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Berwick Beer Festival looks to the future - and to the past

Berwick Beer Festival this weekend is looking both forwards and backwards when it celebrates the best of both the current beer scene and also the town’s proud malting history.

Not many towns can boast such a pivotal role in the country’s brewing history but visitors, in between their pints, will be given a reminder of Berwick’s place in British beer heritage.

Backers Simpsons Malt are providing a display of traditional malting implements – and while it is interesting in itself, the story behind them shows that Berwick is no newcomer to the now-fashionable beer scene.

Town historian and tour guide Derek Sharman knows much about the historical importance of the region’s malt production for the UK brewing industry and is the man behind the display.

He tells how, starting in Alnwick in 1862, grain trader James Parker Simpson branched into malting, a company which spread to Berwick and Scotland, and as far down as Norfolk and Abingdon in Oxfordshire.

Having been known as the breadbasket of Scotland in medieval times, the area around the Tweed continued to be a large barley-growing area, along with Northumberland.

Together with the now-burgeoning malting industry, Derek explains that it supplied local brewers such as the two breweries in Berwick and several in Alnwick, and also further afield.

By the 1880s, Simpsons Malt was supplying both the Guinness brewery and Jameson distillery in Ireland, with a specially-built dock facilitating the exports from 1904 until it burned down in 1933.

“It’s a really important aspect of Berwick’s heritage,” says Derek. “But then Guinness bought their own maltings.”

In the 1960s, says Derek, Simpsons bought land in Berwick and moved their headquarters to the town with a modern-style maltings operation, as the industry took a step forwards in innovation and efficiency to cope with the greater demands of the modern beer-drinking world.

And the firm is still supporting the industry today, backing the Berwick Beer Festival and making it possible to bring in beers that might otherwise have been beyond the reach of organisers.

Simon Vickers from the Barrels Alehouse in Berwick is one of the men behind this weekend’s beer festival with the main beer event taking place in a marquee at the green opposite the Barracks (home of the food festival) and a smaller supplementary festival at the pub itself.

As with many of the best festivals, it’s about finding a balance between supporting local and finding something unusual from further afield.

There will be beers from local brewers such as Bear Claw, Scottish Borders and Tempest, then Fyne Ales and Timothy Taylors – which, while not local, get all their malt from Simpsons.

There’s craft key and cask from Sussex brewery Dark Star and Thornbridge, as well as a revival of an old Berwick golden beer recipe, Rampart, brewed by Hadrian Border.

Simon says: “We’re trying to support our local brewers, but also try something from further afield.”

He’s certainly succeeded, with North East favourites such as Allendale, Wylam, Tyne Bank and Cullercoats sitting next to Alechemy Brewery from Livingston in Scotland, the well-respected Black Isle Brewery, and the less well-known fellow Highlands brewery Cromarty. “We’re keen to represent Berwick’s unique position between England and Scotland,” adds Simon.

Alongside the beers there’s entertainment from Pink Floyd tribute band Dark Side of the Moor and food from local producers.

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