Tastings School - Border brews (Cumbria and Northumberland)

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Border brews (Cumbria and Northumberland)

Adrian Tierney-Jones discovers the beers of England's most northerly counties, Cumbria and Northumberland

Cumbria and Northumberland don’t immediately spring to mind when we think about the great beer counties of England.

Southern neighbour Yorkshire makes a lot of noise about its best bitters, while the city state of Newcastle gives its allegiance to the eponymous brown ale (even though it’s brewed elsewhere these days). Further north, Scotland broods with its new wave golden ales and more traditional dark sweet heavies.

Small is beautiful here. Cumbria’s Jennings is the sole family brewery, which for better or worse was bought by Wolverhampton & Dudley in 2005. Unlike many brewery buy-outs though, this might just have a happy ending.

The picturesque brewery is still home to beers such as the rich, dark and malty Snecklifter and the spritely, citrusy Cocker Hoop.

The rest of the county’s 20 breweries are brewpubs and micros of varying sizes, producing all sorts of beer styles – there doesn’t seem to be a significant Cumbrian style. Many are based in the countryside, in old barns, at the back of rural inns or down on the farm.

In many ways Cumbria is an area similar to Devon, which also has a fair few breweries – beautiful scenery, lots of tourists, an enviable lifestyle and more importantly a reasonable number of free houses. Hence the attraction to brew.

Northumberland, one of England’s most isolated but beautiful counties, is also seeing a heartening revival in brewing, spearheaded by Hexhamshire and Northumberland Breweries, both of whom started in the 1990s. There are currently seven breweries in operation and no doubt there will be more.

This county was long a heartland of the rich, sweet and dark Scottish style, which according to John Boyle at Wylam is still popular with the older generation. However, it is now home to a variety of pale ales, best bitters, stouts, the odd lager and beers made with bog myrtle, nettles and honey. Small is beautiful indeed.


Some people start breweries because they don’t like the beer they find in their local boozer. This was certainly true for Ronald Bradley, who in 1995, fed up with what was around, joined up with son Ian to set up Coniston behind his pub, the Black Bull.

“He came back from the Gribble Inn brewpub near Chichester enthusiastic and inspired,” recalls Ian, who is now head brewer after his father retired. The Black Bull still belongs to the brewery.

Three years later, this modest 10-barrel operation catapulted to fame when its gorgeously peppery, spicy, hoppy 3.6% bitter Bluebird was voted Champion Beer of Great Britain. “Becoming champion was excellent,” says Ian, “but it has been a hard slog since.” Hard work or not, Bluebird, whether on draught or in bottle (4.2%), is a gorgeous beer, hopped throughout with Challenger, which gives it an abundance of spicy, bitter and fruity notes, alongside a resolutely grainy malty base.

Bluebird is still the brewery’s flagship ale, even though four others are produced, some of which employ the American hop Mount Hood.

“We thought that if Mr Tetley could do well with one beer,” says Ian, “then we could do the same. We don’t have the chance to brew too many others cause Bluebird is so popular, but we might play with a stout in the future.” www.conistonbrewery.co.uk

Even though it is officially in Cumbria the picture-postcard village of Dent is part of what is locally called the Yorkshire Dales. This is beautiful countryside and unsurprisingly the village’s Sun Inn is apparently one of the most photographed pubs in the United Kingdom.

It was here in a converted stone barn that Dent Brewery began its life in 1990 when former owner Martin Stafford quit corporate life in London for a less stressful life as the owner of the Sun. Brewer Paul Goodyear was installed, even though, he recalls, “I had never done any brewing until then.” He has been there ever since and, along with assistant Gary Murray, brews some wonderful beers. According to Goodyear, one of the secrets of the beer is “the fact we have our own spring water.” Mini-Burton indeed.

Acclaim for Dent’s beers began in the late 1990s, when its rich and strong stout T’Owd Tup (6%) was voted Champion Winter Beer of Great Britain, while the full-bodied and fruity golden beer Kamikaze (5%) also scooped up awards.

Other beers to savour are the session bitter Aviator (4%) and the warming 4.5% best bitter Ramsbottom (in an area like this it makes sense to look at matters ovine for naming the beers). Less traditional is the 4.5% Rambrau, a pale and handsome lager style, that like a lot of its similar micro-brewed cousins is served cask-conditioned.

The beers are found across the north of England, but connoisseurs try to make their way to Dent, where the brewery has its tap at the George and Dragon.


Hawkshead, Staveley
Back in 2002, BBC reporter Alex Brodie swapped microphone for mash tun and set up his brewery in an old barn close to the delightful Lakeland village of Hawkshead. After spending years reporting from trouble spots around the world, he had moved to the Lake District, where one of his joys was a pint of the local ale.

When his pub stopped selling said pleasure, he was motivated enough to set up his own operation. Four years on, the brewery has expanded considerably with a second 20-barrel site now up and running close to Windermere, where there is also a visitor centre and sampling room. There are plans to develop organic beers at the original plant, while the brewery’s pub, the Swan Inn at Ulverston, is thriving.

There are five beers in the brewery’s portfolio, starting off with the fruity Hawkshead Bitter (3.7%), an award-winning session beer that pulsates with the fragrant aromas of Styrian Goldings. Other beers include the 4.2% best bitter Red, a muscular little number punching far above its ABV thanks to the use of Fuggles as an aroma hop, and a luscious golden ale, Lakeland Gold (4.4%), with a transatlantic hop alliance of American Cascade and British First Gold.


Hesket Newmarket
Pub and brewery closures are the bane of modern life, but the example of Hesket Newmarket proves it doesn’t have to be that way. When it came up for sale in 1999, 11 years after being started by Jim Fearnley, the locals weren’t prepared to see it die and formed a cooperative to buy it.

Several years later, the brewery tap, the Old Crown, was also on the market and, once again, the proactive locals of this thriving fellside village formed another co-op. So impressive were their actions that Prince Charles turned up in 2004 to celebrate the pub as the centre of village life.

Mike Parker is the brewery manager, who retired from the brewing industry in 1991 to run a pub, but found himself back before the mash tun in 2002. His aim is simple: “I don’t go for the wow factor, but instead I feel I have done my job well enough if the beer goes down when people are talking.” Nine beers are brewed, starting off with a 3% porter and ending up with the 6% Old Carrack, described as liquid Christmas pudding. In between there is the fruity Doris’ 90th Birthday Ale, the zesty, citrusy golden ale Haystack and Catbells Pale Ale.

The latter is a wonderful 5% Cumbrian pale ale that owes more to Sierra Nevada than to Burton, with its tropical fruit nose and bittersweet finish. “Sierra Nevada, is that in Spain?” says Parker with a gleam in his eye. And I don’t know if he is joking or not.



High House Farm Brewery
Farming and brewing have always been close companions, so it’s no surprise that the Urwin family started their own brewery down on the farm in 2003.

It’s an environmentally friendly operation: the food miles are low, with Maris Otter being grown on the land; spent grain is fed to their cows and sheep; and waste water pumped onto the fields.

Given this passion for quality and looking after the land, it’s no surprise that the same thoroughness goes into the making of beer. Auld Hemp is a 3.8% traditional bitter, with a luscious malty character, balanced by the sound rounded bitterness and restrained fruitiness of its single hop Fuggles.

The brewery also produces an exquisite brown ale, Matfen Magic (4.8%) glowers with a deep, dark ruby colour, has an autumn berries and floral nose, chocolate, more soft fruit and roast notes on the palate before its memorable finish. Unsurprisingly, it has won several awards.

A one-off has been Nettle Beer, which according to Steven Urwin, “comes from a 14th century recipe.

I add the nettles instead of a late hop and they give a grassy aroma. It went down well and I hope to make it again next spring.” www.highhousefarmbrewery.co.uk

For Charlie Sandford, work is a short walk as his 21/2-barrel brewery is located at home. “It’s small,” he agrees, “but produces good beer.

However it has problems with size and convenience. I need a greater capacity for what I want to do.” Sandford’s first brewery was at the Black Bull in Haltwhistle, which he and his brother ran.

“We wanted to see if we could actually find the great beers we have had in the past,” he recalls, “we started a little brewery and were fortunate enough to get Northumberland Pub of the Year in 2001.” After the pub was sold in 2003, he moved the kit to the back of his house and carried on brewing.

Redburn is an adventurous brewery.

Not for Sandford the same three or four beers day in, day out. So when I ask what his regular beers are, he says he likes to bring out new ones all the time.

So far there has been a honey beer and a sweetgale ale. 1555 is the closest to a regular. Named after the year in which local lad Bishop Ridley was burnt at the stake, it’s an amber-coloured 4.1% beer with a spicy, floral nose (thanks to the use of Perle hops). It also has a full body, making it seem stronger than it is. Malt predominates on the palate, joined by a spicy hop character, making this a memorable beer, like all of Redburn’s.

No website

Heddon On The Wall
More than 1,500 winters after the Romans left this stretch of Hadrian’s Wall, Wylam Brewery started its own bit of empire-building – and it’s not going too bad at the moment.

Based on a farm, “more or less on top of the Wall,” according to managing director John Boyle, Wylam began with a five-barrel kit, but is currently working on a 20-barrel plant, brewing three times a week.

“The market for real beer out here is very enthusiastic,” says Boyle, who was cajoled into starting Wylam with former home-brewer Robin Leighton. “He made excellent beer, so we thought it would just be for parties and barbecues, but it grew and grew. I didn’t expect it to be fulltime but it became that way. I was looking forward to a quiet retirement.” Sadly, Leighton died last year but brewer Martin Hammill learnt a lot from a homebrewer who seemingly had almost an American craft brewer’s approach to beer.

Alongside the refreshing Bitter (3.8%) and the hoppy Gold Tankard (4%), there has been a strong doppelbock-style, Terminator. Then there is the 4.6% Bohemian, a fruity, full-bodied version of a Czech lager (cask-conditioned though). Leightonbrau goes for the authentic route by being lagered for a month, a time that puts some of the bestselling brands to shame.

“It’s good to offer diversity,” says Boyle, whose son also works in the brewery as production manager.

And if you’re walking the Wall, drop into the Boathouse at Wylam where you can sample the whole range of the brewery’s excellent beers.


Cumbria and Northumberland

Barngates Barngates www.barngatesbrewery.co.uk Selected beer: Tag Lag (4.4%)
Beckstones Millom no website Selected beer: Leat (3.6%)
Bitter End Cockermouth www.bitterend.co.uk Selected beer: Cuddy Lugs (4.7%)
Coniston Coniston www.conistonbrewery.co.uk/ Selected beer: Bluebird Bitter (3.6%)
Cumbrian Legendary Ales Hawkshead No website Selected beer: King Dunmail (4.2%)
Dent Dent www.dentbrewery.co.uk Selected beer: T’Owd Tup (6%)
Derwent Silloth No website Selected beer: W&M Kendal Pale Ale (4.4%)
Foxfield Foxfield www.princeofwalesfoxfield.co.uk Selected beer: Dark Mild (3.7%)
Great Gable Wasdale Head www.greatgablebrewing.com Selected beer: Scawfell (4.8%)
Hardknott Boot www.woolpack.co.uk Selected beer: Woolpacker (3.8%)
Hawkshead Hawkshead, Staveley www.hawksheadbrewery.co.uk Selected beer: Hawkshead Bitter (3.7%)
Hesket Newmarket Hesket Newmarket www.hesketbrewery.co.uk Selected beer: Catsbells Pale (5%)
Jennings Cockermouth www.jenningsbrewery.co.uk Selected beer: Sneck Lifter (5.1%)
Keswick Keswick www.keswickbrewery.co.uk Selected beer: Thirst Ascent (4%)
Loweswater Loweswater www.kirkstile.com Selected beer: Melbreak Bitter (3.7%)
Abraham Thompson’s Barrow-in-Furness No website Selected beer: Lickerish Stout (4%)
Tirril Broughham www.tirrilbrewery.co.uk Selected beer: Academy Ale (4.2%)
Ulveston Ulverston No website Selected beer: Another Fine Mess (4%)
Watermill Ings www.watermillinn.co.uk Selected beer: Collie Wobbles (3.7%)
Yates WestNewton www.yatesbrewery.co.uk Selected beer: Fever Pitch (3.9%)

Allendale Allendale www.allendalebrew.co.uk Selected beer: Black Grouse (4%)
Barefoot Brewery Stannington, Morpeth No website Selected beer: Big Foot (5%)
Hexhamshire Hexham No website Selected beer: Whapweasel (4.8%)
High House Farm Matfen www.highhousefarmbrewery.co.uk Selected beer: Maften Magic (4.8%)
Northumberland Bedlington www.northumberlandbrewery.co.uk Selected beer: Original Northumberland Ale (4.3%)
Redburn Redburn No website Selected beer: 1555 (4.1%)
Wylam Heddon On The Wall www.wylambrew.co.uk Selected beer: Bohemian (4.6%)