Tastings School - Treasures of the North East

Tastings School

From basics to more advanced topics, the Beer School has all the info to expand your knowledge and enjoyment of your beers, ales and lagers.


Treasures of the North East

There's a lot of very good beer produced between Berwick upon Tweed and Middlesbrough, writes Alastair Gilmour.

The stripes of one of its perpetually-underperforming football clubs are black and white; the geography is hilly and flat; the weather can be hot and cold in the same day – the North East of England is a region of contrasts and extremes.

Its 3,317 square miles nurture world leaders in stem-cell research, yet Northumberland – England’s largest county – possesses not one yard of motorway. The Daily Telegraph described Newcastle as “one of the hippest, most cultured, most gastronomically diverse cities in Europe,” yet Middlesbrough – according to a Channel 4 survey – is the United Kingdom’s worst place to live.

Perhaps it’s this diversity that also breeds innovation, enterprise and enthusiasm – positive attributes which its brewers have in malt shovel-loads.

The North Yorkshire Brewery in Guisborough, for example, is a pioneer in organic beer; Mordue Workie Ticket was the 1997 Campaign For Real Ale (CAMRA) Supreme Champion Beer of Britain and an inbuilt resourceful spirit motivates all beer-related activity, from the miniscule Four Alls microbrewery near Barnard Castle to the Newcastle Brown Ale bottling hall where 600 units thunder through every minute.

At Wylam Brewery in Northumberland, beer production is prompted by steam travelling at 40 metres a second, at a temperature of 170ºC and a pressure of 100psi.

Wylam’s much-expanded brewhouse is powered by an oil-fired steam generator that heats the water pumped around the brewing vessels much quicker and more efficiently than any time in its eight-year existence. It is 19th century technology adapted for state-of-the-art production – little wonder that modern brewing can keep one foot firmly in the realms of tradition while kicking onwards and upwards with the other.

John Boyle, Wylam’s managing director, says: “Gold Tankard is our best seller by streets – we’re doing 20 barrels a week of that alone. Wylam Magic is a good seller, as is Hedonist, our session beer. Strong ones such as Silver Ghost and Landlord’s Choice are going well, as is the reformulated Rocket which we’re bottling.” Recent additions to the Wylam portfolio include Red Kite Ale which celebrates the massive bird of prey’s reintroduction into the neighbourhood.

The first to open the morning’s emails at the North Shields-based Mordue Brewery is greeted by dozens of requests for pump clips and brewing ephemera. Collectors collect them, hoarders hoard them and people named Mordue the world over just want to call them their own.

“We get Mordues from all over the planet asking where they can get our beer,” says managing director Garry Fawson. “Plus we get hundreds of requests for pump clips, from all places, Poland, the Czech Republic, Russia...

One bloke even turns them into clocks.” Mordue Brewery is now on its third site in 12 years – the fourth if you count the “broom cupboard” where brothers Garry and Matthew Fawson started home brewing. Now the eye, as with everything Mordue, is on the future, with national distribution going particularly well.

“We moved here with expansion in mind,” says Garry. “We spent just shy of £1m in buying the place, developing it and spending on the plant. We’re still at a 20-barrel brew-length and we’ve got space for a 50-60 barrel brewery which we have planned long-term to add on which will eventually give us the equivalent of a 100- barrel brewery.

“Everyone has got used to pale beers with enough hops to knock your head off, but they forget about complexity and balance like Workie Ticket has. We’ve got five core brands and six seasonal specials, right through the range of flavours and colours.” New developments include Newcastle Coffee Porter – using fresh coffee beans – and a monthly range planned for 2008 which has “innovation” stamped all over it.

New businesses generally demand new skills, but when your daytime role is in financial management, forklift truck driving isn’t something you’d put high on your list of key tasks.

But it’s one training scheme that Mark Anderson of the Double Maxim Beer Company was happy to master, along with his colleague, sales and marketing director Doug Trotman. If it meant getting the job done and if it helped to bring the day forward that their new brewery near Sunderland would be up and running, it was definitely the right thing to do.

That was in the late summer of 2007, seven years after Mark, Doug and Jim Murray – former head brewer at Vaux Brewery – started their own beer business following the closure of the much-admired Vaux. The trio had bought the Double Maxim brown ale recipe and drew up an ambitious contract brewing plan – a brewery in Sunderland, however, was always the ultimate goal.

Double Maxim soon forged strong relationships with the major UK supermarkets and cash-and-carry outlets with Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda, Morrisons and Bookers eager to take their products on.

“Selling Sunderland-brewed beers in the North-East was seen as crucial to the exercise,” says Doug. “A resurgence of quality cask beer and consumer interest in genuine local beers provided a real opportunity for expansion.” The new plant means Samson and Double Maxim are brewed for the first time in the North East since the 1990s, alongside Ward’s Best Bitter and Maximus. Jim Murray sums up its technical efficiency. “A welly boots brewery it is not,” he says.

Steve and Christine Gibbs are former music teachers who turned homebrew hobbying into a business in 1994 when the education authorities decided that trombonists (he) and cello players (she) were surplus to the scholastic repertoire.

Durham Brewery squeezes as many of the city’s ecclesiastical connections as possible into the naming of its beers. Bede’s Gold has a complex hopping regime which provides a delicate aroma; Black Abbot uses seven different malts and a lager yeast to produce a rich mild ale, and Magus – Durham’s longest-running and most popular beer – comes with enviable quaffing characteristics. Plus, Evensong was Champion Bottled Real Ale in 2005.

“We’re brewing 30 barrels a week at present,” says Christine. “But we still see it as a cottage industry.” The Durham policy is to give advice and backup to new customers on how to keep and dispense their ales in prime condition. Simply dumping casks at a cellar door is no longer the way to promote your business or to ensure the customer gets a perfect pint.

“We like to encourage people to have a bit of a go,” says Steve. “A lot of publicans view real ale with some trepidation and that there’s some sort of mystery to it. There isn’t.”
Diversification: The farming industry buzzword that became familiar after the 2001 foot- and-mouth outbreak. But which direction do you diversify in when you’re already fully committed to ploughing, fencing, planting, feeding, fertilising, breeding, repairing, conserving, herding, stocking, machining and estate managing?

You could start a microbrewery and gain a terrific reputation for your caskconditioned beers through their quality and consistency; you could develop into bottling your products; you could collaborate with neighbouring farmers to produce pork and ale sausage and steak and ale pie; you could offer brewery tours, and then you could convert redundant buildings into a visitor centre, café, fully-licensed bar, crafts shop and events centre.

This is the furrow that fourth- generation farmer Steven Urwin has ploughed for the last six years at High House Farm near Matfen in Northumberland. A clutch of grade-II listed cow byres has been reborn as a 10-barrel brewery and a visitor centre with exposed beams, carefully-pointed original stone walls, neat cladding, sympathetic window frames, new roofing, full disabled access, exterior staircase and handsome floor tiling complementing its stripped floorboards.

High House beers include Auld Hemp and Nel’s Best, named after sheepdogs, and a new winter beer – Ferocious Fred – that honours a frighteningly huge bull. Steven even grows his own barley which is malted by Simpson’s of Berwick upon Tweed.

“We’ve been growing Maris Otter, a very old barley type,” he says, “but I’m also putting Pearl in now, a winter variety. It has much better resistance to disease.

“We’re also creating jobs. We now employ a total of 10 people full- and part-time. It’s a vibrant business but still very much hand-crafted.” It’s as a brewer, however, that Steven Urwin remains outstanding in his field.

The brewhouse at Cameron’s Lion Brewery is like no other – half-inch thick Italian marble tiles line its walls and safety railings are not only functional but have their wrought iron swirls picked out with intricate hop cone and leaf features. A huge control panel seems to have descended directly from a 1950s vision of the future, though computer screens have recently been set into its cream-coloured arrangement of dials, switches, buttons and flashing lights which track the progress of your nascent pint.

“This part of the brewery dates from 1896,” says head brewer Martin Dutoy, as he points out a century of finelydetailed brickwork butting up to ubiquitous breeze block. “Some might think Hartlepool was a daft place to build a brewery in the first place, as the half the circumference of its potential trading area is North Sea. We have, however, two wells – one of them 250 feet deep. It’s good quality water for making beer, quite hard and full of the right minerals. In fact, it contains 1.2 particles per million of fluoride. People in Hartlepool like their beer and have great teeth...” Brewing capacity at the Lion Brewery is more than 450,000 barrels, though it currently operates at much less than that. Contract lager brewing – Kronenbourg and Irish Harp, for example – accounts for 80 per cent of its throughput.

The Lion’s Den mini-brewery, sited in Camerons’ former engineers department, allows for short-run and experimental cask-conditioned beer production. It has a brew length of 10 barrels – a David compared to the Lion Brewery’s Goliath, but is nevertheless impressive.

The brewery generates a fierce loyalty. A fellow journalist, wellaccustomed to the varied choice of North East beers, invariably says after a few sips of something new (and usually something particularly good): “Aye, it’s canny, but it’s not Cameron’s Strongarm.”

Forty countries around the globe served from a 1.25 million hectolitre brewery on an 11.5-acre site perched between the A1 and the River Tyne – the Newcastle Federation Brewery, operated by Scottish & Newcastle since 2005, is the biggest by far of the North East’s beer producers. It has, however, the most uncertain future of any.

In the event of a widely-expected expected takeover, would the new owners really require such a giant plant? Newcastle Brown Ale, the UK’s best-selling premium bottled beer (and having left its Newcastle city-centre birthplace), cancelled its EU Protected Designation of Origin status in August 2007 – meaning the iconic beer could be brewed anywhere in the world – and the recent sale of its LCL Pils brand to Daniel Thwaites of Blackburn has fuelled rumours that the North East is about to see the back of its One And Only. The removal of all signage from the Dunston brewery, plus speculation surrounding a name change because it brews in neither Scotland nor Newcastle merely fans the flames of rumour.

Just over 25 years ago, in October 1982, the Ford Sierra was launched to replace the Cortina; Sony introduced the first consumer compact disc, and Culture Club topped the charts with Do You Really Want To Hurt Me? Yes we do, beer was 62p a pint.

In the same month, a new microbrewery mashed in its first brew at a former undertakers’ in Newcastle – and Big Lamp has been illuminating the cask-conditioned beer sector ever since. Big Lamp, whose core range includes Prince Bishop Ale and Summerhill Stout, has since moved a few miles west to a grade II-listed Victorian pumping station at Newburn on the edge of the Tyne Riverside Country Park. The brewery has since added The Keelman pub to its operation, handily situated through the wall from the brewery, plus two finelyfitted accommodation lodges.

“The beer is normally sold by the time it gets to the fermenting vessels,” says managing director George Storey, “then it’s out to the trade in two or three days. The brewery is doing between 35 and 40 barrels a week though we could do 55 barrels if needs be.”

Once there was a Border Brewery operating out of Berwick upon Tweed, and a Hadrian Brewery, firmly established in Newcastle. They met over drinks, sparks flew, and a union was blessed. As happens in some ‘marriages,’ however, the road proved rocky but Border raiders Andy and Shona Burrows came out the other end all the stronger with Hadrian & Border Brewery under their control.

Seven years on and year-on-year business continues to improve in a sales climate that nationally is feeling the chill. Distribution area includes Tyneside and North Yorkshire and the company retains a strong presence in the Scottish Borders and in Edinburgh.

Beer ‘swaps’ with other breweries around the country introduce a wider clientele to its portfolio which boasts Centurion Best Bitter, Gladiator, Farne Island and Secret Kingdom. The relatively new Tyneside Blonde is attracting a fair amount of admirers.

The North East of England has further claims to fame. Every single Rolo is made in the region; Earl Grey tea originated there and its where John William Hoggett invented vinegarflavoured crisps. John Lennon and Paul McCartney composed She Loves You in the Imperial Hotel in Jesmond, Newcastle. On the other hand, who in their right mind would name a beer Fed Ordinary? And, Ace Lager is a running joke in Viz magazine.

It’s certainly a region of extremes and enough passion, it seems, to give its last Rolo to a Tyneside Blonde.

The Breweries
Allendale, Northumberland
Tel: +44 (0)1434 618 686
Choice beer: Golden Plover 4.0%
Big Lamp
Newcastle upon Tyne
Tel: +44 (0)191 267 1689
Choice beer: Prince Bishop Ale 4.8%
Black Sheep
Masham, North Yorkshire
Tel: +44 (0)1765 689 227
Choice beer: Best Bitter 3.8%
Bull Lane
Tel: +44 (0)191 510 3200
Choice beer: Nowtsa Matta Best
Bitter 3.7%
Tel: +44 (0)1429 266 666
Choice beer: Strongarm 4%
Captain Cook
Stokesley, North Yorkshire
Tel: +44 (0)1642 710 263
Choice beer: Sunset 4%
Consett Ale Works
Consett, County Durham
Tel: +44 (0)1207 502 585
Choice beer: Steel Town Bitter 3.8%
Cropton, North Yorkshire
Tel: +44 (0)1751 417 330
Choice beer: Two Pints Bitter 4.0%
Tel: +44 (0)191 514 4746
Choice beer: Evolution Ale 4.0%
Double Maxim
Houghton le Spring, County Durham
Tel: +44 (0)191 584 8844
Choice beer: Double Maxim Brown
Ale 4.7%
Bowburn, County Durham
Tel: +44 (0)191 377 991
Choice beer: Magus 3.8%
Four Alls
Ovington, County Durham
Tel: +44 (0)1833 627 302
Choice beer: Iggy Pop 3.6%
Hadrian & Border
Newcastle upon Tyne
Tel: +44 (0)191 276 5302
Choice beer: Centurion Best Bitter 4.5%
Melmerby, North Yorkshire
Tel: +44 (0)1765 640 108
Choice beer: Stallion 4.2%
Hexham, Northumberland
Tel: +44 (0)1434 606 577
Choice beer: Whapweasel 4.8%
High House
Matfen, Northumberland
Tel: +44 (0)1661 886 192
Choice beer: Auld Hemp 3.8%
Hill Island
Tel: +44 (0)7740 932 584
Choice beer: Peninsula Pint 3.8%
Jarrow, Tyne & Wear
Tel: +44 (0)191 483 6792
Choice beer: Rivet Catcher 4.0%
North Shields, Tyne & Wear
Tel: +44 (0)191 296 1879
Choice beer: Workie Ticket 4.5%
Newcastle Federation
Dunston, Tyne & Wear
Tel: +44 (0)191 460 9023
Choice beer: Newcastle Brown Ale 4.7%
Bedlington, Northumberland
Tel: +44 (0)1670 822 112
Choice beer: Castles Bitter 3.8%
North Yorkshire
Guisborough, North Yorkshire
Tel: +44 (0)1287 630 200
Choice beer: Flying Herbert 4.7%
Masham, North Yorkshire
Tel: +44 (0)1765 680 000
Choice beer: Old Peculier 5.6%
Wear Valley
Bishop Auckland, County Durham
Tel: +44 (0)7810 751 425
Choice beer: Hamsterley Gold 5.0%
Leyburn, North Yorkshire
Tel: +44 (0)1969 622 327
Choice beer: Foresters Bitter 3.7%
Heddon on the Wall, Northumberland
Tel: +44 (0)1661 853 377
Choice beer: Gold Tankard 4.0%