted a steady stream of crisps flying through transparent tubes. The maize starch is shaped and baked in one part of the factory. The freshly cooked corn snacks are then blasted elsewhere for flavouring and packing.
The Frying Room
Next up was the best bit, the frying room. We skidded and slid across the wet, oily floor to see the sliced potatoes disappearing into one end of the fryer. Just a few minutes later a torrent of freshly cooked crisps came flying out of the other end at around 30 mph. Surprisingly this didn't seem to damage the crisps.
They flew through the optical sorter, a machine that detects overcooked or burnt crisps. Any crisps that aren't up to scratch are shot down by a quick puff of air and discarded. One of the factory workers has the important task of scanning the conveyor belt, picking out any rogue crisps missed by the machine. With the opportunity to eat freshly baked crisps all day, we wondered how she managed to stay so slim. We were told the workers at Tayto Castle very quickly get over the novelty of the crisps. Most of them prefer chocolate instead.
At this point, we found out why our protective clothing was so important. We were shown how to tie up the bottom corners of our aprons to form a sizeable bowl for carrying crisps around. Our new bowls were filled with fresh, unflavoured crisps still warm from the fryer. They were delicious. We snacked on these as we learned about the flavouring process. Crisps and their flavourings rotate together in a large drum until the crisps are properly coated. They are then sent for packing.
Packaging Tayto Crisps
We saw carefully measured portions of crisps being dropped into long tubes of packaging. A couple of hot rods simultaneously seal the bag and cut it off from the main roll. The bags are then packaged by hand into boxes labelled WIP, or Work In Progress. Our bowls were refilled with the WIP crisps and we continued munching as we walked. We passed a small lab where the WIP crisps are tested to ensure they are up to scratch. They certainly tasted ok to us.
Once Tayto are happy that the crisps are perfect, they're properly packaged in branded boxes. A couple of robot arms were constantly whirling around, grabbing boxes and stacking them onto palettes. A giant spinning machine then wrapped the full palettes in plastic, much like the baggage wrapping machines at an airport.
The Number One Tayto Flavour
How Many Crisps Can We Eat?
Our guide ran around collecting different flavours and types of crisps for us to try. We sampled many of Tayto's original flavours along with their corn snacks, low-fat options and fancy crisps specifically branded for local supermarkets. They fed us so many crisps that even our guide was joking about the risk of tour participants being sick on the way home.
When we couldn't eat any more we were given bags of crisps to stuff in our pockets for later. And at the end of the tour, we were invited to choose yet more crisps from their shop to take home. In a moment of madness, they had nominated Chris as a responsible adult. He had to wear a high viz vest and help herd our tour group around the factory. The reward for his efforts? More crisps!
Who Are Tayto?
After being used by the US Army in WWII, Tandragee Castle was sold to Thomas Hutchinson. He had come across the newfangled idea of potato crisps while travelling the world and was keen to get involved in this up and coming industry. Shortly after, Tayto was born. The first crisps produced at Tayto Castle were sold in tins and were only available in one flavour. Over 60 years later, the original cheese and onion flavour is still the most popular.
Tayto make crisps and snacks for many of the big supermarkets in the UK but they're mainly sold under the supermarkets' own brand names. They also export crisps to the USA. Called O'Hanlons after the original owners of the castle, these crisps have an authentic Irish theme. Each packet is decorated with Celtic patterns, shamrocks and even a photo of Tayto Castle itself.
At Tayto Castle Entrance
How To Take A Tayto Castle Tour
Tayto Castle only offer tours on weekdays. Monday to Thursday there are two tours a day. There is only one tour on Fridays.
Tours can be quite busy so book in advance. You can book a tour on the Tayto Castle website, or phone Tayto directly.
The tour lasts around 90 minutes and there can be up to 45 people in a tour group. When we visited, there were about 25 people but we were split into 2 groups when we entered the factory.
Tayto Castle Tour Tips
We were asked to fill in a couple of forms before our tour. Arrive early so you have time to complete the paperwork before the tour starts.
You will have the chance to meet Mr Tayto so have a camera ready if you want a photo. After that, you will be asked to leave your camera, and other belongings, at the front desk. You will not be allowed to take photos inside the factory.
If you have any visible piercings, it's a good idea to remove them before the tour. Otherwise you will be expected to tape them up.
The information we were given in advance stated that all jewellery had to be removed before entering the factory. In practice, anyone wearing rings was given a pair of gloves to wear.
The factory floor was wet in several places and the frying room was particularly slippery. Wear sensible closed-toe shoes for your Tayto Castle tour.
How To Get To Tayto Castle
Tayto Castle is on the main street in Tandragee. Use the smaller of the two gates next to the war memorial.
The easiest way to get to Tandragee is to drive yourself. However you can take a bus from Portadown, Lurgan or Newry. Coming from Belfast, take a train or bus to Portadown. Then change to the No. 63 bus to Tandragee.