Just about everywhere in the UK has seen a surge in the number of small, independent breweries in the last twenty to thirty years. This is a most welcome development, no more so than in the north-east of England, where your correspondent’s formative years were dominated by the giant Scottish and Newcastle Brewery. These days, even Newcastle Brown Ale is no longer brewed in the region. Thankfully, there are plenty of better (and bitter) alternatives.
This is a selection from just five of the breweries in the north-east.
Brewed by Tyne Bank in Newcastle, this is a fairly pale bitter and a taste that was unexpected. It has a hoppy bitterness, but also a distinct berry flavour that one usually associates with a red ale. I also tasted a little spiciness and even a hint of toffee, strangely enough. Quite a complex affair and different to what I had anticipated, but I enjoyed it.
The name, incidentally, is a reference to the monument (who’d have guessed?) to Earl Grey in Newcastle city centre. It was built in 1838, six years after the Great Reform Act which changed so much in British political life (largely for the better). Grey was Prime Minister when the act was passed. And yes, the tea is named after him.
Tyneside Blonde (3.9%)
Not surprisingly, this is a very pale beer from Hadrian Border brewery. It has a light and fresh taste, with no really powerful characteristics. It’s like a rather light IPA. There is a gentle fruitiness, mildly citrus. A very pleasant session ale.
Hadrian Border is quite a new brewery, but still has a somewhat complex history. It is the successor to the old Border Brewery in Berwick, which closed in 1994. The new brewery had to move and eventually took over the old Four Rivers Brewery in Newcastle. This was formerly the Hadrian Brewery and the names were merged.
The brewery has since moved again and has a new home in a different part of Newcastle.
The site of Hadrian’s Wall runs through the city of Newcastle. One common misconception is the continued use of the term “north of Hadrian’s Wall” to mean Scotland. This is lazy and wrong. The wall was never a border between England and Scotland. I was born north of the wall, but I was not born in Scotland. I was born in Northumberland, although if I were a bit younger, I would have been born in the metropolitan county of Tyne and Wear, which came into being in 1974.
Allendale Brewery’s “flagship” beer. This is a 3.8% session beer. It has a pale amber colour and you get a hint of bitter orange in the taste, along with a little spiciness. It most definitely classifies as a bitter – there is a notable bitterness in the finish, which I like.
Allendale is another relatively new brewery, having started in 2006. It is situated in the south-west of Northumberland, to the west of Newcastle and south-west of the old market town of Hexham.
Alnwick Gold (4.2%)
A golden ale from Alnwick Brewery. This is a very clean-tasting and refreshing beer with a gentle bitterness and a gentle orange tang. There are lots of golden ales around and one or two can be a bit samey and bland, but I wouldn’t label this as such. A most pleasing drink.
Alnwick (pronounced Ann-ick) is a market town about 35 miles north of Newcastle. It is not to be confused with the nearby coastal town of Alnmouth (pronounced Alun-mouth). The brewery is very new, although it is in a way a resurrected brewer. There was an old Alnwick Brewery that closed in 1978.
Alnwick IPA (4.5%)
A lot of so-called IPAs are perfectly pleasant ales, but don’t really fit with my idea of what an India Pale Ale should be. This isn’t one of them. It’s a nice and robust hoppy ale with a vigorous bitter finish. At 4.5%, it’s what I’d call mid-strength. Completely new to me and most enjoyable. From the same stable as Gold, rather obviously.
Shuggy Boat Blonde (3.8%)
This is a pale beer from Cullercoats Brewery that is tangy and has a good bitterness. There is a depth to it that might lead one into thinking it was a little stronger if you were tasting it unseen. This kind of thing pleases me – it thumbs the nose at the tiresome “beer has to be 5% before I even consider it” brigade. Well, it’s your loss.
A shuggy boat, incidentally, is a fairground ride otherwise known as a swing boat. “Shuggy” is the local dialect term. The brewery is actually in Wallsend, just on the eastern edge of Newcastle and named thus as it is the “terminus” of Hadrian’s Wall. The brewery has an office in Cullercoats, just up the coast to the south of the slightly larger and better-known seaside town of Whitley Bay. The name of the beer is a nod to the many fairs and rides to be found in that area in the summer.
Reiver Best Bitter (4.2%)
An ale that is an excellent example of an old-fashioned best from First and Last brewery in Elswood, right in the middle of Northumberland, on the edge of the beautiful and wild national park. There is a little sweetness in the first mouthful, with a hint of toffee. Then the hops kick in and you end with a robust bitterness.
The name comes from the “border reivers” who raided along the Anglo-Scottish border from the 13th to 17th centuries. There were reivers on each side of the border. Their primary target was livestock.
Equinox Pale Ale (4.1%)
Pale it certainly is, a very light yellow in colour. The first thing that hits you is the New World hops, which give it a very citrus zing. There is also a hint of tropical fruit. It’s a very refreshing beer and there’s a fair degree of bitterness. Any sweetness is of a fruity rather than sugary nature. Most enjoyable.